Get My Attention in 20 Seconds. The Motown Way.

Tell your readers what they want to know, and do it fast. Here’s how Motown did it.

“Now, if you were hungry and had only one dollar, would you buy this record or a hot dog?”

In the early days of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr. would pose thmotown product marketingis question to his employees in their Friday morning product evaluation meetings. With dozens of songs per week competing for promotion, the hot dog test was one of Gordy’s pet criteria.

Translations for your marketing content:

  • “If you were in a hurry and your inbox was full, would you read this email or skip to something else?”
  • “If you had 15 minutes to do research, would you read this white paper or a competitor’s?”

The 20-Second Hook

“Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas was one of Gordy’s personal favorites. Why?

“My goal to hook people in the first 20 seconds was never accomplished better.”

Think about the songs (or movies or books or poems or blog posts – in short, the content) that grabs you from the very start. Nowadays, 20 seconds is an eternity, but hooking your audience is still what sells.


  • “How long will it take a reader to get into this article?”
  • “Start this article off with a compelling question or statistic or quotation – something that will grab me.”

Try harder next time

Motown didn’t abandon songs that failed the Friday morning tests. Their champions – the artists, writers, promoters or producers – would take them back into the studio for more work.

The Supremes were eager to release “Baby Love,” but Gordy didn’t think it started strong enough, so the group went back to the studio, increased the tempo and added the “Ooo-ooo-ooo” to the beginning. Within two months of its release, the song became the first number-one Motown hit in both the U.S. and Britain.

Translations for your marketing communications writers:

  • “I get lost in the middle of this paper. Make it easier for me to see the structure.”
  • “This case study is too much about us and not enough about the reader. Would you want to read that? Fix it.”

Why not pretend you’re in a product evaluation meeting at Motown for a few weeks and whip your content into shape? I can recommend that all you marketing managers read Motown: Money, Music, Sex and Power by Gerald Posner as you’re getting your Berry Gordy on.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

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