How to sell by not selling: the secret of the cedar plank

April 1, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

product samplingFine restaurants in the Pacific Northwest had been serving cedar plank salmon for years. But Harry Aldrich and David Maddocks wanted to sell a home version.

Their idea was simple. They would manufacture a 6″ x 12″ piece of cedar wood. You put your salmon on the wood plank and put the wood plank into your home barbecue. Voilà! Cedar plank salmon.

Aldrich made an appointment with the seafood buyer for the Fred Meyer stores in Portland, Oregon. On the morning of his appointment, he bought a filet of salmon from the local Fred Meyer, went home, and cooked it on one of his cedar planks. Then he wrapped it in foil and rushed off to his meeting.

When he arrived, he didn’t bother with the usual sales patter. He simply placed the salmon on the buyer’s desk and handed him a fork. “I’m here to help you sell more salmon,” Aldrich said.

The buyer took a bite. “WOW! Where did you get this fish? It’s wonderful!” When Aldrich told him he bought the fish that very morning in a Fred Meyer store, the buyer couldn’t believe it.

Aldrich sat back and smiled as the buyer called other staff members to taste the fish. The reaction was unanimous. It tasted divine. Aldrich provided some facts and benefits, but the buyer was sold with the first taste.

Within a week, Harry Aldrich and David Maddocks had lucrative orders from more than 100 Fred Meyer stores. And they sold truckloads of those little cedar planks.

So what’s the lesson here?

The lesson is that one of the best ways to sell is to not sell at all — to simply shut up and give people a taste of what you’re selling.

That can be hard to do if you’ve spent years learning how to push and prod people into parting with their money. But if you’re selling a great product, why get in the way?

Harry Aldrich could have walked into that buyer’s office and lectured for hours about his little pieces of wood, but he knew it would come down to how that fish tasted. One bite was worth a million words.

2 obvious cedar plank selling techniques

There are two ways to give people a taste that you are probably familiar with: the Sample and the Free Trial.

Sample — A printer embosses a sample calendar with my business name, telling me I can order this very item for my clients. A generic perfume company offers two scented samples, one with an expensive name brand and one with their knockoff, challenging my wife to guess which is which. A textile company encloses a sample of a fireproof fabric and a match, daring business buyers to set the bit of cloth on fire.

When you’re selling something great, nothing will sell it as well as simply putting it directly into people’s hands.

But there’s a caveat: if the product is less than impressive — or if it takes people time to understand how good it really is — a sample could work against you. This is one reason I prefer not to send a sample for most of the subscription packages I create, particularly newsletters. I’m sorry to say that many are of low quality and simply can’t live up to the sales pitch.

By all means test a sample, but only for items that really sizzle.

Free Trial — This is, hands down, the world’s greatest offer. You can let prospects try a product for a time period: 10 days, 20 days, 30 days, whatever. Or you can offer a free issue, shipment, or some unit of sale.

The free trial can be, and often is, tied to a negative option option (which means a product will be delivered repeatedly until canceled).

Try 3 free issues of Wingnuts Today Magazine. If you like it, you’ll get a full year for just $14.95. If you don’t, just write “cancel” on the bill. But keep the first 3 free issues as our gift to you.

This is similar to sampling in that it lets people try a product before buying. However, it offers three big advantages: 1) You only offer a “sample” to those who ask, so your costs can be significantly lower. 2) You don’t risk unselling anyone if your product isn’t immediately impressive. 3) You can make the trial a negative option offer so that you have buyer inertia working for you on the back end. You make a sale automatically unless they go to the trouble of canceling.

The free trial is popular as a magazine offer, but it can be configured for just about anything: electronics, clubs, websites, books, software, office equipment, insurance, financial services, you name it. I’ve even tied it to a guarantee for a child sponsorship charity. If you haven’t tried a free trial, drop everything and do so immediately.

5 not-so-obvious cedar plank selling techniques

Samples and free trials aren’t the only way to give someone a taste of whatever you’re selling. The point is to bring products and prospects closer together. And you can do that to a lesser degree right in your copy.

Teaser Copy — You’ve seen this a thousand times. It’s one of today’s most popular and effective techniques, especially for publications and information products. I used it in a recent newsletter subscription package. At the top of the letter, I showed a picture of the newsletter with a list of teasers preceding the offer:

How to dress down and still look professional
9 steps for motivating a lazy coworker (without stress)
The secret to dealing with difficult customers
7 ways to be a take-charge employee

Book offers can do the same thing, giving the page number where the information can be found. But like all techniques, this one can be used just about anywhere you want to give people a sample or taste of the real thing, but without actually revealing any information.

Product Photos or Illustrations — It’s true that copy is king, but visuals pack a powerful wallop. They give people a sense of the quality and value of the thing you’re selling. For subscriptions and books, show the front cover. For software, include screen shots of the most powerful features. For industrial or high-tech equipment, provide cutaways with callouts describing prominent features.

For less visual offerings, such as financial services, create something to show and offer — special report, brochure, certificate, coupon, etc.

