Predictions for 2021
Copywriter John Forde Looks Back Ten Years and then Predicts the Next Ten Years in Marketing
“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.
Continued dark overnight, with widely
scattered light by morning.”
– George Carlin
It’s a funny business, forecasting.
For instance, 10 years ago, you never could have
guessed that we’d be where we are now.
Frankly, neither could I…
Ten Years After: What We Didn’t Expect
If you remember, around this time a decade ago — and
after years of hearing that you either had to learn to
write for the Internet or risk becoming a dinosaur
dotcom stocks tanked.
Suddenly, we were left trying to figure out the
marketing mix between snail mail and the Internet all
Blogs barely existed. Same goes for email and video
marketing, both just getting out of the gate for most
In Washington, the Clintons were boxing up their books
and the Bushes were busy picking out the menu for their
Across the rest of the country, the broad economy had
hit a deep backslide, for the first time in nearly a
What worked before, we were all thinking, might not
work again. Or for a long time. But then, as now, few
As for me, I was still living in Manhattan.
Not yet married, working out of my West Village
apartment, and still collecting the bulk of my
copywriting royalties from print mailings.
Who could have known how much or how fast email
marketing could have taken off?
Somewhere in the 10 years that followed — even I can’t
remember exactly when — the copy I was writing started
making me more online than it did off.
Print mailings got less and less elaborate as they got
more and more expensive. Online, we could test
everything. And we did.
Perhaps I started writing differently, scaling back on
copy sidebars and ramping up on search-friendly words.
“You’ve got to write shorter for the web,” they told
us, “because it’s a younger, less patient audience.”
Mostly though, that turned out to be all wrong.
Copy I cut to fit the “new” audience flopped. Copy I
wrote and had posted online worked just as well or
better than it had in print.
So well, in fact, that the information publishing
company I worked with (and still work with, as my
biggest client by far) tripled in size, from $100
million per year to well over $300 million.
Today, they still make millions in the mail. But the
majority of sales are online. With copy that’s really
STILL not much different from the straight sales
letters they’ve always relied on.
The Internet, it turned out, didn’t die with the dotcom
market bomb. It just took the next leap, from novelty
to market staple.
Instead of obliterating the “old school,” businesses
comfortably absorbed online tools and integrated them
into their already working business models.
For us and others who figured out how to use it, it
turned out the best way to use it was to gather and
market to new names… to involve and engage with our
original customers cheaply… and to deliver info-
products faster and more cheaply.
For me, it let me work even more long distance. My wife
and I picked up and moved (for at least a big part of
the year) to Paris.
We now have kids and send them to school, while she and
I both work from home. She on design (her day job) and
me on, of course, copywriting projects.
As I write to you now, I’m sitting in our living room,
listening to MP3s of music I can work to while a
digital fire crackles on our big flat-screen TV.
It really is a different world. So, how different can
you expect it to get over the NEXT 10 years?
Likely, my powers of prognostication won’t hold up any
better for this second decade of the new century than
they did for the first, but I’ll give it a shot…
The Next Ten Years: What You Can Bank On
As we look on, what’s ahead?
Maybe telepathic reply cards… holograph-driven
headlines… and scent-crafted sales copy, retooled for
use on smell-o-vision. But I doubt it.
You’re sure to hear plenty forecasting the need for
even shorter copy (“Soon we’ll be inscribing headlines
on jet-powered microdots, so you’ll have to trim it to
fit.”) But that will probably be wrong too.
What is true is that the mediums will evolve, yet
again. For instance, the marketers I worked alongside
this year did make a huge, successful leap into video
But not like you’d expect.
For one, we’ve found so far that low production values
— at least in our info-publishing market — out pull
Our best performing stuff is just text on screen, with
a voice reading it aloud in the background. And
otherwise, it’s barely changed from the copy we used in
the print or online sales letter versions.
Short? Not even close.
The most astounding successes in our area, of the last
six months, have been videos that run for — brace
yourself — as long as 45 minutes to an hour.
I’m not making that up.
And when we try to edit it them down, do they pull even
better? Not at all. Response drops by 20% or more.
What’s changed though is that no longer can copy afford
to be sloppy, meandering, or boring. The best messages
compel from opening bang to ending order button.
(Come to think of it, hasn’t that always been the
truth? Well-crafted creative works best. But as in
novels and Hollywood, that just seems even more true
now than ever.)
As the world moves ever faster, we do seem to get less
patient with our time. We’ll spend it liberally if
we’re interested, yes.
But we’re getting ever more stingy with our full
attention when it comes to messages that don’t do the
work to meet us at least halfway.
Again, that doesn’t at all mean “short.”
