Should You Go Wide or Go Deep?

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Remember a couple months back when I said I discovered a way to add more hours to my day? (If you don’t, here it is: “That Time I Discovered ‘Idle Time’ Doesn’t Really Exist,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, March 14, 2019). With all that rediscovered time I was able to explore a dusty section of unread books in my expansive library. (And by expansive, I mean… Wait. Forget it. It only gets Betsy mad.)

I began this new venture by perusing an entire series of books from the pens of the greatest copywriters. These books defined the advertising industry as it emerged from the 19th century into the 20th. They represent the primordial tracks from which Madison Avenue men evolved. They spawned a persuasive style that combined art and science into an effective (sometimes too effective) tool.

By “art” I refer to the words that effectively captivate and motivate the reader. But how do the words work as intended?

That’s where the “science” comes in. Today we call it “market research.” Claude C. Hopkins, acknowledged as perhaps the greatest copywriter, called it “scientific advertising.” His book by the same name (published in 1923) shows how an ad means nothing unless it stimulates its audience to act. He not only wrote the ads, he studied how they functioned.

Hopkins explained the tactics of test marketing. He detailed case studies both in Scientific Advertising (published in 1923) and his autobiography My Life in Advertising (published in 1927).

But it was the man who hired him that presented the strategic overview. Albert Lasker had an eye for marketing. Dubbed “The Father of Advertising” by The New York Times, Lasker fashioned the words of copywriters like Hopkins and forged dramatic campaigns that created the modern advertising industry.

That’s not all. Lasker once owned the Chicago Cubs before selling his share to his partner William Wrigley, Jr. Before doing that, he had time to draft the document that rescued baseball following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He helped spawn the Soap Opera, elect Warren G. Harding president, and came up with the names “Planned Parenthood” and “American Cancer Society.” His legacy, the Lasker Award, is considered the American version of the Nobel Prize.

Unlike Hopkins, Lasker never wrote a book about his grand strategy. He chose, instead, to live that strategy. Fortunately, after he died, one of his associates published the verbatim notes from one of Lasker’s executive meetings. Those notes were published as a series of articles in Advertising Age. They eventually became the book The Lasker Story As He Told It.

After reading these books, I turned to one written much later. Rosser Reeves helped coin the term “Unique Selling Proposition.” His book Reality in Advertising, published in 1961, elevated advertising into the realm of marketing. If you want to understand “Mad Men,” read this book.

But it offers much more.

Descendant from Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, Reeves probes the dimensions beyond Hopkins research. It turns out, Reeves’ concepts extend far beyond advertising. He describes a way of thinking that can help you live a more fulfilling and a more satisfying life.

Let us venture for a moment into Reeves’ world. We’ll first see how his terminology applies to advertising. Next we’ll discover what this means to you and your everyday life.

Reeves’ research originated the terms “penetration” and “usage pull.” In his view, penetration designates the percentage of people that can recall seeing an ad. Penetration, therefore, represents a measure of awareness.

But awareness alone doesn’t mean sales. We don’t just want people to be aware of our product. We want people to buy our product. A successful advertisement not only builds product awareness (“penetration”), it also draws customers to purchase the product. Reeves calls this resulting draw “usage pull.”

We can think of these ideas in terms of geometry. Penetration can be likened to the surface area. Usage pull adds the third dimension of depth – how deep something sinks in.

Remember the phrase “a jack of all trades but a master of none.” We might say this “Jack” has broad penetration but very little usage pull.

Contrast this to the single-minded focus of a subject matter expert. In this case, we see precise lack of breadth (penetration) but an enormously deep understanding of a solitary field (usage pull).

Of course, these two examples represent polar extremes. Still, they’re instructive. In some cases, you want broad penetration. At other times, you want extraordinary usage pull.

When you expect to find yourself in a situation with a number of potential scenarios, you want a jack of all trades. When you know you’ve got a very specific problem to solve, you want a subject matter expert.

But penetration/usage pull goes well beyond who you should pick as your teammate. It also captures how you might plan your life.

Do you enjoy dipping your toe in a plethora of activities? Or do you prefer to settle in and concentrate on only one thing?

Or, do you find it invigorating to hop from rabbit hole to rabbit hole, diving deep into each tunnel as you come to it? That’s both penetration and usage pull.

If variety is the spice of life, rigorous fact-finding is the stimulant of life.

So live a life of continuous (and spacious) exploration, being sure to stop off every once in a while for a trek that drills into the extensive depths of discovery.

When it comes to choosing between going wide or going deep, don’t. You can do both.

Just like the most successful advertisements.

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