Copywriting and Marketing Book Review: Is Freakonomics All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

When I read Freakonomics recently I was a little underwhelmed. It wasn’t what I was expecting after hearing so much praise for it around the traps. Really, does it have any lessons we can glean from the book in the worlds of marketing and copywriting?

So I’ve thought long and hard about should I bother writing about the lessons contained within the book. To me it’s a series of case studies about how people act in their own-self interest when presented with a given set of incentives.

As a direct marketer I am sure that we all know that people act in their own best interests and that if offered an incentive then there is a boost in response rate. There may or may not be a corresponding drop in the quality of responses – that is why we test these sorts of things.

More importantly, it is about the unintended consequences of incentive systems and how people will naturally look to get the best deal for themselves.

I think there is a lesson in this for everyone is the sales and marketing world. I do know of an enterprising salesman working for Oracle software… Every time the quotas were shifted he would plug all the variables into a spreadsheet with the rest of the sales staff watching.

In 15 minutes they would have the exact mix of products and services they had to sell in order to maximise their commissions while minimising the amount they actually had to sell.

Bad for the business but great for the salesman.

The second lesson is about unintended consequences further down the line. Freakonomics details how one change seemingly for the better was hidden and on the surface, anunrelated cause in an completely unrelated trend. Legal abortions and the dropping crime rate.

I’ve recently come to realise that one of the greatest weaknesses of modern humans is our inability to recognise the relationships between things. We are all too often completely blind to them. Things will always happen and there will be consequences, often unthought-of of ones.

Recently I did a little consulting with an energy broker. With a low price of entry and initially, relatively low costs of sale the niche has become an absolute disaster area – everyone competing on price and the market is rapidly cannibalising itself.

While the quality of the copy and the marketing is poor overall in this niche and the economic rewards are few and small. It has gotten to the point that the energy retailers may take years in order to recoup their acquisition costs. Many times longer than the customer will stay for on average. Which means as a direct marketer I don’t want to be an energy broker, and I’m not too keen on the idea of consulting with one or writing their copy.

While many in the market may have gotten a new world view from Freakonomics, I don’t think it’s the revelation that many found it to be. But then again I am a copywriter and a marketer. People doing things in their self interest and watching the flow on effects of decisions is part of what I do every day.