The Edge of the Abyss

By Ron Rosenberg

5ff7427b-48e5-476d-925e-8c49352a14efI've reviewed literally thousands of marketing pieces at live programs, on mastermind calls, and one-on-one with clients on our Marketing Makeover webinar sessions.

And one thing that stands out is that many of the materials we see - whether websites, e-mails, postcards, or brochures - is that a lot of them are...well...just plain boring!

I don't mean they're poorly written, or that they don't adequately describe the product or service - it's just that they're not all that interesting.

Which brings us to a topic we really need to discuss.

You see, in my experience, the cardinal sin in marketing is being boring. And when you ask people why their marketing examples aren't more "edgy," the answer is usually something like, "Well, I didn't want to offend anyone."

I'm sorry, but I have some sad news for you: it doesn't matter how much you try to avoid it; you are going to offend someone as a result of almost everything you do. An acquaintance will be disappointed that he wasn't invited to your party. A family member will feel like you didn't help out enough in a crisis situation. A complete stranger will take offense to something you wrote in an article.

And when you're in the business of marketing - as all of you are - you have a definite choice to make: you can take the path of least resistance, sterilizing every bit of copy you write - taking political correctness to new levels, or you can add a little punch to your marketing, in a way that will improve your results while still being appropriate and, for that matter, even tasteful and clever.

 Taking It to the Edge

To get people to respond to your marketing, you need to establish a clear and powerful connection between your prospects' needs and desires and your product or service.

That means that you have to truly understand your market, your customers, and your prospects. Walk right to the edge of the abyss - peer deep into their souls. What are their secret desires? What are their hidden fears? What keeps them awake at night? What's the issue that gets under their skin more often than anything else?

Understand that, and it's almost like having a button that's connected directly to their emotions and when you push it, they'll sit up, take notice, and pay attention to whatever you have to say.

Then - and this is the important part - once you have that kind of understanding and knowledge, you have to take a step back from the edge, because otherwise, your marketing might come across as more inflammatory than effective.

Can You Go Too Far?

The simple answer is "yes." Let's look at a real-life example that happened in a workshop I was presenting at several years ago. This was for a group of association executives - people who manage the different professional and trade associations that many of us belong to and participate in.

It was a hands-on marketing workshop, where people were asked to bring samples of their marketing materials that we could use during the session to directly and immediately apply the strategies they were learning.

We were finishing up the module where we talk about the difference between features and benefits, and had just presented the concept of "walk to the edge of the abyss."

It was time for a team exercise, and I instructed each table to select someone who had a good marketing project they were working on; and, as a team, take that example "to the edge of the abyss."

They Took it Right to the Edge!

ProstituteAbout five minutes into the exercise, a woman at one of the tables called me over to ask a question. She was the director of marketing for a national girls organization. They were working on a major recruiting effort, and she was thinking about a full-page ad she was developing for this purpose.

Now a bit of background might be helpful here. Think for a minute about the person who makes the decision about whether a young girl is going to participate in an activity - it's not the girl - it's generally the parents - and usually the mother.

So with that in mind, she said, "I'm not sure if I could publish this or even get it approved by my board, but I think this is what you're talking about, right?"

She had drawn a very detailed pencil sketch that looked pretty much like the image you see above: a young girl on a dimly-lit street corner, wearing fishnet stockings, high leather boots, a short skirt, and a stretch top.

For a headline, she had written:

Attention Moms:
Don't Let Your Daughter Grow Up to Be a
Crack-Smoking Street Skank!

Now, I grew up in The Bronx, and there's not much that really shocks me, but I have to admit even I was a bit taken aback by the image and the headline.

But after a few seconds, I realized that she had captured the idea of "walk to the edge of the abyss" perfectly. At the time, our own daughter was about 15 years old and very attractive, and that image really hit home for me as a parent.

Now, Roll It Back Just a Little...

The problem with running an ad like that (aside from the fact that it probably would get rejected by most publications) is that it's extremely inflammatory.

I mean, imagine flipping through the pages of a magazine, and coming across that image and that headline. I'm pretty sure that if it was me, my eyes would bug out of my head, and I'd turn to the next page as quickly as possible to get it out of my mind.

But once you understand the trigger that grabs attention, you can "dial it back" a little - still communicating the same sense of urgency, but with a slightly lighter delivery. For example:

There are a lot of pressures on teenagers these days, and it doesn't take much to turn a hardworking successful student into someone caught up in the world of drugs and alcohol. Fortunately, there's an organization that can help your daughter achieve everything she's capable of...

In this example, you can clearly see some of the gut-wrenching angst that the street-corner image elicits, without having it thrown right in your face.

This is the idea behind "walk to the edge of the abyss," and you can apply it successfully in your own marketing by following these three steps:

  1. Identify the triggers that will have the most emotional impact on your audience.
  2. "Stir the pot" to emphasize the potential impact.
  3. Present your product or service as the only logical solution.

This can be an extremely powerful approach that can help you get measurable results where others have fallen short in the past.