Warning: Narcissistic Marketing Can Be Dangerous to Your Business Health

Narcissus

Are you a victim of narcissistic marketing?

That’s when a marketing and copywriting strategy is based on how the marketer prefers to be marketed to, rather than exploring what works with the target audience. This happens all the time with entrepreneurs and small-business owners who create their own promotions, but it’s even worse when professional marketers offer narcissistic marketing advice.

The first warning sign is when people speak in absolutist terms without qualification. If there’s no “it depends on the market” or “this works for lawyers in the Midwest but not on everyone, everywhere,” be wary.

This is a good indication you’re staring into the deep, still water of marketing narcissism. And if you become transfixed with your own reflection when encountering that pool of bad advice because it matches your own personal preferences, you’re about to become a victim, too.

Some aspects of sales and marketing are universal, and those are based on human psychology. So it’s no surprise that the scariest forms of narcissistic marketing ignore the fundamentals of human nature based on an idealistic notion that “it shouldn’t be that way because I personally don’t like it.”

Yikes.

Narcissistic Marketing is Rampant

I’d rather not single anyone out on this, since I see narcissistic marketing advice just about every day throughout the marketing blogosphere. But there’s one particular article that I ran across yesterday that prompted me to write this post, so I will.

Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency penned a post entitled Dear Marketing Opportunist. The piece takes easy swipes at the low-hanging fruit that adorns the typical copywriting cheese plate by equating bad copy with used-car salesmen.

She first reprints out-of-context snippets of “atrocious” copy for us all to snicker at. It’s hard to find many who disagree with avoiding the gratuitous use of exclamation points, textual errors and clumsy language, so Julia plays it fairly safe.

But then, Julia shows her marketing narcissism when she goes after two response techniques that are pragmatic and deeply grounded in human psychology. Why would any marketer want to toss aside techniques that work, especially on behalf of paying clients?

Marketing Narcissism Mixed With Marketing Myopia

The first area where Julia’s creative writing degree gets in the way of her marketing efficacy is the use of numbers in headlines. We all know by now that numbers in titles and headlines work and will continue to.

To time-starved citizens, the smart use of numerals in headlines is simply an ultra-specific promise that let’s people know exactly what they’re getting, and more importantly, how much attention they’re expending. Julia thinks using numbers is bad for your brand, and of course the examples she gives are intentionally down market.

This is not only marketing narcissism, it’s marketing myopia. Marketers (and bloggers) think about headlines way more than average, and thanks to selective perception, get aggravated by what they deem to be an overuse of numerals despite their efficacy.

Get over yourself—you’re not normal, and you’re not the prospect.

I’m sure we can all come up with examples of major brands using numbers in headlines in context-appropriate advertisements and content. And that’s the key, right? Context-appropriate copy, rather than a blanket condemnation of a headline technique that often works better than others. And that’s based on empirical testing, not opinion or personal preference.

Sock Puppets and Scarcity

Remember back before the Dot-Bomb implosion when ecommerce entrepreneurs thought the fundamental rules of economics had somehow been altered by the Internet? That’s what I immediately thought of when I saw Julia’s next shot at a universal aspect of marketing and sales:

The assurance that if you act now, you’ll get something extra.

Wow. So Julia suggests that utilizing scarcity—a bedrock psychological motivator and the foundation of economics—is bad for your brand? I’m pretty sure this will come as a shock to, oh… just about every company on the planet.

Based on Julia’s own language, she’s implying that:

  • “Good for a limited time only” promotions are brand killers.
  • Giving early adopters a price break is cheesy
  • Bundling products together as a short-term incentive is inauthentic
  • A Labor Day Weekend sale is a bad idea

I could go on, but this is so ridiculous I won’t. If Julia didn’t mean to be so broad, she should have qualified just a bit. Instead, the only qualification in the entire article is that there are plenty of multi-millionaires who use cheesy copy.

Classic marketing narcissism.