It just means we’ll keep on digging deeper, working
harder, and getting better educated to talk to markets
that are already experts on passions we’ll target.
Obviously, you’ve gotten the message that tomorrow will
be more mobile. That’s only going to mean more
breakthroughs in format and offer testing, too.
Magazines will figure out the subscription model.
They’ll have to. But more tablet computers beyond the
iPad and an even bigger smartphone explosion, along
with more integrated Internet and television, will all
open other doors too.
Most will try to figure out “who” is on the other end
of those mediums. And that will matter, especially when
it means cracking open all those unexplored niche
But maybe more important will be figuring out “where”
those new customers are and “what” they’ll want to look
A lot of the talk of the last 10 years was about how
different our customers would be. However, all the big
breakthroughs I can list were either in formats or how
we compiled new customers lists.
(That’s the only reason, by the way, that I think those
who are looking into social marketing might yet be on
to something… even though I suspect they don’t know
what, any better than the rest of us.)
The dialogue itself, either what we said or the how we
said it, didn’t change much at all.
That said, it did change a little. And will probably
continue in that same direction.
Specifically, the more inundated our target customers
are, the better we’ll have to get at writing much LESS
direct sales copy.
You might think that sounds backward.
After all, in a crowded market, don’t you have to get
to the point — particularly the benefits — faster?
Certainly, you can’t afford to waste a prospect’s time.
But with everyone shouting about how everything makes
you slimmer, faster, smarter, richer, and cooler than
the nerds on your neighbor’s Facebook page, you’ll have
to look LESS like you’re out to sell something.
That might just mean finding an even sharper emotional
hook for your every sales pitch. It might mean learning
to sell even better with stories.
What it will add up to is figuring out how to do more
of what the fast-media, always-on information age does
surprisingly poorly… which is add depth and not just
breadth to personal connections.
I suspect, for no reason I can exactly put my finger
on, we’ll make more sales promises about not just
improving a prospect’s life, but improving the world’s
perception of the prospect too.
I don’t just mean the standard appeals to vanity, but
something bigger. The wider the physical gaps and more
superficial the digital connections, the more we seem
to crave “impact” and “influence” in the crowds around
People, of course, have always wanted to make a ripple.
But these days it seems like an even more widely shared
yardstick of success. Silent victories just won’t do.
Bragging rights, even those not exercised, seem to
matter even more than they have in the past.
What will sell?
It depends on where the economy goes next. We’ve seen
luxury “stuff” fall out of fashion, these past couple
years. I don’t expect it to come roaring back.
At least not anytime soon.
That said, even though I work in a sector where gloom-
and-doom is a marketing staple (the financial info
biz), you can’t help but notice a recent uptick in
The market, say a lot of experts, is coming back.
Housing, construction, energy demand. They’re all
seeing a surge. Even jobs might inch upward.
Some say that’s because that’s what always happens,
going back over the last 100 years, in the third year
of the U.S. presidential cycle.
Others might say it’s because we’ve had a change of the
guard or because of tax cuts or stimulus or whatever.
Maybe it’s just pent up cash and optimism.
It doesn’t matter much why… maybe it’s just nature
saying we’re overdue… but something this way comes.
The good news is that spending might be back. If only
in a small way. The mixed news is that it might come
with rising prices, i.e. what you and I know as
Oil prices, for instance, are surging. So are food
prices and more. If stocks and housing go back up,
that’s just inflation of another kind.
As a marketer, that matters to you in more than one
way. At the bottom line, it might mean you’ll get a
chance to raise your prices.
But it could also mean, and this is especially true if
jobs don’t come surging back fast enough, your prices
could rise TOO fast. And that can come back to bite
Over the couple years ahead, maybe that translates into
more deadline offers… “Act now or pay double when we
hike prices at midnight, March 15″… or maybe just
price testing, with an eye on competitors.
I’m just guessing on all of this, of course. And like I
said, I could be as stunned as you are at how off these
expectations might be.
What we’ll be selling and how we’ll sell it will almost
absolutely change radically from what we’re doing now.
Blogs, HTML emails, Facebook, even iPads and Android,
and the iPhone… I don’t expect any of it to be much
more than a memory compared to what we’re looking at
One thing I’m sure of, for 2021 and beyond, is that you
can bank on the one thing that doesn’t change: good
copy will still target the same core emotions and still
promise to serve the same core needs and solve the same
core problems — health, respect, wealth, and the rest.
You get that already, I’m sure. It will be trying not
to forget it over these next 10 years that you’ll find
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Published originally in John’s wonderful newsletter, Copywriters Roundtable. Subscribe and get your goodies at the above link.