Way back in the 1800s, marketing consisted of flyers and newspaper ads, and they were pretty crude in their approach. The strategy seemed to be to simply announce that the product existed. As the twentieth century neared, ambitious and creative sellers found that some well-placed adjectives actually helped their stock move faster: “The tormenting itch of Chilblains is instantly removed by WHITE’S ESSENCE OF MUSTARD” (chilblains is like frostbite, but different; I looked it up).

Just like today, marketers continued to experiment to get the most out of their marketing dollar, and in 1925 a turning point of sorts occurred. Novice advertising copywriter John Caples was given an assignment from the U.S. Music School, which sold a correspondence course for learning the piano.

To his youthful credit, Mr. Caples took the project, and perhaps the advertising industry, to the next level with the headline he typed out:

“They laughed when I sat down at the piano. And then I started to play…”

The long-form direct response copy then went on to tell the whole story, but Caples needn’t have bothered. The story was effectively and succinctly told in that 15-word headline. A story that played out in your mind as you just read that line. As a marketing writer myself, I can only strive to say so much in so few words.

Is there a lesson here somewhere for those of us using high tech marketing tools in an analytics-focused virtual universe…a century later?

Well, of course. Why else would I bring it up?

Caples may have been among the first to realize that truly effective product marketing isn’t really about the product itself. Apparently, it’s about the buyer. It’s about the buyer feeling good about himself. It’s about the buyer projecting how good he’ll feel about himself…after he’s bought our product.

Yet many company owners I meet are under the understandable impression that their product marketing should be centered solely on their product. I cover my mouth with my hand so they can’t see me giggling.

After I did a guest lecture recently on the emotional aspects of buyer behavior, a first-year writing student mentioned her assignment for an online retailer of womens clothing. She said she couldn’t see how emotion might fit in to such a simple retail sale.

Thinking quicker than I’m normally used to, I suggested that we take the focus off the website itself, and put it on some woman in Memphis, sitting at the kitchen table, window shopping on her laptop.

Because, I continued, this was about her looking good. Let’s go a step further: it’s about the people around her thinking she looks good. Follow me one more level down: it’s about how she feels about the people around her thinking she looks good.

That’s the emotional touchpoint. Start there. Oh, and since photos, not words, really do most of the selling for categories like fashion, use really big images to help the hopeful buyer picture herself in that summery floral pattern skirt…the one that everyone will soon be complimenting her on.

Boy, what funny creatures we humans are, getting our own sense of self-worth from the approval of others. But there you have it.

And don’t get me wrong; when I’m working on marketing for my own business, I too am sometimes capable of the self-centered illusion that it’s all about me and what I offer. But then I try to remind myself of that copywriter in a fedora and wide lapels so many years ago who was smarter than that.

“They laughed when I sat down at the piano. And then I started to play…”

Even though I’ve been in marketing longer than I care to say, it still kind of amazes me that in pixels or print, words have the power to get people to do things they might not have otherwise. For better or worse, the lessons of the past have shown internet marketing pro’s how to manipulate people’s views.

So it’s as important as ever that the mental pictures we paint are essentially honest and at least potentially realistic. Then perhaps helping people feel good about themselves isn’t such a bad thing.