Get Over Yourself

In all fairness, I contacted and corresponded with Julia before I wrote this (and I would suggest every blogger do the same before publishing a “hit” piece). Here’s what she said:

Your point that for some audiences our advice is dead on, but for others, not so much is well taken; we are indeed trolling for a more exotic fish—if you’re a regular reader, you know we cater to entertainment and lifestyle clients….

Entertainment clients? Like the entertainment company that remade a Shakespearean play into a highly successful movie called 10 Things I Hate About You? And I’ll leave it up to you to examine the headlines of just about any “lifestyle” magazine at any newsstand.

Look, if you own a company and you want to market based on your personal preferences without regard for what works best with your prospects, that’s your prerogative. As long as you accept personal responsibility for lower revenues and profits when you miss the mark, no one can say a thing.

But if you’re consulting for clients or publishing marketing advice, I think you have a responsibility to set aside your personal prejudices and explore everything that works in a context-appropriate way. Or, just follow your own Marketing 2.0 advice and be truly authentic and transparent on your website:

“Welcome! I may not give you the most effective advice, but I sure do like it!”

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Teaching Sells and Lateral Action. Get to know Brian better by following him on Twitter.

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  1. Bill Sweetman calls this i-neveritis. http://www.onedegree.ca/2005/07/learned-the-imp.html. Great post, excellent points.

  2. ((sigh)) While many of the things Julia points out do make me cringe (as a writer) the bottom line is, 9 times out of 10 (oops! I used numbers!!! … and exclamation points!!!) that’s what the client wants.

    Before going solo, I used to work for a Seminar Marketing firm and 99% of the lead gen letters I had to write looked like what Julia despises… Those letters netted the company $10 million in Q4… Q4!!!! 10 Million!!!

    So while I may have hated every minute of writing those letters, bottom line is they worked very well and if I could do that for one company, you bet I’d do it again for someone else!

    In fact, I should encourage her to keep up with her bent. More clients for me. ;)

  3. There is always a danger of catering so much to your niche in the market that you forget the rest of the world out there. Often a sin of those in entertainment!

  4. So, numbers and scarcity are cheesy, eh?!

    Well, I guess I am just going to strip them out of my marketing and copywriting arsenal, along with contrast (it’s just so tacky to show the fancy thing first, then sell the item that appears so much more reasonable), social proof (oh, those testimonials, who are those people anyway), attention-grabbers and the like.

    So what if Clayton Makepeace, Dan Kennedy, John Carlton, the late Gary Halbert and nearly every other A-list copywriter and marketer of the last 50 years have consistently generated billions (no number, that would be cheesy) for themselves and their clients using these very techniques.

    So, what if Dr. Robert Cialdini’s seminal work on persuasion over decades irrefutably proves the efficacy of every one of these techniques.

    So what if A-lister, Brian Keith Voiles uses every one of these techniques, while taking on only clients he considers to have high-end products that are a “blessing” in peoples’ lives.

    If they’re cheesy, I guess I’ll have to find another way…

    As long as the person calling them cheesy can show me that their way works a lot better and generates a lot more sales, I’m all for dumping them.

    So, where’s the proof?

    There is none. The reason is, it’s not about high-end, low-brow, exotic or plain-vanilla. It’s about what works. Marketing copy is sales multiplied. Sales is persuasion. Persuasion is rooted in human nature.

    These techniques work because, regardless of the product or service, they are rooted in human-nature. And, in the end, deep down inside, we are all pretty damn “cheesy!”

  5. This story reminded me of an old poem I wrote that I’d like to share with the good folks at Editorial Emergency:

    Web Dreams

    There once was a keen web page designer.
    Who thought to himself, “there wouldn’t be anything finer.
    Than to make a web site that got ten millions hits a day.
    Ten thousand dollars a month, per ad, companies would pay.”
    Yet, to this day, he remains pessimistic.
    Because, as any web surfer would say,
    “Personal web sites are narcissistic.
    Nobody will browse your site anyway.”

    I believe they may get 10 million hits now that you’ve linked to them Brian, but as your story shows, they may fall short of the funds they seek.

