The following essay ruffled a few feathers…
I originally published it almost two full years ago — and controversy ensued.
If I’d been there in person with at least one of the people who emailed me, I probably would’ve gotten body slammed.
This was a die-hard peer review devotee, who was convinced I was dead wrong.
My opinion is controversial, to be sure.
But I’m also right. 🙂
Give it a read, and see what you think…
Why Copywriting Peer Reviews Suck…
Copywriting peer reviews can really suck. They can be horrible, horrible things. And NOT for the reason you’re thinking.
But they can also be good, productive, helpful processes.
And today, I’d like to try to address both sides.
Now here’s the really hard part… I’m going to TRY to remove my fragile ego from this.
Because there’s the “weak ego” part of me that says peer reviews suck. The petty, needy, arrogant, defensive writer version of myself who can’t stand to have my masterpiece critiqued. Who has to be right all the time.
This weak sense of self will NEVER like peer reviews, because the weak ego will always interpret an attack on copy I’ve written as an attack on ME. (Even a mere suggestion that copy could somehow be improved will be seen as a personal attack!)
And my guess is that your first reaction, when you read the title of this lesson — Why Copywriting Peer Reviews Suck — is that this is the first place you went. It’s where my mind goes first — even before I can catch myself. If someone says peer reviews suck, I assume they just went through a particularly bad one, and ranting is a way to lick their wounds.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today…
And so I’m going to try to set aside the egoic reasons why I don’t like getting my copy run through the gauntlet of peer review, and really dive into a foundational issue that I think is a flaw in the peer review process.
“Regression toward the mean” and the yin and yang of peer reviews…
I came into my own in the direct response copywriting world at about the time the Copy Logic! peer review process from Michael Masterson (Mark Ford) and Mike Palmer was spreading like wildfire through our industry.
Put very simply, it was a system for conducting peer reviews. The idea is that copy is voted on by a group. Depending on the score, the copy is dumped or passed through into an improvement process. For the improvement process, suggestions are made, and the group is given the opportunity to decide whether a suggestion will help, hurt, or is neutral.
This is a process developed at Stansberry & Associates, I believe, and tested in different Agora divisions and other companies prior to the book’s publication.
It’s also a process you’re sure to go through if you write for AWAI. I was first exposed to it even in writing simple articles for them. All the promos that ever made their way out the door for AWAI had gone through at least a couple of these peer reviews.
I don’t intend to pick on Copy Logic! in particular. It’s definitely the most refined and widest-used. It’s best known in the direct response world. And I’ve gone through more Copy Logic! peer reviews (or versions thereof) than any other approach. But the flaws are not necessarily in Copy Logic! No, they’re in the idea of “peer review” itself.
A lesson from math, and how bad copy is made good through peer review…
The idea of a peer review is that if we all bring our best, the result will be the sum of the group’s best — and therefore will be better than any of us will achieve on our own.
The thing is, nobody is a very good judge of their own “best.”
And so, in the moment, we may try to bring our best. But the reality is we’re probably bringing our average. Or at least, to the average peer review, we will on average bring our average. (That’s a whole lotta average!)
Which also means that, as a whole, a peer review group will bring its average.
In math, there’s a concept called “regression toward the mean.”
Things are pulled back toward their average — toward their trend line.
In economics and investing, there’s a saying I first heard from Doug Casey. “The cure for high prices is high prices. The cure for low prices is low prices.” Abnormally high prices can’t be sustained because they kill the economics of demand. Abnormally low prices can’t be sustained because they kill the economics of supply. Either way, prices are going back toward some sort of middle ground.
Well, a lot of things work on this regression toward the mean concept.
If you’re in a peer review with a bunch of copywriters who are better than you, they’ll bring you up toward their average.
It’s how the process works. It’s why it’s been championed throughout the industry.
Because when you’re dealing with large numbers of copywriters — particularly more novice writers who are still getting their chops — it’s a great way to get better copy out of them.
