The "Hard" and "Soft" Science of Profitable Advertising

“…your cost is the same whether your ad
generates five responses or five thousand.”

by Michael Cooney

Successful, profitable advertising is a fascinating application of both empirical data, the “hard” science, and psychology, a “soft” science. To the extent either is ignored or not skillfully applied, your advertising will suffer in terms of its response rate.

Your goal, of course, is to produce advertising that generates as strong a response as possible. Such response can be in the form of calls to you requesting an appointment, mailed requests for more information, or even outright sales, depending on the approach used. Your goal is to motivate your readers, viewers or listeners to take the next step you want them to take in your selling process.

If you analyze your proposed advertising from both perspectives, you will produce advertising that gives you far greater value for the amount you are spending. After all, your cost is the same whether your ad generates five responses or five thousand.

Empirical Data Overlooked

Using empirical data is one of the most overlooked aspects of creating profit-generating advertising. Ever since famed advertising genius Claude Hopkins wrote the book Scientific Advertising in 1923, researchers have been testing practically every known variable to find the answer to the question: what makes people choose one product over another; or one company over another. Both hard and soft science goes into the answer, but I can offer a few examples of each type so you can understand some of the components you should consider when creating your advertisements.

In print media, did you know that the font (typeface) you choose is important to response rates? Testing has long shown that a serif typeface, like the one you’re reading now, is easier to read and aids in both comprehension and retention compared to a san-serif typeface, such as the Helvetica font shown here. The tiny serifs, or wings, attached to each letter in a serif typeface actually assist the eye in moving along the lines of text, from one word to the next.

So yes, there is a scientific reason why practically every newspaper and magazine in the country is printed in a serif typeface -- despite the fact that a small number of magazines, attempting to be trendy, use a san-serif face in part or in whole. To the graphic designer’s eye, the san-serif typeface looks more “hi-tech” and “in.” Astute marketers, on the other hand, know that the san-serif type causes lower comprehension, retention, and response, and thus avoid it for blocks of text in advertising. It is fine, if you prefer, to use a san-serif font in a headline, since it is a much shorter piece of text.

Psychology Answers Important Questions

When it comes to the “soft” science of marketing -- that element which uses techniques derived from psychology -- the complexity increases. Some techniques that should be obvious are often overlooked or discarded. The most common error here is the attempt to be “cute” in the headline. You can be cute or use double entendres to appear sophisticated, but that will nearly always be at the expense of response or sales.

Since we all operate on the basis of self-interest, psychology tells us that a headline clearly spelling out the biggest benefit to the reader is the one that will bring the greatest response. And sure enough, that is the case.

Other psychological techniques, though, are more subtle. For example, if you create a brochure showing your line of, say, home gyms sets, do you begin with the least expensive to “ease” the reader into your line-up, or do you begin with the most expensive and work down? Psychological studies on this very question give us the answer.

What about repetition? Should you run the same ad over and over? Or change the headline and text, and/or the “look” on a frequent basis? Studies of the mind’s retention capabilities give us helpful guidelines.

When it comes to size, how do you decide what to run? If a full page gives the greatest response, what can you expect from a half page? Will response also be cut in half? Again, impact studies and testing have shed much light on this topic.

I find that even many marketing executives don’t realize how much research is available, and how many questions can be answered or variables narrowed down before an ad is written. To create truly effective -- and profitable! -- print ads (and radio spots or TV commercials too), you may want to take advantage of the “hard” and “soft” scientific studies that have already been conducted for your benefit.