    Buck

  6. Time and again, we have to diplomatically tell clients that they’re wrong. What they want and think is not the right way. They damage their own business because they believe something so strongly or have a firm idea and it can’t be shaken.

    And yet… they hire us, the experts, to give them advice. They essentially try to pay us to tell them what they want to hear.

    Well… we don’t. We tell them what we know to be true as much as possible based on knowledge, experience and back up – not because WE think it’s right (because that would be narcissistic.)

    I wish many people would read this. (For all the other take-home messages there are in this post, not just what I took from it.)

    Well said, Brian.

  7. With theatrical wonders like Semi-Pro and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay gracing the silver screens in recent years, it’s clear that Hollywood in general has a bit of an aiming problem when it comes to nailing a target audience.

    Thanks to Julia, I now see very clearly why that’s the case. Fun!

  8. Great points, all – especially:

    “Get over yourself—you’re not normal, and you’re not the prospect.”

    We as marketers can fall prey to the same siren song that calls to our clients. It’s interesting that even seasoned professionals make these mistakes. Why is it so easy to forget the prospect?!

  9. What a wonderful post! I am a new copywriter, and my biggest challenge has been getting over myself. I relate to most of the sentiments Julia is expressing, and have been working hard to get over them and focus on results. Thanks for your great piece!

  10. Ouch!
    Nice hit piece with a useful message, too.
    Classic perception warp of confusing yourself with the audience. Similar problems can be seen in venture capital (where the most easily funded companies are those that provide services that white male, educated, tech users want) and medicine (where most medical studies research the problems of a similar demographic). Marketers especially need to be wary of becoming jaded or overthinking what works.

  11. Brian,

    That was brilliant! Yes, the ‘b’ word!!

    Two exclam marks … notice?? Bet she
    hates these lil ellipses, too! :)

    Your ‘spot on’ of course. I especially liked
    the “get over yourself” comment. Oh my.

    Who gives a tinker’s damn about what I
    like or my client likes, if the prospect doesn’t
    respond to it?

    Excepting for some kind of illegal or immoral
    issue …

    the only rule should be something like:

    Use the words that really connect with my prospect in a way that shows how my product/service will give them what they want.

    If readers like and respond to it … voila … success! If not, test more to see what they DO respond to, eh?

    You’re waay cool,

    Carolyn

  12. Yeah, Lisa, I zeroed in on that too. “Get over yourself—you’re not normal, and you’re not the prospect.”

    If you want to sell something to someone you aren’t related to, getting over yourself is the first order of business.

    I completely get Julia’s indigestion about all of this, but her piece serves as a very useful little piece of anti-advice for the persuasive copywriter. Here’s another good one: “Dollar values, AS IF you could assign monetary value to copywriting expertise.”

    Taking what you have to offer (your advice, your service, your information, whatever) and quantifying it in dollars is a HIGHLY effective tactic. I learned that one from a media trainer: anything you can translate into a dollar value, you should, and you should lead with it. Because it wakes people up. Including, yes, “sophisticated” people.

    It’s too bad, because I think there is a real opportunity to figure out what works in persuasive copy that also keeps relationships intact and doesn’t look like a giant bag of infomercial cheese. (I know this will look like sucking up, but seriously people, Brian C. is pretty brilliant at that, and hardly anyone else is.)

    But I suspect that you can’t write that piece without being a gigantic (yes) dork about direct response copy, and JR is not that dork.

  13. “Get over yourself—you’re not normal, and you’re not the prospect.”

    Could I get a big flashing red sign with this? LOL There’s a touchstone if ever I saw one.

    I want what works. How can she be doing the best for her clients ? I would want a little more sophisticated thinking and more imagination. These exotic fish she is after have budgets and bottom lines and other fish, smaller and bigger after their positions. Those fields are highly competitive. I would want a junk yard dog if that is what it took.
    And if my idea of which marketing pants to wear really do make my butt look big, you better believe I would expect the pro to tell me.

