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?

Roberta: At the moment I still see mostly confusion — or maybe it’s just me. Many companies are still having trouble articulating their vision, USP, whatever, no matter what the medium being employed. They still view their business as “all about them” as opposed as delivering an optimal solution/experience/promise that’s all about the customer. That’s not a technology problem, that’s a marketing problem.

Dean: That might be the smartest observation I’ve heard in a long time. Focusing on the customer seems hard for many companies. How about branding? Is it important in direct marketing?

Roberta: I think it is, but it’s not a driving factor. I see the brand as supportive to the ultimate message. The brand by itself motivates nothing.

Dean: Let’s talk direct mail, one of my favorite subjects. Is there one thing you ALWAYS do for any direct mail piece?

Roberta: Have the copy, art and printer’s proofs reviewed by a fresh pair of eyes, and always, always, always call any phone numbers listed in the package. We did this for a major architectural association catalog. Good thing, too, since they gave us a number which was actually a phone-sex line. I still think of that as a major save.

Dean: Yeah, but the devil in me would have liked to see the fallout from that phone number being published in the catalog. Is there anything you NEVER do?

Roberta: I never pooh-pooh the investment of the client in their mailing. Whatever it is they’re spending, it’s their $$ and I always respect it.

Dean: I’ve seen some strange things work in direct mail. What’s the strangest thing you ever saw work?

Roberta: This wasn’t strange but it would make any art director or production manager cringe. Years ago I had a personalized mailing prepped by a data management company who did impact printing. (This was in the days before laser personalization became affordable.) No matter how many times I had them correct it, the final proofs looked awful, barely readable. I let it mail and I knew I’d be fired. Turned out the offer and target market were so well matched, the look of the piece didn’t matter. Produced something like a 10% response and no, I wasn’t fired. This experience taught me that when the offer/target market I can write the copy with lipstick on toilet paper and get an acceptable response.

Dean: Lipstick on toilet paper. Now there’s an innovative idea. In your opinion, what is the single most important element of a direct mail piece?

Roberta: This is a trick question, yes? For packages, it’s the envelope because if your prospect doesn’t plow through this first challenge, you’re history.

Dean: Bingo. You win! I agree about the envelope being important. Most copywriters say the letter. But no one reads the letter if they don’t open the envelope, right? So what’s your preference: plain envelope or envelope with teaser copy?

Roberta: Depends, depends, depends. You need to test the variables and keep testing. You need to test something with every mailing.

Dean: Have you ever created a direct mail package without a letter? Did it work?

Roberta: Yes, because the client insisted over my objections. The piece tanked. Duh.

Dean: Serves them right. No letter? Please. Do you think dimensional mail is worth the extra cost?

Roberta: Absolutely. Curiosity and a touch of child-like wonder are terrific motivators. My favorite dimensional is a box. Who can resist the promise of a present? I know I can’t, and probably you can’t either.

Dean: Do you have a certain approach for creating direct mail?

Roberta: Knowing that DM is an expensive medium to produce and that response is measured by an ROI factor, I try to make sure that we don’t produce a BMW when a Beetle will do. Standard sizes, colors, etc. On the other hand, if I believe the promotion will be better served with all the stops out, I’ll push for the pricier approach.

Dean: What about self-mailers. Do you have any tricks for making them work?

Roberta: Unless your prospect can rip-off the BRC, place a quick check mark in the YES box and mail, don’t do a self-mailer. It amazes and appalls me how many mailers still don’t get that simple concept.

Dean: Agreed. But they’re fantastic for generating inquiries and sales leads. And then there are postcards. What are the best ways to use a postcard?

Roberta: Works well as a reminder about something you and your customer have already contracted for … drive a new prospect to a website or retail sale. Short, quick and obvious.

Dean: Lead generation is important for many sales organizations. How would you improve the average lead effort today?

Roberta: Decide how much self-selection of the prospect market they really want. With every challenge — for example, requiring a load of upfront info for a white paper or report — they’ll lose some prospects. The more motivated prospect will hang in for the report, premium, or whatever.

Dean: Right. Less is more in generating leads. Then there’s lead quality, which is a problem for many organizations. Where are most companies going wrong?

Roberta: There’s an ongoing battle between the sales team “These leads are crap! We can’t do anything with these.” and the marketing team “We give sales great leads and they sit on them. They don’t want to get off their asses and sell, they just want to kick back and take orders.” Always makes me think of the play, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Simply put, marketing and sales departments have to find a way to play nice and work together. Neither department works in a vacuum. It continually amazes when I ask a client to have a group think with the sales department when we begin a lead generation piece.

Dean: Let’s segue to fundraising for a moment. What do you think are the most important differences between typical sales pieces and a fundraising appeal?

Roberta: I had a friend ask me about helping him with a fundraising appeal for an Israeli hospital. As we talked about the mechanics of the promotion he became exasperated and, half-kidding, asked me if there was a more dignified way of raising funds than, like, actually coming out and asking for money. Bottom line, fundraising is glorified begging. You have to embrace this truth to be effective because ultimately what we sell is a good feeling and a tax deduction.

Dean: I’ve found that many inexperienced fundraisers believe so much in their cause, they assume others will just give them money. But you’re right, you have to ask for it. No way around that. Do you have a formula or technique that you use when creating a fundraising piece?

Roberta: Yes, I let other copywriters handle this niche. I may do one or two pro bono pieces every few years, and even that would be a lot. I find the process emotionally draining because I take it all very personally. I can get jazzed about products/services and not feeling like I’m ripping open my heart and bleeding all over the page.

Dean: Let’s turn to e-mail now. Spam, list abuse, scams. It can be a challenge. What do you think is the key to effective e-mail marketing?

