Inside the mind of DM guru Steve Slaunwhite

Steve Slaunwhite is an award-winning author, speaker and recognized expert in the best practices of high-response copywriting. More than 100 Fortune 500 companies, mid-size businesses, and publishers have relied on his copywriting expertise for direct mail letters, email letters, ads, web pages and other marketing communications.

Steve has written several top-notch books, including Start & Run a Copywriting Business, 101 Writing Tips for Successful Email Marketing, and The EVERYTHING Guide to Writing Copy.

I’m pleased to have a chance to share a few of his thoughts with you.

Dean: What is the most common mistake you see direct marketers make?

Steve: Not studying the list or target market BEFORE creating the campaign. The list contains the people you’re trying to persuade. To have any hope of selling them, you need to know what makes them tick. Example: Instead of running the same ad in multiple publications, study the reader profiles of each publication and customize accordingly.

Dean: What does the future hold for direct mail and print advertising? Some say direct mail and print will disappear.

Steve: The old-fashioned print sales letter still works very well. Print advertising is not going to disappear because people still read print publications. However, there’s no disputing the fact that online advertising is growing by leaps and bounds. Wherever there are READERS, there will be advertising.

Dean: I’m glad you said that. Reading is a huge part of direct response advertising. A lot of readers are turning to the Internet now. What effect do you think the Internet will have on direct marketing?

Steve: I think the Internet is an expansion of direct marketing, not a replacement. Many of the same direct-response principles apply, whether connecting to a prospect’s desktop, laptop or mobile.

Dean: What is the most innovative thing you see happening or on the horizon in the direct marketing industry? Read more

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The e-mail marketing problem you never knew you had (and why you can’t fix it)

If you’ve been doing e-mail marketing for more than a week, you know about some of the problems with this exciting new medium.

Lists filled with undeliverable addresses, wildly inconsistent spam filtering rules across e-mail servers, and inconsistent rendering of design by different e-mail readers are some of the most common issues that will plague you.

But there’s one pernicious problem you probably don’t know about. It’s lurking behind every e-mail marketing campaign you launch. And it can cause you enormous grief.

The worst part? You can’t do a darn thing about it.

I’m talking about the system administrators who sit in front of computer screens and make on-the-fly decisions about your e-mail.

The politically correct line is that marketers and Internet tech guys are on the same side, both wanting to block spam and assure the delivery of properly conceived e-mail marketing. The reality is that many system administrators are antagonistic to the commercialization of the Internet. And they’re not at all happy about your using e-mail to sell things.

One such system administrator recently told me, “CAN-SPAM isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. What you have to watch out for are system administrators having a bad week.” In his opinion, ANY e-mail you send that isn’t specifically requested is spam. Period. End of discussion.

That probably strikes you as extreme. But it’s not uncommon. For some, spam has come to mean just about any e-mail that people don’t want, whether the sender follows the rules or not. Read more

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Why pissing people off can be good advertising

Many advertisers put a lot of emphasis on the “likability” of their ads. The idea is that if people like the ad, they’ll buy the product. But is that always true?

There’s nothing wrong with people liking your ads, but I’m not so sure that likability is a prerequisite for selling. Consider the infamous “Head On” TV ads.

(If you can’t see the video here in my feed, click on to the blog to watch.)

Likable? Hardly. It’s one of the most hated ads on TV. It’s so disliked, it has become an icon of annoying advertising. The company even acknowledges this in follow-up ads where the commercial is interrupted by “viewers” who say, “Head On, I hate your commercials, but I love your product.”

Personally, I love these ads. Well, I don’t love them exactly. I think they’re annoying, too. But I wish I’d written them. Why? Because they’re pure genius. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do — burn a brand into your brain so when you’re at the store you’ll recognize it and buy it. Can you think of any headache medicine with a commercial this memorable? I sure can’t.

I would love to have sat in on the meeting where the ad team presented this idea to the Head On people. “You want to do what? Say it how many times? You’re joking, right?”

Likability? I don’t put much faith in that. I like what works. Sometimes that means creating an ad people like. Other times it means creating an ad that pisses people off. The question is, do you have the guts to do what it takes no matter what that is?

I touched on this in a popular article I wrote some years ago about a lesson my grandfather taught me with a dead chicken. In that article I quote Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric self-starter for cars, who once said, “My definition of an educated man is the fellow who knows the right thing to do at the time it has to be done. … You can be sincere and still be stupid.”

I think that’s what I really like about that Head On ad, and it’s what I like about all effective advertising. It does the right thing at the time it has to be done. Unflinchingly. Unapologetically.

Can you think of other ads past or present that were annoying but effective? Have you created annoying ads, mail, or promos of any kind that worked like gangbusters?

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My artless radio ad formula for generating sales, leads, and traffic

I’ve been analyzing and writing a number of radio ads recently, and it occurred to me that the scripts I’m producing are, well … artless.

What I mean is that they’re nothing like the funny, off-the-wall radio spots most radio ad writers go for. In a nutshell, I like to have an announcer read a straightforward pitch, talking directly to the listener. No sound effects. No jokes. No back and forth conversation between friends.

