The secret of great copywriting has nothing to do with writing!

Edmund Burke, a British statesman, once said, “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”

Exactly right. Facts are the beginning for clear thinking and for powerful copywriting. To create effective direct mail or ads, you have to have something substantial and relevant to say. Puffery and empty technique just don’t cut it.

That’s why I always go through a set of basic questions when I’m starting a copywriting project. In fact, I have a standard advertising and marketing questionnaire to help collect the information I’ll need. This questionnaire covers the product, the prospect, and the promotion.

Here are a few examples:

Read the full questionnaire at my main site. This is really just a starting point. I can easily ask over a hundred questions. The more information, the better.

For many copywriters, the temptation is to start writing immediately. That’s a huge mistake. The best work is always based on facts. And facts take time to find and understand.

When people ask where I get ideas for headlines or sales letters, I say, “I don’t know.” I really don’t. What I do know is that they generally pop into my head as I’m slogging through tons of information.

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A hodgepodge of marketing ideas from the Web

Do people like advertising? Many would have you believe the answer is “no.” But I think differently. And I keep seeing statistics that prove me right. Like this report showing DRTV spots being watched on TiVo. It basically says that direct response spots are the least fast forwarded. Maybe because they’re interesting rather than merely entertaining like so many other TV spots?

Words that give your legal department a headache is an interesting article that hits home with me. Some of my large, corporate clients give me headaches. I think corporate lawyers worry way too much about low probability lawsuits and too often get in the way of good selling copy. And I do NOT believe that lawyers should have the last word on what is acceptable in marketing. Input, yes.

Message Believability – Does Tiger Woods Really Drive A Buick? I doubt it. And those commercials always make me laugh. Not that there’s anything wrong with Buicks. But somehow I can’t see Tiger driving one. But even though he was dropped, according to this article, I just saw a spot last night with Tiger being amazed that OnStar would unlock his car. I guess they need time to line up another spokesman. Maybe Donald Trump? Yeah, that’s believable.

No matter the market, people are at different levels of knowledge about problems and products. The Blogger’s Guide to Indirect Selling is aimed at bloggers, but the principles of reader awareness apply to any sort of copywriting or selling.

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Is SEO copywriting a good idea for direct marketers?

There’s an ongoing debate between traditional direct response copywriters and the new breed of online copywriters about the importance of SEO (search engine optimization).

In a DM News article, Bob Bly writes about why he doesn’t believe in SEO copywriting. His point is simply that good copywriting should come first and that thinking about keywords is secondary, if you think about them at all. He says “forget the search engines” and “never change a word of strong selling copy.”

Then you have, well, just about everyone on the Internet, who say that SEO is the only way to go. Aaron Wall, for example, is the author of SEO Book and maintains that choosing the right keywords and using them in the right way can rocket you to the top of the search results and boost your traffic and sales.

Who’s right?

This debate is like the direct marketing versus mass marketing debate. It’s two groups of people, each with a different marketing model, trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth.

The traditional direct response guys generally use direct mail or e-mail marketing to drive people to their sites, so they don’t care as much about search engine results. The SEO guys generally use keyword tactics to pull people into their sites, so they care very much about search engine results.

The two are not incompatible. In fact, they can be complementary. It’s just that each has chosen a different way to create traffic.

My view? Why not use both? Does it matter HOW you get results? Smart marketers use any and every tactic that works. Besides, if you really understand SEO copywriting, it’s really about understanding what people are looking for and using the right words to connect to them. Isn’t that what good direct response copywriting is supposed to do?

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David Ogilvy on the Power of Direct Response Advertising

David Ogilvy called direct response advertising his “secret weapon.” When he started out in the advertising business, direct response wasn’t exactly a respected form of selling. It was in the red light district of the ad world.

But he was smart enough to know its potential and built his agency, at least in part, with the principles of direct response.

I’ve found a video of Ogilvy addressing a group of direct response advertising professionals and laying out the advantages of direct response over general advertising. This is a treat to watch.

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Write clearly, darnit!

Every time I drive through a road construction area, I see an orange sign that reads, “MAINTAIN PRESENT LANE.” This sign drives me batty.

I realize that it was probably written by some underpaid worker, on a busy day, sitting in the office of some mad bureaucracy somewhere. But it’s a good example of the “officialese disease” that prevents otherwise simple ideas from being communicated clearly.

Why doesn’t the sign just read, “STAY IN YOUR LANE” or “DO NOT CHANGE LANES”? Isn’t that more clear? Why the need for the big official sounding words?

I’m tempted to carry cans of spray paint in my car and, when I see one of these signs, pull over and spray it with one of my better written alternatives. Of course, I can’t do that. I must “maintain present lane.”

I’m not just talking about road signs here. Clarity is the single most important rule for any kind of writing, especially “action” writing where you’re trying to get someone to do something, which includes direct response copy for letters or advertisements. If people don’t understand you instantly, you’ll lose their attention and their money.

This ridiculous road sign is a lesson in how NOT to write clearly. Look over your own writing and whenever you see multisyllabic or pompous words and phrases strutting in, replace them with shorter, simpler words that everyone will understand at a glance. Okay?

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Book Reviews: 101 Ways to Promote Your Web Site and The Long Tail

I’ve been reading a variety of books on Internet business and marketing recently. Two of them stand out.

The first is 101 Ways to Promote Your Web Site by Susan Sweeney. For such a hot topic, it’s hard to find up-to-date books with practical advice. It seems like every other Web book is written either by an academic with no practical experience or a huckster simply wanting to sell you something.

