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How Ideas Go Viral with Robert Updegraff

Published by: David Garfinkel on 04-13-2020

Today in our Old Masters series, we have someone a little different whose work we’re going to look at.

His name is Robert Updegraff. He wasn’t really a copywriter, but experienced copywriters and marketers know him. In today’s show, we’re going over a short book he published originally in 1916. It’s called Obvious Adams and it’s a story about a copywriter that took the business world by storm.

Jack Trout, author of the modern marketing classic “Positioning,” wrote an article about Obvious Adams in Forbes. This is a guy who knows a thing or two about marketing, and he called Obvious Adams “the best book that I have ever read on marketing.”

The hero of the story, Obvious Adams, had a knack for finding the simplest, most obvious idea. And his ideas led to great increases in sales. It turns out, that’s exactly what a viral idea is. Today, we’ll show you what to look for in an idea — whether it’s a positioning statement, or a headline, or a product idea — to see how likely it is to go viral.

We’ll talk about the book and include the five tests for a marketing idea that Robert Updegraff added to the book years after it was first published.

I first came upon Obvious Adams in the early 1990s. As I reviewed it for this show, 30 years later, I realized what a major impact it had on my thinking.

In the story, the advertising agency who first hired Obvious Adams when he was 18 says his initial impression was that he was “a very ordinary-looking boy, it seemed to me, rather stolid, not overly bright in appearance. [Stolid is an old-fashioned word which means calm and not particularly emotional.]”

What set Obvious Adams apart in the story was his uncanny ability to find the obvious selling points in a product that no one else could, and that the clever copywriters scoffed at.

But over and over, the ads he wrote out-performed everyone else’s. As he rose to the top of the agency, he stayed the same, never became a snazzy guy but kept focusing on the obvious, and large clients sought out his help personally.

I’ve heard some rumors that the author modeled this fictional character after the great copywriter Claude Hopkins. I can see some similarities and I really don’t know for sure myself.

Some people who read the book believed Obvious Adams was a real person, and wrote to Updegraff, asking how they could hire him.

Others understood he was a fictional character, but couldn’t replicate his thinking. That is, try as they might, they could find the obvious in what they were selling, themselves. And they wanted to.

After the book was published, the author figured people would get the idea and be able to start focusing on obvious ideas on their own. But it didn’t turn out that way.

In a second section of the book, years later, he wrote:

“BACK IN 1916 when Obvious Adams was first published, I thought getting businessmen to do "the obvious" would be simple enough: that it would only be necessary to point out the obvious solution or course of action.

But I was quite wrong.

The reason, he said, was that it involved logical thinking, which he called “the trickiest of mental processes.”

So, to help people along, he developed “five tests of obviousness.”

And before he announced them, he provided, of all things, a disclaimer:

“They are not sure-fire. Nothing is in this complex and changing world. But they are good rule-of-thumb checks.”

Personally, I think these are great tests. You don’t have to pass all of them to have a good promotion. I’ll mention this again at the end: You should consider all of them. Just thinking things through this way will sharpen up your thinking and could easily improve your promotion.

I’m going to add one 21st-Century example as we go, and we may come up with some others along the way. The good news about this book is you can get it on Amazon for a few dollars. It is well worth your time and money. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes.

Five tests of obviousness

1. The problem, when solved, will be simple.

- Complicated solutions to problems are ways of someone trying to show off how smart they are or a sign of laziness. A solution that is simple borders on the invisible, and that’s OK.

Especially with copywriting. Nobody cares about how clever your whiz-bang solution is. They care about their problem, and how certain it seems that you can solve it.

The more “obvious” the answer, the more certain they will feel that you can.

Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Updegraff wrote: “The history of science, the arts and great developments in the world of business is a history of people stumbling upon simple solutions to complex problems.”

Our example, which we’ll use throughout to measure against each test, is the same. It’s the messaging Steve Jobs came up with originally to sell the iPod:

“10,000 songs in your pocket.”

2. A question: Does it check with human nature?

To pass this test, your idea needs to be quickly and easily understood by ordinary people.

For copywriters and marketers, you don’t need everybody if you’re writing for / selling to a niche audiences. But what it does mean is that everyone across your niche should get the idea instantly.

Updegraff says, “The public is curiously obvious in its reactions — because the public’s mind is simple, direct and unsophisticated.”

Let’s look again at the iPod tagline: “10,000 songs in your pocket.”

3. Put it on paper

“Write out your idea, in words of one and two syllables, as though you were explaining it to a child.”

This is a cheap and quick way to troubleshoot an idea, project, plan, offer. If you can’t explain it simply, that’s a sure sign you have more work to do on it.

Key point: Most ideas ultimately involve more than one person, even if one person only came up with it and handles all the details. In copywriting and marketing, for example, even if you are a one-person business, for your idea to succeed, it also involves customers, who have to understand it in order to take advantage of your offer.

And most ideas, especially the bigger ones, involve more than one person. Like: partners, employees, investors, and contractors — as well as, of course, customers.

How do you expect to get their buy-in if they can’t easily understand your idea?

“10,000 songs in your pocket” works as something you can put on paper in one- and two-syllable words. Especially is you write out the words “ten thousand.”

4. Does it explode in people’s minds?

When you share your idea, or post your copy, and you get responses from people like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” you know you’ve passed the “explode-in-people’s minds” test.

It most likely means you’ve got an idea that’s both new and familiar. And that sounds easier to come up with than it actually is. This rare combination almost always leads to blockbuster success.

Updegraff says, “If an idea or proposal does not ‘explode,’ if it requires lengthy explanation and involves hours of argument, either

- it is not obvious


- you have not thought it through and reduced it to obvious simplicity.”

you know you are creating mental “explosions” when you see instant and intense reaction from people to your idea.

A great example and step-by-step method to help you learn to do this is in Oren Klaff’s new book, “Flip the Script.”

I would say “10,000 songs in your pocket” definitely exploded in people’s minds!

5. Is the time Ripe?

Timing is everything. So make sure you don’t get a yes to either of these two questions:

Is your idea too late?

Is it too far ahead of its time?

An idea that passes all the other test of “obviousness” will still not work if it is not timely.

So pay careful attention to this one.

Updegraff said that you don’t need to pass all five tests to have a successful idea/offer/hook.

But it’s a good idea to consider every one of them, and see if it applies.

For example, test #4 -- “Does it explode in people’s minds?” mind end up a “no.”

That where you need to put more work into your idea.

Steve Jobs got the timing just right with “10,000 songs in your pocket.”

Summary: The Five Tests

1. The problem, when solved, will be obvious.

2. Does it check with human nature?

3. Put it on paper.

4. Does it explode in people’s minds?

5. Is the time Ripe?

link to Obvious Adams

Keywords: simple copywriting cheats

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