This is what Copy Logic! is great at.
If you’re running a copy department, hiring a bunch of new copywriters, and you want to make them better…
Stick them in a peer review with a bunch of more experienced direct response writers, and do Copy Logic! It will improve the writing they do today. And if they use each review as a learning opportunity, it should improve their writing to somewhere around the group’s average through time.
“Regression toward the mean” can also make great copy merely good in a peer review setting…
The same thing that makes the peer review process work is also what makes it not work.
Stick a truly breakthrough piece of copy in peer review, and it’s going to get slaughtered.
It thrives by being different, by being new, by breaking rules, by introducing innovative thinking.
And for all those reasons, the group will hate it. They’ll vote it down. They’ll try to improve it by introducing everything it eliminated in the process of becoming extraordinary (“extra ordinary” meaning literally more than or beyond or outside of ordinary).
This mathematical concept of regression toward the mean that brings bad copy up to the good average of the peer review group will also drag great copy down to the good average of the peer review group.
A famous example that comes to mind is Gary Bencivenga’s promotion with the headline, “Get Rich Slowly.”
The reason this worked is it went completely contrary to all the vast, fast riches promises that prospects were so used to seeing. All the other copywriters in the market at the time were simply competing on versions of the get rich quick promise. Gary turned that on its head. What do you think a peer review would have looked like on that? No doubt, Gary would have been eviscerated, and sent back to the drawing board. But the client ended up testing it, and it was a winner for the ages.
This is the yin and yang of peer review…
Bad copy is built up to good…
Great copy is brought down to good…
Exceptions, deviants, miscreants, and geniuses are tamed…
And the marketplace is filled with copy that does its job in a rather bland, vanilla way.
More of the same, more of the same, more of the same.
It stuck with me a couple years ago when Bill Bonner, speaking at AWAI, lamented about what was missing from copy today.
That spice of individuality, even eccentricity, that is the je ne sais quoi of copy you can’t ignore, can’t put down, and can’t help but respond to…
Well, that’s certainly trickier than pointing out the problem.
One of few inventors to ever grace the cover of Time Magazine, Charles Kettering, said, “A problem well defined is a problem half-solved.”
I guess that was my point today.
Okay, I can’t help myself… One idea…
If you hire copywriters or run a peer review group, here’s an idea.
It actually comes from Marty Edelston at Boardroom, and how he always treated copywriters in building a $100-million-plus direct response business…
“Give the copywriter a panel in the test.”
Each copywriting assignment should result in not one, but two pieces of copy.
The first is the one that goes through all the peer reviews, and is written within that silo.
The second, is up to the copywriter. They can incorporate the lessons of the peer review. But they are not required to. As long as what they say is legal and factual, they get to choose how their copy is done.
My bet is with most copywriters, the result will be roughly 50/50 in terms of what wins.
Novice writers will probably write a lot better in the peer review process.
Pros will probably beat the peer review most of the time, but not always.
But what I’m sure you’ll find is that if you do this enough times, you’ll find that even when the peer review wins, it won’t result in breakthroughs.
It will simply result in workhorse copy that performs and keeps the business afloat.
But an overwhelming percentage of the breakthrough packages will be because the copywriter was allowed the flexibility to do it their way.
Tomorrow, Part Two.
Like I said, I caught a lot of flak from some respected industry insiders after publishing that.
They argued that their best writers send stuff through peer review all the time, and still churn out great work.
But what I said next completely silenced that objection.
Like I said, more tomorrow.
By the way, I got my annual email reminder on Saturday. It’s now been seven years since I quit my last full-time job, and dedicated myself full-time to building my own business. It’s been a heck of a ride, and I’m looking forward to some big things to come. One of Dan Sullivan’s Laws of Lifetime Growth is to always make your future bigger than your past, something I strive for every year, and that’s far easier when you call your own shots.
Big breakthroughs on the horizon.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,