  14. And if my idea of which marketing pants to wear really do make my butt look big, you better believe I would expect the pro to tell me.

    That one made me LOL. But remember fellas, if your woman asks you this question, the answer is still no. Yes, even if your name is Sir Mix-a-Lot.

  15. I can hear all the complaining from people about those long-form sales pages, too…

    Too bad.

  16. Brian, even you admit that she posted an “atrocious piece of copy”, but did you realize that it was written by Daniel Levis for the Masters of Copywriting 2008 sales letter? http://www.sellingtohumannature.com/

    Obviously Daniel is an established pro – at least from what I’ve seen of him throughout the blogosphere, primarily at Clayton Makepeace’s blog.

    And clearly Julia is narcissistic…

    But could you clarify your thoughts on Daniel Levis’ copy? It seems both you and Julia agree it’s terrible (at least the over-the-top headlines). But I’m wondering how Daniel, a guy who always shows up bumping elbows with the best, could dish out copy that everybody else seems to “snicker at”.

  17. Chad, thanks for bring this up, or I would have missed the fact that what I intended was perhaps not communicated.

    While Daniel and I have strongly divergent styles, the sentence you’re referring to was intended to be dripping with sarcasm. The “atrocious” and “snickering” word choice was a mild shot at Julia, who was clearly setting up her own “hit” piece by taking the copy out of context.

    I do agree with Julia that “marketing opportunist” is a poor choice for people with IQs over 100. Daniel is a smart guy, so I guess he had his reasons.

    Good reminder to me that sarcasm is only easy to get across unintentionally. ;-)

  18. The inevitable byproduct of free speech: stupid people get to talk… and smart people get to call them stupid.

  19. Thanks for the reply – I hear ya!

    I’m usually the guy who laughs when somebody misses an obvious case of sarcasm and comments on it. But I guess I was “that guy” this time around.

    Great post – especially for information marketers. In a world where you need to be “an expert” to be heard, many people seem to try too hard to sound like the irrefutable authority. The true experts, on the other hand, are students themselves – always learning from their experiences and surroundings.

  20. @James –
    You’re 100% right.

    @Everybody else –
    I hired James & Harry to redo my site … and had ideas about what *I* liked. I argued with them over and over that my ideas were really cool, because, hey, I liked them … and they finally talked me out of it.

    And last month? Best sales month, EVER.

    Don’t let yourself get in the way of your marketing. “You are not your prospect” … truer words, never spoken.

  21. In the past, I’ve constantly published articles that gave ‘poor’ advice to my readers. It was my fault of course, but when you can find that same information on other blogs, and you don’t have a chance to check if the theory is correct, then you find your self in a situation. Take the time to do research and get 1st hand results for an article. Or just try to get the best source you can for the information you are publishing.
    I try a lot harder now to publish content that I can back up with multiple other websites. To make sure that the advice I’m giving is right. If there are no other websites out there, I’ve either done it myself or make a logical assumption that ‘can’t’ be disproven.

  22. The Narcissus metaphor is a beauty given that in many versions of the Classical story Narcissus dies of thirst because he refuses to disturb the water in which his face is reflected. Indeed, the whole point about avoiding marketing with personal preferences in mind makes a lot of sense. But I can’t find where Julia Rubiner explicitly exhibits signs of narcissism. In fact many of the practices she alludes to seem to be to be just as deeply linked to human psychology as the “pragmatic” ones. Now maybe I’m speaking narcissistically myself here, but as a consumer I HATE having my intelligence underestimated. While one part of my unconscious might be piqued by the promise of “low, low prices” and stimulated by exclamation marks, another, much more powerful part is asking, “Oh, so you think I’m a total imbecile?” Julia’s advice rang true to me not only on a personal level, but because her suggestions change the way a consumer looks at a brand… in a positive way.

  23. Dave – to be honest, I liked your old design better. I used to develop sites using the Revolution theme but now I see it popping up far too often without enough differentiation.

