171 DM Questions – How can I get better creative work?

143. Is there a way to get good ideas?

Nearly every good creative person has this awful feeling when first confronted by a problem that this time they won’t be able to cope.

1. Master your subject

You must be thoroughly familiar with the subject. The more you know the more arguments you can use.

Compare whatever you’re selling with alternatives. See what its strengths are. Take note of its shortcomings, too.

It is from the truth that you will create good work. Your imagination can never dream up anything to beat the truth. This process of learning is vital.

Think about your prospects. Read any market research there is. Speculate about your prospects. What kind of people are they? Why would they wish to buy? Make lots of notes. Why would you want to buy? What wouldn’t you? Talk to your colleagues and ask their views. Jot down any ideas you may have (no matter how odd).

If you have what is known as a ‘well furnished mind’ you are likely to do better. Read a lot (anything and everything). Watch TV. Go to the cinema. Visit art galleries, shows, exhibitions. Travel.

Above all, be curious.

2. The inner game

Whatever the truth, it seems that in getting ideas the same principles apply. At a certain point you must let your subconscious take over.

Once you have stored up all the facts about your problem in your brain, and talked to other people about it, and written down any ideas that occur to you, just relax. Move on to another job. Don’t struggle – just forget that particular problem. But set a mental ‘alarm clock’. Tell yourself you need to look again at the problem on Tuesday morning. Then let your subconscious worry about it. On Tuesday morning, sit down and see what ideas come to mind. You could be pleasantly surprised.

This method does not guarantee success. No method can. But many people find it works. The secret seems to be relaxation. Do whatever you find most relaxing to help your brain get to work.

3. Use sounding boards

When you have an idea or some alternatives, discuss them with your colleagues, your secretary or potential customers. They will always see the benefits or drawbacks more clearly than you.

Many people are most unwilling to do this. We identify strongly with our ideas. It is hard to expose them to the bitter wind of criticism. However, you are not creating for yourself, but for others.

Phrase your questions carefully. Don’t incorporate the desired response in the question. ‘Can you understand this?’ Or: ‘Would you buy this product?’ Or: ‘Is this credible?’ Or: ‘Do you think this is worth the money I’m asking?’ Particularly valuable is: ‘Have I missed anything out?’

Being able to come up with ideas is only one part of the process of persuading people to want to do what you want them to do. You have to marshal your ideas and put them on paper.

144. Should I follow a formula?

You need discipline. Anthony Trollope used to get up every morning and write for three and a half hours before going to work in the Post Office. Sir Walter Scott was driven by the need to pay off massive debts. Dickens succeeded by writing to the demanding formula of a monthly serial.

Certainly you shouldn’t feel too proud to work in a disciplined way.

Throughout history, great creators have been confined and thus forced to exercise ingenuity, either by convention or by self-imposed guidelines. In mediaeval times writers, musicians and artists were obliged to work on religious themes. Otherwise, they could not eat, for the church was the major source of patronage. The great composers of the classical period wrote within rigid structures: the symphonic form is quite a strait-jacket. Chinese and Japanese poetry for thousands of years was produced to very precise rules.

Producing advertisements and mailings is hardly great art. But all work demands some kind of discipline and a proper structure.

There are a number of formulae. However, the most famous is probably the best. It has certainly stood the test of time. Here is how it was expressed in a book called The Inner Side of Advertising, written in 1920 by a former advertisement manager of the Daily Mail called Cyril Freer:

“Here are the component parts of a good sales letter:

The opening, which should attract the reader’s attention and induce him to read.

The description and explanation should hold his interest by causing him to picture the proposition in his mind.

The argument should create the desire for the article offered for sale.

Persuasion should bring the reader around to your way of thinking by seeing how the article is adapted to his needs. This is followed by:

Inducement, which gives him an extra reason for buying, and in conclusion you have –

The climax, which makes it easy for the reader to order, and assures that action by causing him to act at once.”

This formula is variously known as AIDA or AIDCA. If you want to remember it, then recall the name of the opera by Verdi.

AIDCA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Conviction, Action.