There are good reasons for this. In direct response radio, you usually have 60 seconds. You can’t say much in 60 seconds so you have to get to the point fast and make every word count. And unlike printed ads, you can’t go back and review anything. Your audience either gets it or they don’t. When it’s over it’s over.

Plus, what are people doing when they have the radio on? Just about anything except listening to the radio. Driving down the road. Cleaning the house. Eating in an office cafeteria. Running in the park. It’s nearly always background noise for another activity. So in my opinion, a radio ad isn’t a good place for witty dialog and complex sound effects.

Here’s my advice for writing a basic radio ad: Read more

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the secret for coping with the incompetents around you

There’s nothing more exasperating than being an expert and having to deal with someone who isn’t but is quite certain he or she is. I experience this frequently and I know you do too. And guess what? There’s actually a name for it: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect like this: “… the phenomenon wherein people who have little knowledge think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s a good example. Long ago I was interviewing for an ad agency job in Las Vegas. When the guy who owned the small agency found out I was interested in direct response, he began explaining to me that no headline should ever, EVER, be more than seven words. Seven was the magic number. And the magic number was seven. Six, maybe. Sometimes five. But never eight. And certainly not nine. 10 was right out.

When I asked him why, he took on the air of superiority that I didn’t have a name for then and repeated that seven words were magic.

Yup, Dunning-Kruger Effect. Read more

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A chat with cranky commentator Roberta Rosenberg, The Copywriting Maven

Roberta Rosenberg is a direct marketing copywriter and president of MGP Direct, Inc. She also runs The Copywriting Maven, one of the most popular copywriting blogs in the world. It’s a regular stop for me and I always learn something.

Besides being an experienced writer and a busy entrepreneur, Roberta is one of those rare people who really wants to help others succeed. I’m a huge fan and am pleased that she took time out of her schedule to share her considerable know-how. And so far, she’s the only copywriter to answer ALL my questions. That’s just how cool she is.

Dean: What is the most common mistake you see direct marketers make?

Roberta: They spend too much time in short-term thinking land and not enough time really thinking about relationship building and strengthening with prospects and customers.

Dean: What does the future hold for direct mail and print advertising? Some say direct mail and print will disappear.

Roberta: I don’t think any old media ever disappears but when new technology does something better — for example, digital delivery is faster, cheaper and decidedly more “green” — then we have to reexamine what older media does well and rethink how we use it in the mix. For example, DM may take longer to produce but its delivery rate is nearly 100%. Overzealous e-mail filters at the ISP, browser and deeper levels keep not only spam but legitimate mail from reaching its target.

Dean: What effect do you think the Internet will have on direct marketing over the next few decades? I’m thinking about the Web, e-mail, intelligent devices, wireless, everything.

Roberta: I think we’ll get messages sent directly into our brains 24/7. Seriously, though, I see fewer appliances, perhaps even one, that does everything. The days of juggling half a dozen or so of devices cannot last.

Dean: Hmm. Does that mean we’ll send messages direct from our brains? Yikes! I hope someone develops filtering for that! Okay. What is the most innovative thing you see happening or on the horizon in the direct marketing industry? Read more

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Harlan Ellison rants about writer’s pay and the amateurs who screw things up for the pros

Do you like writing for free? Do you enjoy businesses asking you to just “give” them your work for the supposed PR value? I’m guessing the answer is “no” to both questions.

Harlan Ellison agrees with you. And in this video, he talks about how writer’s should get paid and how amateurs willing to work for nothing make things difficult for the professionals.

Now, if you know anything about Ellison, you know this isn’t going to be a polite Sunday sermon. So be warned. He’s a man who speaks his mind bluntly.

What do you think? Do you agree with Ellison’s sentiments?

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Links for copywriters and would-be designers

I’ve started contributing articles to Copyblogger, which is one of the best blogs for copywriting even if you’re not a blogger. 11 Top Secret Recipes for the Aspiring Copywriting Chef is one of my recent posts. Another is The 5-Step POWER Copywriting Method for writing ads.

SEO has become a vital part of copywriting for the Web. But one of the confusing things about this subject is that different gurus have different ideas about best practices. So SEOmoz has collected the wisdom of 37 top SEO experts to decipher Google’s secret algorithm in a meaty resource called Search Engine Ranking Factors.

Can you teach yourself graphic design? That’s a good question and the Graphic Design Blog cites several people who have done it, though they left me out of their list. Harumph. They also go over various learning styles and provide a collection of resources for teaching yourself the basics of design for print and the Web.

Has a client ever asked you what kind of response rate is typical for a particular promotion? That’s a tough question. But that doesn’t stop Ted Grigg from tackling it and coming up with some benchmarks for a variety of typical promotions.

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Lying, cheating, TV ad scamming bastards!

I want to start this rant by saying I think most people in the direct marketing business are honest people. Most ads in most media adhere to most of the ethical principles of the Direct Marketing Association. And in working with more than 200 clients in a variety of industries, and getting calls from thousands of potential clients, I’ve run into only a handful of cheats.

That said, I’m angered that so many of the direct response TV ads I see are dishonest. I used to be a television commercial producer in a former life and this medium is near and dear to my heart. There are certainly scams in just about every medium, but as a TV and movie fan, I can’t seem to escape the ones I see on the tube.

What sort of scams are we talking about? Here are a few of the most popular: Read more

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