The 3 Essential Elements of Direct Response Advertising

by Dean Rieck

About a year ago, I got a call from the marketing manager of a large technology firm based in San Francisco. He said they had spent a considerable amount of time creating a direct marketing program to help sell their product, but it didn't appear to be working.

During our conversation, this twenty-something go-getter went on at length about the company's unique product development, their sophisticated branding strategy, results from in-depth focus groups, and the long and unbelievably expensive creative process they had gone through with their ad agency.

He had previously overnighted their direct mail pieces along with design mock-ups for future tests. They were gorgeous. Four-color printing, high-quality paper, die cuts, the works. But they all lacked three important things.

So I told him what I'm going to tell you. It's painfully obvious. So obvious, you will be tempted to ignore it. However, it is what I believe to be the one and only universal formula for successful direct response advertising. It comprises three basic elements. If just one of these elements is missing, your direct response message will fail no matter what medium you're using.

Here it is:

  1. Offer
  2. Information
  3. Response

To understand this, you have to remember that direct marketing is not retail marketing. In retail, you create products, ship them to a store, and wait for people to buy them. Advertising that supports retail is intended to create brand preferences, so that when you get to a store you'll buy one product rather than another. In this form of advertising, the ad is separated from the buying decision.

But direct marketing cuts out the retail middleman and sells directly to the buyer. Advertising that supports direct marketing is intended to sell products immediately or generate inquiries so sales reps can sell the products. The ad and the buying decision are together. That's why it's called direct response advertising. It must trigger a response directly or it fails.

To make this happen, you need three fundamentals. First, you need an offer. In retail, you can wait around for people to decide they want to buy something at a particular price, but you can't wait around in direct marketing. Your offer must be enticing enough to make people act right now.

An offer is the combination of various elements, including the product itself, along with the price, unit of sale, trial period, optional features, terms, incentives, guarantee, time or quantity limit, shipping and handling, future obligations, etc. There are an infinite number of ways to make an offer. And you never know exactly which variation will prove most successful. So it's important to test. (See my list of proven offers.)

Second, you need information. And you need enough of it to allow people to make a decision about your offer. If they can't make up their minds, they don't respond. And no response means no sale. How much information is enough? That depends on what you're selling and how much you're asking for it. You can sell a subscription to Time magazine with little more than a discount invoice in an envelope because virtually everyone is familiar with the publication. But most products and services require more explanation.

In general, the less familiar people are with the product category and the product itself, the more information you need. When in doubt, it's always better to err on the side of too much information. If it's well presented, people can get the information they want and ignore the rest. That's an argument for long copy.

Third, you need response, specifically an easy means of response. Assuming that you've made an enticing offer and provided enough information for people to make a decision, you don't want anything to get in the way of people actually responding. The easier it is to respond, the more response you'll get.

Toll-free numbers and postage-paid reply cards and envelopes are the primary means of making response easy, but you can also use e-mail, fax, and web-based response mechanisms. And of course the easier you make the mechanism itself, the better.

Offer, Information, Response. These three things are absolute. You must have them all. No exceptions. In fact, if you have a good product and know your market, they may be the only three things you ever need to know for direct response success.

Unfortunately, the young man considered this too basic to warrant his attention. And he was certain that a tweaked headline or a more sophisticated color scheme would do the trick. It didn't. I just read that the company recently burned up their startup capital and has announced they will close shop because of the "poor economic environment."

Oh well. At least their ad agency got rich. And the great thing about the agency business is that you don't need to know these three things. In fact, you don't have to know anything. You just have to make sure you have clients who don't know anything either.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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