While undoubtedly a self-promoting book, 101 Ways is jammed with tips for bringing more traffic to your Web site. It’s not exactly a book for novices, but it’s not for experts either. It’s clear, straightforward, and easy-to-read. Sweeney has a knack for taking complex subjects and boiling them down to key ideas that you can put to use.

The book assumes you’ll be selling something on your site and covers planning, optimization, viral marketing, pay per click advertising, e-mail marketing, getting links, and more. The author also makes most of the resources discussed in her book available on her Web site for free.

I knew most of the tips in this book, but I learned a few tricks too. If you’re looking for one basic book on boosting your online traffic, you might want to give this one a try. It was published in 2006, but most of the information is still current and generally conforms to the more cutting edge publications I’ve read recently.

The second book that stands out is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. This is more of a think piece on how to understand business and the changes that lie ahead.

The basic idea is that business used to offer fewer alternatives in fewer locations, so big sellers were the only concern. You either had a hit or a miss. But with the Internet and new technologies, there is an almost unlimited choice of products in an almost unlimited number of locations. So even products that sell in low quantities can be profitable, and as a whole, these non-hit products can add up to huge profits.

It’s really about how niche marketing is coming of age. This isn’t a new idea, but Anderson brings the idea to life and explains how this will be the future of business. The term “long tail” will make sense after you see the chart he uses to show how back-list products may sell few units, but never reach zero sales.

The examples are a bit repetitive, but are clear and revealing. It’s a quick read and is one of those books that can inspire you or at least help you reconsider how your business will be doing business in the years to come.

You can get more information or buy either of these books from Amazon at the links below:
101 Ways to Promote Your Web Site
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

And remember that my Direct Marketing Bookshop is a great place to find books on a wide variety of marketing subjects. Click on the “marketing” category to open a menu for books I’ve handpicked for each specific subject.

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Direct marketing ethics again in the headlines

The lead story in the October 15, 2007 issue of DM News discusses accusations from New York State attorney general Andrew Cuomo of “misleading marketing practices” through various media, including direct mail, teleservices, television, radio, and online. (If you click on that link, you can download the issue.)

One example is about companies who are accused of “mailing commercial offers designed to look like official letters from the US Department of Education.”

I can’t comment on the specifics of these accusations or whether they’re accurate. But I’ve been a staunch advocate of ethical marketing for many years. I even wrote a long article in Direct Marketing Magazine back in 1998 about the problems caused by the so-called “sweepstakes scams” at that time and how it could impact our industry.

I’ll repeat now what I said then: “I believe that we need to make a greater effort to make ethics part of the equation.” How? How about by not lying to people? I think that would work for starters. Specifically, we should ask ourselves a few questions about everything we do:

Every time there’s a major scandal in our industry, it leads to legislation. If we don’t watch it, we could allow ourselves to be legislated out of business.

I’ve said it a hundred times. If you have a product or service that requires trickery to sell, GET ANOTHER PRODUCT OR SERVICE!

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The 3 essential elements of direct marketing

I’ve seen all sorts of formulas and theories about what drives direct marketing. But I’ve come to the conclusion that when you boil down all the ideas and techniques, you are left with just three things:

  1. You must make an offer.
  2. You must provide sufficient information for a decision to be made about the offer.
  3. You must provide an easy means of responding to the offer.

That’s it. That’s what direct marketing is in a nutshell. You generally don’t find these element in mass market advertising or branding. This is what distinguishes direct marketing from all other forms of communication. If you lack any one of these elements, you aren’t doing direct marketing.

Do you agree? If you think I’m missing something, tell me.

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The Ginsu knife school of irresistible offers

Do you remember those Ginsu knife commercials from the 1970s? They were brilliant. Watch the video below to refresh your memory. This is the original TV commercial.

Yeah, people have made fun of them over the years. But there’s a lot of great technique to be learned here no matter what medium you work in, especially in the way the offer is presented. It sells you on the idea of the knife then adds bonus after bonus until you can’t help but want to order. Today’s television ads may be a little slicker, but most direct marketers still use essentially the same formula.

I’m in the process of collecting videos related to direct marketing and advertising. So if you find one, let me know. What I have so far is mostly just fun stuff.

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A quick definition of direct marketing, direct response, and direct mail

One thing I should clarify for those who are not in the direct marketing business (and even for those who are), is the definition of “direct marketing” and a few other terms.

Many people use terms like “direct marketing,” “direct mail,” and “direct response” interchangeably, but they all have different meanings.

“Direct marketing” is the collection of all the things a business does to sell products and services directly to buyers. It’s different from retail marketing, where products are sold to stores and then sold to buyers. Direct marketing has no middleman.

“Direct response” is the form of advertising used by direct marketers. In mass market advertising, the goal is to create awareness and preference for products which can lead to higher sales in a retail store at some later date. However, direct response advertising seeks to get an immediate response from the person reading or seeing the ad. There may be a residual “branding” effect, but it is always secondary to getting the response.

“Direct mail” is simply a form of direct response advertising. It is one of many media used to deliver direct response advertising from direct marketing companies. Other media include e-mail, TV ads, radio spots, and telemarketing.

That’s not exactly a set of textbook definitions, but they should be clear enough.

Oh, and at no time is it permitted to call direct mail “junk mail.” That will lead to a verbal kick in the butt from yours truly along with a vociferous lecture on the importance of mail to the economy, including my own personal income. So watch it.

By the way, I’ve created a Direct Marketing Glossary over at my main Web site. It’s a work in progress, so if you run across a word or idea you think should be there, let me know.

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