The Robert Collier Principle

By James Mawson, December 2015

Robert Collier was born in the American midwest in the late 19th century.

And from my 21st century Australian view, he seems bizarre.

He was an unordained minister and the author of several religious and mystical books. Early in his life he suffered an ongoing, undiagnosable illness. When he fully recovered, he credited the cure to Christian Science.

So why care about him?

Because he was also an outrageously successful copywriter.

And his ideas turned out to be especially useful for websites.

Through the moneytight days of the Great Depression and the Second World War he sold all manner of things - from books to clothes to household goods - all through mail order.

Happily, he was very generous with his ideas about what worked.

But hey

Mail Order, Shmail Order. Am I Right?

On first glance, this kind of mail-order marketing looks seriously dated! Certainly the letters he wrote are a relic of his time.

I mean, sure, direct mail marketing is still huge. But does anyone buy an overcoat because a businessman sent them a letter in the mail? That era ended before many of us were born.

And yet, this is all about using the written word to get customers to take action. That's exactly what we want from our websites.

These letters were a long-form medium. They did more than sprinkle a few slogans on the reader: it sought to engage and hold attention for minutes at a time. To build rapport and trust. Exactly as we want from our website content.

They were also meticulously tracked and tested.

Creative intuitions played a part.. sure.. but they had to survive under the cold light of hard data.

With a literal fortune up for grabs in each mailing, little was left unexamined against the results.

As years passed, practitioners of this art became all the better at it. Their ideas became all the better informed by evidence. Web guys do this too! But we've had nowhere so many years behind our work yet. The web is only in its third decade. Robert Collier had more letter writing just in his own career.

His work matters to anyone wondering what to put on a website.

So What on Earth is This “Collier Principle” Stuff Then?

The Collier Principle is

“Always enter the conversation already occurring in the prospect's mind.”

Many non-marketers seem to see marketing as the art of “creating demand”.

It's almost as though we were wizards casting spells.

But marketing professionals have no more ability to force people to want things than anyone else. In fact, we have it harder. People see our work in places where they implicitly understand they are being marketed to. They come to it with an innate resistance.

Marketing only works when it speaks to things the audience wants already.

It must speak to existing interests, desires, frustrations, passions and fears. The audience rarely has to listen. They're in an impeccable position to turn the page past our ad, throw our letter in the bin, or close the tab tab.

Okay.. so sometimes they're at a sporting ground or watching television. They can't skip past anything then. But it's easy enough to tune out - to pay no attention.

That's why you should align your words with the reader's existing motivations. The only way anyone keeps paying attention is if they choose to.

Understand that the reader must be the most important consideration in all of your copy. Your business and your products matter too, but only to the extent that they matter to the reader. When planning what to write, study your reader first and the product second.

What about you?

How Well Do You Know Your Customers?

Whenever I speak to a new copywriting client, they're always quick to tell me about what they sell. They'll tell me all they can about how it compares to the rest of their industry. At some point I'll ask “who are your customers?”. I nearly always have to introduce this as a complete change of tack in the conversation.

All too often, their answer is “oh, we get all sorts”. It can take a bit of pressing to find out anything more than that.

It's a worry.

It shows they've never thought too hard about who they're selling to, much less what is going on in their heads.

With a bit more probing, broad trends emerge. We can get some idea of who we're writing to. We can begin to understand what problems or aspirations are motivating them to buy - and what objections need to be overcome - to get them over the line.

Knowing your customer is crucial to selling. It should be of foremost concern for clients and copywriters alike. There should always be more work being done to further this aim.


The Collier Principle in the New Century

Robert Collier died in 1950. He had no idea of personal computers or the internet. Yet the Collier Principle has only become more relevant.

Websites differ from letters in a crucial way: you can much better anticipate what the reader's thinking when they arrive.

There's very little way of knowing exactly what thoughts are going through anyone's head right when they walk through the front door after collecting their letters. They could as easily be nursing a broken heart or pondering conflict in the middle east.

But nobody reaches your website without taking some sort of active decision to be there. They might have typed something into Google, clicked on an ad somewhere, followed a link on social media, a link in an email or blog post. They got there somehow.

Most of the time, this traffic comes from a navigation path that you (or somebody working on your behalf) built yourself. Extremely few businesses get substantial website traffic except for their own marketing or promotion efforts.

You know well in advance how you reader is going to find your website. You're in such an excellent position to anticipate what's in their head when they arrive. The letter writers never had it so good!

If you are bringing traffic to your site by targeting search keywords - whether organic or PPC - think beyond rudimentary SEO copywriting tactics like putting the keyword into the H1 tag of your landing page. Consider what got the reader to put those words into the search engine in the first place.

Is it a problem, a fear, an aspiration? What is it about the problem that frustrates them? What is it in this fear that terrifies them greatest? What is it they really want from reaching their goal?

If you get traffic from publicity work and referral links in industry magazines, websites and blogs, have a think about who reads these magazines and browses to these websites and what's going on in their heads that's made them interested in that particular article. The exact topic of that article is probably a clue!

However potential customers come to your website, there was something going on in their heads that brought them there.

Speak to that.

You will have their full attention.

Perhaps Robert Collier said it best:

“Study your reader. Find out what interests him. Then study your proposition to see how it can be made to tie in with that interest.”

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