Fresh Fish Sold Here Today? On Meddlesome Marketing Advice

There are literally hundreds of ways of telling the old marketing joke about the “FRESH FISH SOLD HERE TODAY” sign that appears by the fishmonger’s stall in the open-air market. (Here’s a really thorough version.)

fishyFor those who’ve never heard it, the helpful observer helps the business owner whittle down the redundant words in the sign. Today? Obviously. Remove the word. Here? Where else? Remove the word. Sold? Are you giving the fish away? Remove the word. Fresh? How else could it be here in the open-air market? Forget that word. Finally, anyone can tell from the smell from around the corner that it’s a fish stall. Delete “fish.” No sign needed after all! (Turns out, after awhile, business suffered.)

What’s remarkable is how many different interpretations have been latched onto that parable over the years. In the primary interpretation, experienced marketing professionals, copywriters, and wordsmiths of all stripes use the anecdote as a corrective to extreme positions on the value of being concise. The message seems to be: “Ha, if you take away everything, there’s nothing left.”

A variant on this – one I respect – doesn’t represent the open-ended “pro-wordcount” position of the literary and journalistic set. It simply points out that in sales and advertising, you have to sell. People are expecting to be sold. And more often than not, it’s the very act of a seller playing the game that will divert someone’s disposable income from nothing, or another vendor’s offering, into this potential purchase. At the All-Star level of marketing skill, marketers and vendors hope to seduce buyers into high-stakes decisions on cars, condos, designer apparel, electronics, shiny jewelry, and even shinier lawn tractors.

Some of the responses to the fresh fish parable, though, take the opposite tack. These are the open-minded communications pros who are willing to consider the story as representing good advice. Why state the obvious? Why bog the reader down with unnecessary words? Just what is the best length for a sign or a marketing message?

There is no one answer. And the right answer depends on the industry, the context, and the type of message. “Content” or even sales copy can be more verbose than people realize.

For our purposes, as PPC marketers writing tiny little text ads, the question is rarely raised. The headline character limit is 25 characters. The character limit for body copy is 35 characters. And most PPC campaign managers are falling over themselves to be allowed to append ad extensions (SiteLinks, review, callouts) to their ad units to bulk up the size (and perhaps, the credibility or relevance) of the ad unit. Who in their right mind would think about removing words or writing minimalist ads when the problem usually seems to be running out of space?

But here’s the thing (and it may be obvious to you, in which case you should mentally delete this sentence): unlike the fishmonger, and unlike most of the boffo copywriters from the good old days (1998, for example), we can easily test the response to a more concise ad style. (Suddenly, in light of the fishmonger parable, I’m asking myself whether a completely blank ad would be accepted by AdWords! What about leaving one of the two lines of body copy blank? This is what testing mindset does: it creates an insatiable monster.) Provided we set up the campaign correctly, we can evenly rotate the ads in a PPC ad group. We can use KPI’s like CTR, conversion rate, or if you want to get really exotic, revenue per impression, to attempt to prove a winning ad version.

Here are a couple of ways we might test:

  • Within an individual ad group, keep running your wordier ads, but add one or two variants of the more concise variety. Keep running the test until we have some statistically significant winner (or not), to 95% or preferably 99% confidence.
  • Using labels, isolate ads you’ve deliberately folded into the mix for their use of a concise style, and append the label “Concise Ad.” They’re beautiful to look at, aren’t they? So much white space. The results could be skewed by the context of specific ad groups, and for a number of other reasons, but if those ads do seem to perform better as a class, it can inform your future ad writing style.

In embarking on such a journey, it’s sound to start with a hypothesis. Why should more concise copy work in a PPC ad? I’ll leave you to think that over, and will eventually get back to you with my version of events.

Famously, Jeremy Shoemaker discovered that the shape, not the substance, of his ads was responsible for response rates (“arrow-shaped” body copy was leading to higher CTR’s).  Google has probably known about such form (as opposed to substance) effects since the early days, which is why they banned all caps, excessive or unusual punctuation, and the like. While Shoemoney’s “arrow ad impact theory” is unlikely to be universal, since then I’ve been cognizant of the fact that people scan ads quickly and do not always reflect deeply on their substance. Little things like white space, the long headline trigger, and so on, may compete with the ad’s substance in terms of causal impact on performance.

The dominant interpretation of the FRESH FISH SOLD HERE TODAY story is: don’t be ridiculous – a marketing message has to say something to be understood. But it should be on copywriters to prove their versions are better than the versions they critique. Folk tales are so 1890. Or should I say 1998?