Lee Marc Stein

Article Summary:

What to avoid when copywriting for direct response campaigns.

Copywriting for Direct Response

Most direct response writers have learned the importance of presenting benefits instead of listing features, of asking for response, and of positioning the product or service they're promoting. Many, however, commit less publicized sins of commission and omission which can be equally harmful to response.

1. Being too logical and neat.
This sin occurs most in business-to-business mail, but there are evidences of it in financial services marketing and elsewhere. It happens because writers forget that people respond with their hearts, not just with their heads. A direct mail package or print ad is not simply a linear sales presentation. When you try to sell with 100% logic, the resulting creative product lacks the warmth and emotion that engages the reader. The concomitant of neatness is lack of surprise. There is no love handle for the prospect to grab.

2. Ignoring alternatives to the product or service being promoted.
This sin arises when writers have not done the necessary homework. The result is a "generic" sell. The marketer doesn't implicitly answer why his or her product is more beneficial than what the prospect is currently using. When alternatives are not discussed and convincingly dismissed, the prospect's natural inertia blocks response and a sale.

3. Overestimating the intelligence of your audience.
Most copy gurus justifiably warn about underestimating intelligence. However, a misjudgment on the other side can be just as detrimental to results. Most of these glitches occur in efforts to business, professional or technical audiences. Copy often begins "in medias res" - without the background that allows readers to get up to speed. Prospects are so lost in technical gobbledygook that they don't understand what is being sold, how it can help them, and how to get it.

4. Operating on an unvarying decibel level.
In a world of never-ending crescendos, direct response writers must orchestrate carefully. Unmitigated blares of trumpets throughout direct mail packages or print ads succeed only in getting prospects to install permanent ear plugs. Violins must be blended with trumpets, whispers with shouts, bold claims with quiet assurances. Even in a short business-to-business letter, commands and innuendo must be skillfully woven: too much command creates resistance; too much innuendo loses the prospect in the shadows.

5. Failing to sell prospects on reading the advertising.
Copywriters have two missions. The major one is to sell the product or service and to generate response. (In lead generation, the major mission is to sell the prospect on taking the first step.) However, first they must convince prospects about the value of the advertising itself. In other words, provide an answer to "Why should I bother reading this? What's in it for me?" Failure to accomplish this mission is not a failure to attract attention. This glitch occurs after gaining attention, and is a much deeper problem. In classic direct mail, if the envelope serves as the attention-getter, it is the content of the Johnson box or first paragraph that tells prospects why they should be interested enough to read on.

6. Burying the differential advantage.
One step above the writers in the "this widget has 23 bevels, 114 screws" school are those who have learned it's a good thing to turn features into user-benefits. But they haven't learned that it serves no purpose to throw 50 benefits at the prospect at once, not that all benefits are not equal. Even writers who know to look for primary and second benefits unfortunately have not learned (or don't and never will have the instincts) to distinguish between primary and secondary.

One major reason for this glitch is that the writer is working in a vacuum. There is no marketing plan, positioning statement, or creative platform. No one has taken the time to determine what the hot button really is… what advantages the particular product has over its direct or perceived competitors… and why, for example, for a particular product, saving money is not nearly as important a benefit as saving time.

7. Using testimonials in the wrong way or to the wrong market.
It was Milt Pierce who first suggested adding "C" (for credibility) to the old "AIDA" formula. A classic way to do that is with testimonials. But be careful how you use them. Don't replace your selling thrust with testimonials; use them to augment your thrust. Don't use the ones that read as if they were written by you; use real ones, ones that are believable to your particular audience. Testimonials may actually harm response if your target is top-level executives or leaders of any type. "Pioneers" are not often influenced by other people's opinions and may resent that kind of approach. If your prospects are "emulators," however, testimonials can be extremely effective.

8. Getting tired.
You've written a marvelous opening paragraph… your enthusiasm carries you to the bottom of the first page… your sub-heads are grabbers… and then something happens. Perhaps you've run out of story, or shot your proof points, or haven't found a good way to close. So you tail off "not with a bang, but a whimper." Who cares? You know how strong your opening is, you know you have the right benefits and tone. Who cares? Prospects do! They can sense when your enthusiasm begins to flag, and it leaves a sour taste. They think "Maybe this is like their product. It works when I first get it, then loses its energy." For any who doubt that prospects care about the last page of a letter, just plant a typo and watch the mail.

Lee Marc Stein is a direct marketing consultant and copywriter with 40+ years experience in strategy and creative development. Lee creates lead generation programs, writes direct response advertising that generates orders and traffic, and advises clients on how to increased lifetime value of a customer. He has extensive experience in insurance and financial services, publishing, software and nonprofit marketing. Lee taught at NYU and Hofstra, and has spoken at 100+ industry conferences. His web site www.leemarcstein.com offers a free eletter and additional articles.

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