Roberta: Lists of people who actually want to hear from you (double opt-in) and have “white listed” your address in their address sections. The second most important point is to make the message scannable. As more and more of us are reading our e-mail on mobile devices we have to get in, get read, and get out quickly.

Dean: Do you think e-mail marketing will get easier or harder in the years ahead?

Roberta: If delivery continues to degrade and consumers paint all e-mail as spam, we’re going to have to find better, more welcoming environments for our marketing messages.

Dean: Let’s talk shop on copywriting. Do you have a set process for writing?

Roberta: Yes, I make the client sign an agreement and give me a deposit to begin work. When the financials are out of the way, I ask the client to complete a creative brief or outline of some sort. I like making the client think through the promotion, the components, USP, etc. It can be eye-opening when a client reviews the outlines and says they don’t know why someone would want their service or, and this is my favorite, they have no competition.

Dean: I like your focus on business. Do you write elements of your copy in a particular order?

Roberta: I always start writing the order form first. It forces me to review all the important elements of the package on a single sheet so it makes a handy checklist. It also serves as a copywriting ‘warm-up’ and helps me kickstart the fuller writing process.

Dean: I thought you’d say you start with the envelope. Interesting. I’ve found that it helps to set copy aside for a few days and look at it fresh to see areas where I can improve and strengthen. Do you do that? Do you have any tricks for staying objective and fresh while working on a project?

Roberta: A few days would be a luxury for me but I always try at least to let it set overnight for a fresh look in the morning. I also rely on a cadre of other copywriters/friends with brains to review my copy for flow, etc. and I do the same for them.

Dean: If you could give just one piece of advice for better copy, what would you say?

Roberta: Don’t get arrogant and think you know everything. I’ve been copywriting for 25 years now (yikes!) and still read everything I can lay my hands on. Also, steal smart. Keep a solid swipe file and when you need inspiration, thumb through and find a package that has the right “puch” (that’s Yiddish for texture.) Deconstruct it to its bare bones and overlay the skeleton on your own promotion. This technique can really kick-start a slow beginning.

Dean: In your opinion, how important is design?

Roberta: Great design supports a great message, but design shouldn’t overwhelm the message or call attention to itself. Analogy: Tell me I have beautiful eyes, not that you like my eye shadow.

Dean: Is there a certain medium you like to work in?

Roberta: I don’t have a preferred medium though my easy, breezy style works well in the Web world. As a writer, though, I enjoy crafting the letter/e-mail part of the promotion best.

Dean: I know what you mean. Web copy can be more fun sometimes. Do you have any secrets you can share, such as techniques or strategies that improve response?

Roberta: No real secret except to say that I don’t try to sell anybody anything. What I try to do with my copy is to help that prospect make the right purchasing decision for him/herself regarding a problem they may have (if a problem is the issue), thus beginning the relationship with respect and attention to the customer’s needs and wants.

Dean: I like that approach. Sort of a consultative approach. Thanks, Roberta. See? I always learn something from you!

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7 Responses to “A chat with cranky commentator Roberta Rosenberg, The Copywriting Maven”

  1. Janice C Cartier on February 12th, 2008 1:38 pm

    Incredibly informative. Dean, how does her last statement, ” I don’t try to sell anybody anything ” gel with your marketing is always pushing position?
    All best, Jan

  2. Roberta Rosenberg on February 12th, 2008 2:22 pm

    Hi Janice! Dean asked me to reply to you on the question you raised. I think we’re really talking semantics here. Advertising/marketing is certainly about promoting goods/services. That’s a given. My approach, however, as a copywriter in charge of a particular tactic – like a sales letter or email – is to approach my prospect like a client. Someone with a need/problem looking for the best, possible solution. My job, then, becomes consultative –

    “Here’s your problem. I hear you. Here are some possible solutions. Some more worthy than others. Here’s some reality-grounded, emotionally-resonant material to help you make a good decision. Here are some more reasons why you’ll want to give my product/service a shot – guarantee, testimonials, etc. Okay, how would you like to proceed? I’m here to take your order!”

    Does that clarify? :)

  3. Janice C Cartier on February 12th, 2008 3:32 pm

    Remarkably clear. More than that, it has a “feel ” to it that is more collaborative problem solving. That makes me think that this is a good way to establish more trust, a better list, and the return client over the long haul.
    It’s kind of like a really good waiter or sommelier helping us choose because we both want the same thing. A good experience , a delightful choice based on our tastes and needs and a reason to come back.
    Marketing, money, commercialism…all bad words way back in art school. What they did was handicap us in a business sense. I wrote what you responded down to use. I really appreciate the benefit of your expertise. Thank you.

  4. Dean Rieck on February 12th, 2008 3:52 pm

    I think it was in the 70′s when the idea of “consultative selling” was born. It’s not that sales people got less aggressive, it was just a shift in the way sales people targeted and worked with prospects.

    Many people misunderstood the idea, though, and it got a bad reputation as a time waster. Really, if done properly, it should speed up the sales cycle because you’re supposed to be finding out what people really need and selling it to them, instead of pushing whatever your sales manager wants you to push that month.

  5. Roberta Rosenberg on February 12th, 2008 3:55 pm

    Absolutely. Any moke can sell one thing at one time to one person. The more consultative approach nurtures a sale AND a long-lived relationship.

  6. Copywriting Maven Shares Tips and Cranky Commentary with 2 Copy Colleagues : The Copywriting Maven on February 12th, 2008 4:31 pm

    [...] You can read my interview with Dean here. [...]

  7. Maven in the Media on November 13th, 2010 5:26 pm

    [...] A chat with cranky commentator Roberta Rosenberg, The Copywriting Maven Filed Under: Maven Interviews About admin [...]

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