    Nonetheless – the results speak for themselves! James and Harry at Men with Pens have a keen eye for improving design and creating pages that sell. I think your large images on the right side are not only catchy, but also the reason for your spike in sales. Congrats!

  24. @Chad –
    It was a hard goodbye … *I* liked my old design better … but I had to come to terms with the fact that I want to generate income with the blog … and being able to supplement my day job $ is worth it. :-)

    I think I will use my old design again, for a personal blog perhaps, where I’m not looking to build it fast, make money, etc.

  25. Brian:

    I’d be interested to hear your take on reality TV shows, shock radio and Fox “News” political coverage.

    They attract audiences. I don’t pay much attention to them, but I doubt I’m on their radar, anyway.

    Do the journalists and viewers/listeners who turn their nose up at this bastardization of journalism have a valid point, or are they just being snobs?

  26. Eric, it depends. There’s a market approach for snobs and slobs and everyone in between. And that’s the point.

  27. Jonathan, check the article for the repeated mention of “context appropriate.” It’s no surprise that Julia’s examples appealed to (or offended) you, since she was setting up unqualified straw men that she could knock down to a cheering crowd.

    The point (I thought) was clear. There are tactics that work, and there’s implementation that’s appropriate.

    The latter takes judgment. And judgment comes from experience.

    I got my experience from betting my own money on my own projects, not the budgets of clients. So I learned as fast as I could out of necessity. :-)

  28. Hi Brian,

    I totally agree that in marketing and promotion we often need to carry out plans that we personally don’t subscribe to but they work so we have to implement them: we need to go beyond our personal prejudices. I’m not saying doing something that you find unethical (but still do because people all around you are doing it), but as long as it is within the realms of being legitimate you shouldn’t shrug from it.

  29. “I do agree with Julia that “marketing opportunist” is a poor choice for people with IQs over 100. Daniel is a smart guy, so I guess he had his reasons.”

    Personally, I thought the headline was quite clever, myself.

    (Sorry, just been reading an old posting about copywriting mistakes and couldn’t resist.)

    I think a writer like Daniel proves the point Brian is trying to make: he knows his audience very well and what will appeal to them. Julia should take a leaf out of his book. The way you sell and the language you use help to position your product and should be appropriate to your target audience, type of product and even the channel you’re using to market it.

    Some great points, Brian. Thanks.

  30. @ Chad – Since our site and Dave’s site, you have no idea how many people have argued black and blue with us that Rev Mag is the only site they want because they KNOW it’s the best for their needs.

    We point them to others. We show them rocking themes. We suggest something different. Nope. Narcissistic.

    Keep in mind that the Rev Mag theme is overused in OUR niche. Go outside our niche into the trillions of others and you’ll find it doesn’t appear anywhere.

    In short, broaden your focus, lad. You’re being narrow-minded. ;)

  31. Thank you oh wise ones…interesting reading!

  32. Great article. And love the closing;

    “Welcome! I may not give you the most effective advice, but I sure do like it!”

    Fantastic.

  33. Ballsy bit of blogging. And well timed – I’m in the very process of trying to get over myself.

    And I’ll definitely think twice before spewing out an emotional blast of blogging copy that satisfies my own needs without anticpating a response like this one.

    Aah…the road to blogging maturity is strewn with the corpses of wee bloggers who wrote first and thought second.

    There but for the grace of God go I.

    Thanks Brian…another bit of fine writing.

  34. I enjoyed this post more than anything I’ve read this week, and nodded my head in agreement and rrecognition all the way through it. Copywriters are not alone in needing to “get over” themselves, too; editors and ghostwriters must constantly slap ourselves past the urge to “improve” our client’s story by telling it in our own voice. If that is what works, okay; but that’s rare. Most often it’s far better to stuff the ego into a back pocket and focus on the needs of the book and its readers. Not easy… and the reminder is welcome.

