You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Copy is king.”
Sure. That’s because direct marketing is all about the message, and copy delivers the message. But … and this is a very important but … design is what delivers the copy.
Assuming that copy is the only important part of a printed direct marketing message is like thinking that the screenplay is the only important part of a movie. A movie starts with the script, but until it’s translated into visuals, there’s no movie.
It’s the same with advertising, direct response advertising in particular. The sales pitch starts with the copy, but the copy must be translated into visuals before you have a complete message that people can read and interact with.
Even a simple letter requires some design: page size, type, color, logo placement, underlines or highlights, signature in blue, and other elements. Get these items wrong and the design will obstruct the copy rather than enhance it.
How? Here are 5 of the most common ways design can kill your copy:
Start with a visual “concept.” There’s nothing wrong with concepts per se, but the message should guide the concept, not the other way around. I once had a client who would send a design and ask me to fill in the blanks with copy. This led to terrifically weak direct mail. Of course, starting with copy from a writer with no regard for design can be nearly as bad.
Design to impress rather than sell. I once saw a print ad for a fax machine with a massive, artsy photo of a woman’s head with protruding tubes and wires. I guess the idea was that, at the time, having a fax was supposed to make you plugged into the world. Or something. It was an interesting visual, but since there was no fax machine anywhere to be seen, the ad served to display the designer’s skill instead of sell the product.
Get fancy with type. I do a fair bit of design, so I know that using the same old Times, Arial, Verdana, and other common typefaces can get a little boring. But selecting unfamiliar or hard-to-read type will discourage reading. And printed direct response advertising is all about reading. Tiny type, white text on a dark background, all caps, text over artwork, text running in odd directions, and other techniques, if overused, can also discourage reading.
Make your phone number or Web site address small. This is mostly a problem in brand ads, but I see it in direct response too. A big phone number screams “call me.” A prominent Web address says “visit this site now.” Setting these elements in tiny type and burying them in your copy where no one can see them instantly is foolish.
Making the design too “neat” and tidy. Every designer has a different style, so there’s no one right way to design anything. But one wrong way is to make every layout perfectly balanced and formal. Neat looking designs discourage interaction.
Example: I once revised a direct mail brochure for a client. The brochure had many folds and each panel was perfectly balanced and complete by itself. There was no incentive to unfold it. I reworked it so that when folded the panels were incomplete, with only partial headlines or images showing. You had to open up the brochure to see the entire selling message. This encouraged both mental and physical interaction with the message. It was not as pretty, but it was more effective.
I’m preaching to the choir here, I’m sure. The sort of designers or copywriters who would disagree with any of this aren’t the sort who read this blog.
But it’s helpful to remind yourself now and then how important design really is. Good copy sells. Good copy with good design sells on steroids. Bad design kills good copy.
Remember: Copy delivers the message. Design delivers the copy.