Copywriter Ivan Levison talks about direct mail

Ivan Levison is a professional freelance copywriter who builds profits for high tech companies. He’s spent over twenty-five years writing direct mail, e-mail, and ads for industry leaders like Microsoft, Intel, Adobe, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as a bunch of great little companies too.

I’ve been a fan of Ivan for a long time and I’m thrilled to have a chance to pick his mind on a variety of direct marketing and direct mail topics.

Dean: Let’s start with an easy question. What’s the most common mistake you see direct marketers make?

Ivan: On the whole, I think dms do a pretty good job. That’s because they watch the numbers and learn. But perhaps they miss the little things. How to handle the business reply card. How to optimize the envelope, etc.

Dean: What does the future hold for direct mail and print advertising? Some say direct mail and print will disappear. Others say they will simply become more targeted. Still others say they will grow and become more important than ever. What is your opinion?

Ivan: As mailing decreases, the medium will become even more valuable because there will be fewer pieces crowding the mail box. I think direct mail will always have a place.

Dean: I agree. Direct mail is simply too effective to disappear. Now let’s turn to the Internet. What effect do you think the Internet will have on direct marketing over the next few decades? I’m thinking not just about the Web, but the whole Internet, including e-mail, intelligent devices, wireless, everything.

Ivan: I think the changes ahead will be enormous but it’s hard to pin down … things are changing so fast. Ten years ago, who would have predicted where we are today?!

Dean: True. I remember when I was in college a million years ago and thought about majoring in computers. But I couldn’t figure out what people would use them for. I guess that’s why I’m not Bill Gates. But if you could put on your wizard hat for a minute, what is the most innovative thing you see happening or on the horizon in the direct marketing industry?

Ivan: I think the new frontier is analytics; exploiting the data. The big mailers are already into this but I think insights garnered by analytics will work their way down the food chain.

Dean: Is branding important in direct marketing?

Ivan: The short answer is YES but it’s not as important as in the packaged goods arena. Branding in dm is most important to catalog mailers like Harry and David and LL Bean. Brand look and continuity are very important for them.

Dean: You’re a big time direct mail guy. So let’s talk shop for a while. Is there one thing you ALWAYS do when you create a direct mail piece?

Ivan: Yup. Try to identify the prospect’s pain and make sure that my piece promises a cure.

Dean: That’s short and sweet. You can’t go wrong with a problem / solution approach. Is there anything you NEVER do?

Ivan: I personally stay away from humor or getting “cute.” I’m more an old fashioned, straight ahead dm copywriter.

Dean: Well, I don’t think that makes you old fashioned. I think that just makes you pragmatic. I prefer a simple, straightforward approach too. I’m curious, in all your direct mail experience, what’s the strangest thing you ever saw that actually worked? For example, I had a client show me an order form that was broken up into four separate inserts, each a different color with random products on each piece. It looked crazy to me, but it worked.

Ivan: Perhaps this is not strange, but it struck me. A client wanted to do a “we pay the postage and handling” test. I thought they would be leaving money on the table but they were right. The offer was a fabulous success.

Dean: More proof that you never know until you test. In your opinion, what is the single most important element of a direct mail piece?

Ivan: The letter. That’s where you do the emotional, motivating selling … but of course, everything is important in a dm package.

Dean: What’s your preference: plain envelope or envelope with teaser copy?

Ivan: That’s one of those “it all depends” situations. This is well worth testing!

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

Ivan: No. I’ve done self mailers, of course, but in a dm package with an envelope I’d never put down my most potent weapon.

Dean: I had to ask. I’ve never seen a package work without a letter. How about dimensional mail? Is worth the extra cost?

Ivan: For sure. Dimensionals get opened but they’re expensive. Again, it all depends.

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

Ivan: Again, I always start with understanding the target audience, the list, and the prospect’s pain points.

Dean: Most people know that you can improve response to a lead effort if you offer something free. Apart from that, what can sales organizations do to improve their lead generation efforts today?

Ivan: Keep mailing until the mailings don’t pay for themselves. Don’t give up after only one drop

Dean: How about lead quality? Many organizations have trouble getting good quality leads. Where are most companies going wrong and what can they do to fix the problem?

Ivan: They might consider spending more on a dimensional package and providing something tangible in the first mailing. I’ve had clients mail a book to prospects with very good results.

Dean: Excellent advice. Now let’s talk about copywriting and design in general. Do you write elements of your copy in a particular order?

Ivan: I start with the outer envelope, then move to the letter, then the other elements.

Dean: That’s interesting. I often do the same. I like the envelope and letter to work together as if the envelope is a “headline” for the letter. Also, 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?

Ivan: I write the complete first draft and then put it away. I revisit it with fresh eyes the next day. VERY helpful!

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

Ivan: Sorry to go on about understanding the prospect, but that’s the place to work hard. If you can identify with the prospect, show that you understand their problem and then provide proof that you can help them, you’re on your way to success!

Dean: Don’t apologize. You’ve nailed it. It’s all about the prospect. Now about design, how important is it?

Ivan: VERY important! Most designers don’t have a clue. They just want things to look pretty. Working with a good designer, a dm designer, can make all the difference!

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

Ivan: I like the fun of writing letters. You can really do some persuasive writing in a letter. It’s the big canvas that’s fun to paint on.

Dean: Thanks, Ivan. I think you’ve shown why you’re a top gun.

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8 Responses to “Copywriter Ivan Levison talks about direct mail”

  1. Janice C Cartier on January 2nd, 2008 5:17 pm

    “understand the prospect’s pain”….
    What if your client is buying upper end luxury goods? Where’s the pain in that?

  2. Ivan Levison on January 2nd, 2008 5:42 pm

    A very good question, Janice. I certainly agree that the idea of understanding “pain” doesn’t apply to the luxury goods market. There, one is dealing more with branding/image/life-style issues and this is not often a direct mail issue EXCEPT in the catalog arena (and in other related formats).

  3. Dean Rieck on January 2nd, 2008 7:03 pm

    On the other hand, you may want to read “pain” more broadly. If you’re driving a Ford and your friend is driving a Lexus, then the “pain” might be envy.

  4. Janice C Cartier on January 3rd, 2008 9:38 am

    So “pain” could be higher up on the pyramid…social status, self-esteem, actualization issues…my ideal client is usually solving an event driven need, or a statement about self. They seem to want something “outside the picture” as well as the actual piece itself. Have you ever used direct marketing successfully in this kind of niche?

  5. Ivan Levison on January 3rd, 2008 1:03 pm

    Not really clear about what you mean I’m afraid . . .

  6. Dean Rieck on January 3rd, 2008 1:03 pm

    You can potentially sell anything via direct marketing. It’s simply a method of selling directly to clients, as opposed to, say, retail marketing, where you sell to another business (store) which then sells to end users.

    Most purchases are discretionary, which is a big word that means people buy stuff they want but don’t need, like your artwork.

    So yes, my take on “pain” is that it could be social status, self-esteem, etc. You just have to be careful because while people often have personal reasons for buying, they generally like to think that their reasons are logical.

  7. Janice C Cartier on January 3rd, 2008 2:04 pm

    Sorry Ivan. Selling Artwork directly to my upper end clients rather than going through a “gatekeeper”, i.e. exhibition venue, gallery, etc. Maybe creating an inner circle” insider “group. But for a test, I have a special project.

    Logic and personal discretionary spending… are you all convinced that good copywriters can make that happen? Distill the story and get the response desired?

  8. Ivan Levison on January 3rd, 2008 4:46 pm

    are you convinced that good copywriters can make that happen? Distill the story and get the response desired?


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