  35. Eric,

    I humbly think your choice of wording with Fox “news” and “bastardization of journalism” is an emotional stance like Julia’s Editorial Emergency piece was. I don’t do PR for Fox News, but for the thousands/millions of people that might like them and read Copyblogger – and might need PR services – they may “turn their nose up” and go elsewhere away from you (and by association, B5). Just one little person’s two cents.

    Buck

  36. I can not tell you how much this changes the bloggers’ and online entrepreneurs’ perspective, until they grasp what your referring to. Too many times I have had to say — “Get over yourself—you’re not normal, and you’re not the prospect.”

    Thank you!
    Maria Reyes-McDavis

  37. Hey James,

    I don’t dislike the Revolution theme – I love it…but like you said, it’s overused in our niche.

    Nonetheless, it’s used for a reason. It provides one of the best “main pages” around and has great navigation.

    I’ve bought it for myself and used it for a couple clients non-freelancing blogs – but you gotta admit, Dave’s old site was super-slick (although possibly a bit dark and without the awesome sidebar he has now).

  38. @ Chad – He had a nice site. Now we made it better :)

  39. Great post Brian…

    As the writer of the offending copy, and one of the proud sponsers of Copyblogger (witness big ass ad up top), I challenge Ms. Julia to do the same without losing stuffed shirt.

    Cheers!

  40. I loved this post. It speaks about the human spirit as much as any practical advice given. We really do need to get over ourselves.

  41. Damn good article, Brian – sorry I’m late to the ballgame.

    As I read this post I kept thinking about my days in college taking marketing courses. Julia’s article was all over the place. She hit a couple good points (like making lasting connections with you clients) and really missed the mark on others.

  42. A best friend was getting married…..on a Mountain – Oh! – It was HER mountain. The day before the wedding her dad gave the guests a special tour of the entire resort and told us the history.

    The family owns this very popular resort – it started as a ski resort in the 60′s and then he added ice skating because some people didn’t ski, then he added a pool because some people didn’t skate, then he added a barn for dancing, because some people didn’t like to swim, then he added a free ski school for the kids to encourage families to come. He added hotel rooms and banquet facilities. He wanted everyone to come and to stay. Then he wondered what to do in the summer and he added a Mountain Slide to the slopes, then he added an 18 hole golf course – then he saw that people were bringing in beer when they played – and he added a beer cart and cooler rentals. Then he built condos….and finally he was selling some 100year luxury lease vacation homes.

    There was not a “trick” that he missed in marketing to his base….and his base grew and grew and grew.

    He told us the secret that made his Resort the success that it is. He said, “you have to market to the masses to eat with the classes” – and he did…and still does.

    This was a man who had a HUGE vision for a resort that thousands of people visit each year – was it the kind of place he would vacation? No. He has his own jet and likes to go to Colorado. But it works because he didn’t design the resort for himself….he designed it for the working people who lived around the Mountain and by their demands he created the place they wanted to vacation.

  43. I love that story, Laura.

  44. This article goes right along in parallel with last week’s article about not marketing to ourselves.

    If we’re not marketing to our prospects–giving them information they can use to make informed decisions–then who are we marketing to?

    Answer: People who can’t buy from us anyway, or ourselves, and either way, we’re in deep yogurt.

  45. Her own headline (on the front page of her site) violates her Rule #1:

    “Help – I’m having an editorial emergency!”

    I suppose that this particular exclamation point is in ‘proper’ context so it’s exempt from the rule.

  46. Great post, Brian. It seems there are two classes of us copywriters…

    Those that hold themselves accountable to results…

    And the rest who avoid accountability at all costs.

    I’d much rather be the former… because it means I can make a lot more money!

  47. I find it hilarious that she is the self-appointed grammar and spelling police . . .

    and complains about how jive talk is should be avoided . . .

    then . . . despite all her will power, goes and buys the Chop Wizard!!!

    The proof is in the results.

  48. Hmmm… in our business we need to generate the leads before we can service the client.

    Despite what we might like or prefer, it’s using the classic and time tested lead generating techniques that enables us to eventually service our clients to build the loyalty.