Simply ask yourself what likely buyers want to see and show it. And whenever possible, show people using the product, which is far more interesting and believable than static product shots.

Letter with a Story — While it’s often best to get down to your offer immediately, a good story can start a letter with a bang while allowing readers to experience a product second hand. I created a package recently to sell a home buying book, and the letter told a little story before giving the offer:

I could just kick myself!

A couple years ago, my wife and I bought a new home. After we moved in, our neighbor asked us over for coffee. What a shock!

He had the same house design, but it was full of all the extras we couldn’t afford — like a fireplace, panel doors, tile, oak cabinets. It was stunning.

When I asked how much it cost, he smiled. “Nothing. I knew how to get the extras added for free.” And it was so simple, I could have done it too. If I had only known the secret!

One rule I have for stories is that I usually present the offer at the top of the letter before the main letter begins. This orients the reader and gives the story a little breathing room.

Testimonials — In addition to adding credibility and supporting your claims, testimonials let people experience products through the eyes of satisfied customers. But don’t settle for vacuous verbiage such as “I love it!” The best testimonials are specific. A recent direct mail package I created for a laminating business featured two pages of testimonials like this:

Most of my signs I laminate with your 6 mil and 10 mil products, but for signs that we want to stay posted for long periods of time I use your adhesive-backed products. The adhesive backing is strong and reliable. These signs stay up as long as we want them to, even in our high traffic situations. – Randi Drew, MI

Success Stories — People can vicariously sample a product through the experiences of others. Success stories also clarify the use of the products, dramatize the benefits, and build instant credibility. To get the most from success stories, be specific and keep the tone factual. And when you’re selling to businesses, talk about well-known business names whenever possible.

I created a highly successful lead generation package for one of my high-tech Canadian clients and enclosed a broadside packed with success stories like this:

AT&T recently moved from a high-maintenance document management system to [product name], a Web-based system accessed through a standard Web browser. This has resulted in a savings of $4,406,322. They have reduced paper costs by 80%, lowered shipping costs by eliminating most overnight mailings, and saved 45 hours a week in duplication work. The bottom line is a 684% return on their investment.

Yet more techniques and the point of it all

There are endless ways to give people a taste of a product. You can also …

  • Demonstrate claims with diagrams, charts, tables, or graphs.
  • Make the offer tangible with a check or coupon.
  • Make the order form look valuable and real with a certificate border.
  • Use a see-through envelope to show off graphics inside.
  • Enclose a quiz or checklist to get your reader thinking about the product or service.

Do you see the pattern here? If you said, “involvement,” move to the head of the class. The underlying principle of all cedar plank selling is to bring people closer to the product. And that means getting people involved.

Samples and free trials are the most direct means of doing this, but there are countless indirect ways to involve people. Your cedar plank selling savvy is only limited by your imagination.

Related posts:

  1. The selling power of intelligent redundancy
  2. Hard sell vs soft sell: What’s the difference?
  3. 4 practical ways to sell without writing a sales pitch
  4. Sell anything with this universal copywriting formula

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

4 Comments on How to sell by not selling: the secret of the cedar plank

  1. Ted Grigg on Apr 3rd, 2010 9:15 pm
  2. I always envied marketers who had a tangible product to sell. But the jobs we get at DMCG tend toward the intangible and innately boring products like insurance, investments, SEO and fund raising.

    The idea of involvement works well here as well, but takes considerably greater skill in my opinion.

    Your article also deals with selling intangibles by translating the product features into key benefits such as saving money and insuring against loss of something precious. You also show the selling power of specificity.

    But even with testimonials and strong benefit copy, nothing beats something that tastes good, smells good or feels like quality when the prospect touches and sees the actual product.

    Another tremendous copywriting primer from the master. Thanks for writing this post.
    .-= Ted Grigg’s last blog … Communication and Strategy not the Technical Marketer’s Strength =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on Apr 3rd, 2010 11:37 pm
  4. Ted,
    I know what you mean. I do an awful lot of lead generation for services and it’s all intangible. With things like insurance, giving people a “taste” is difficult, but then these sort of services aren’t about the service itself, but the sense of security or other emotion it creates. Once you figure out what you’re really selling, the taste gets easier to figure out.

    And you’re right. It does take skill. A lot of it. Really, lead gen is about the simplest task in direct marketing, but it’s also the most poorly done by most businesses.

  5. Martin Stellar on Sep 13th, 2010 10:36 am
  6. “What you’re really selling….” that froze my brain, Dean. Or set it on fire, you decide. Doesn’t that apply to all marketing, i.e. isn’t the feeling you want people to have when they buy, the real drive, the actual reason for them to buy?

  7. Dean Rieck on Sep 13th, 2010 12:53 pm
  8. @Martin: Yes. But it’s not always obvious what you’re really selling. Some day I’ll write about the “benefit chain” and how there’s a long line of connected benefits that go deeper and deeper psychologically. Knowing where to look on that chain to say the right thing is the challenge.