To give people your message, you must first attract attention. Having attracted attention, you must interest people in what you have to say. But this is useless if they do not desire what you are offering.

And even if they desire it, they must be convinced what you say is true. You will also notice that in Mr Freer’s recipe there is the inducement. This can be either the offer, or the penalty, i.e. ‘We’ll give you something if you reply now; and if you don’t reply within a certain time, than the offer will lapse’. This approach, even buried in a very large advertisement, can have a significant impact.

All this is wasted effort if you do not then get them to act. The incentive, which is not really covered properly in this old formula – save for the mention in Cyril Freer’s book – has two purposes. Firstly, to get people to pay attention; second, to get them to act.

145. What is “reason-why” copy?

The idea was developed in the middle of the 19th century by a man called John E. Powers, who made a mint selling sewing machines in England (literally by the ship load) before going to America to write copy.

His secret weapon was the truth. His great discovery was that if you give people a reason why what you are saying is true they are more likely to be swayed by your arguments.

The fact is, people are suspicious – and the more seductive the offer, the more suspicious they tend to be. (On a British TV programme some years ago a man offered people £5 notes in the street. Nobody would take them although they were perfectly genuine. They believed there must be a catch.)

Powers was so honest that one of his employers, John Wanamaker, founder of the great Chicago department store, eventually fired him in exasperation for running copy such as: “We have a lot of rotten raincoats that we want to get rid of.” Or, “(The neckties) are not as good as they look but they are good enough – 25 cents.”

You may be asking yourself: does this advertising archaeology have any relevance today? The answer is an emphatic “Yes”. Even today, few advertisers appreciate the importance of giving a reason why.

Suppose you are planning a sale. You will do much better if you give a reason for it. ‘Closing Down Sale’ is more convincing that just ‘Sale’. People think if you are closing down you really do have to sell off your stock cheaply.

146. What should I know about my prospects?

Everything you can discover from research – plus everything you can summon up using your imagination and knowledge of human nature.

Here’s an old example of using what you know about your customer to communicate more accurately. The job was for a firm, Ace Gifts & Cards, which recruits agents who sell to other people – usually friends and neighbours.

The only thing clear about the prospects was that they were people who wanted to make extra money – or save money for themselves and their family. And the best prospects were likely to be sociable people.

The list being mailed was one of people who had recently moved home. The audience was not very sophisticated, so we made the personalisation very overt – each personalised section was marked in yellow. We found this simple device lifted response.

Here’s the opening of the copy:

How to make money as you shop –
and make new friends around Chalk Lane.

Dear Ms Berger,

Hello! How are you enjoying life at No. 18? Let me tell you about a new idea that could make (or save) you money as you shop … help relatives and your family with their gift problems … and even make friends amongst your new neighbours.

147. Is customer location and behaviour relevant?

Direct marketing works in most countries, to most social groups, in both business and leisure contexts.

‘People are more united by their similarities than divided by their differences’.


There are clearly products and services likely only to work in particular countries, because of national peculiarities. For instance, one of the biggest sellers in Japan for some time now has been a cooker, which will prepare your rice for you while you are out at work. In Britain and the United States, the general population does not eat rice every day. Clearly, such a product would not be appropriate.

In China or India it would.

Other products clearly have appeal no matter what the country. Coca Cola is perhaps the most famous example. Credit and charge cards amongst financial products seem to have a pretty universal appeal, too.

The moral is to allow for national differences, but profit from similarities. Often you don’t have to reinvent the wheel by creating entirely new copy for a market you are about to enter. A lot of people will tell you otherwise.

Almost all nationalities hate to admit they are in fact similar to other races. My advice is – if it seems to make sense – test the creative work that succeeded for you in another country, even though you may simultaneously wish to try a different approach for the country you are moving into. And don’t make any changes unless they are clearly necessary because of national peculiarities.

Reader’s Digest found that where an approach transferred from one country to another fails, it is often because some element was needlessly altered.

Another canard is that the businessman becomes a different animal when he gets in his car to go to the office. Of course he doesn’t. He is a human being first, and a businessman second.

If you write to him about some way of doubling his profits, he doesn’t say: ