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Do 20th Century Ideas work today?

Today is the 110th anniversary of Lyman Wood’s birth. He would be astonished at the technological advances that have occurred in the 24 years that have followed his passing in 1996. But knowing the nimbleness of his mind, and the way he embraced new ideas during the 20th Century, I think he would have found numerous ways to apply his special brand of direct marketing expertise to the electronic world today.

Lyman was doing his favorite thing on the morning he died: writing ad copy. The product of the day was his most recent, the Step-N-Go, a three wheeled stair stepper on wheels. In 1996, plans for that copy were for use in direct mail, magazine ads and TV commercials… PLUS, the newest tool just being tried, the Internet. Lyman did not have a computer, but was fascinated by the potential of this novel medium. His colleagues would print out pages for him to review – as we also did with e-mails for him to respond.

One of the first questions he posed, about websites and Internet advertising, was, “How are people going to find them? How do we get them to go on the computer and look for our information?”

He was already noodling about how his trademark two-step approach would work. He had fine tuned this approach during his 60 year career in direct marketing. He would start with ads, perhaps tiny in Popular Mechanics or full page in newspapers like the Hartford Currant. In all cases, most important were catchy headlines and simple copy featuring the benefits of the product. Usually a coupon would be included (and starting in the 80s, an 800 number) for the reader to ask for more information, or to request a free item.

The second step was follow up, and up, and up. And maintain meticulous records of the response to each and every ad and headline.

Lyman was beginning to think of websites as the second of his two steps. There were no web browsers at that time, with the power of a Google or Safari, so people were not accustomed to going to the Internet to meet every need. So he believed that print ads and direct mail were still needed to get prospects’ attention and point them to the web. Had he the Internet experience of today, he would have recognized the importance of all those little ads on social media and in the middle of the news, and of paying the extra for first mention on the top of browser pages. Once a prospect found a product they wanted on a website, he would have made every effort to get that prospect’s name and e-mail – as most savvy advertisers do today – for the ever important followup.

There was also a third step. Lyman knew that the best customer was the customer you had already sold and satisfied. This continues to be true today, and his approach to following up every sale as well as every inquiry works as well today as it did in the 1900s. But the trick also continues to be to write the best copy, no matter where it is run, to get the attention of and create a desire for your product in your best prospects.

Lyman’s biography is full of his tips and ideas for writing effective copy and starting a business of your own. He’d be delighted to know how many people, including marketing students, are reading and learning from it today.

Nancy Wood February 3, 2020

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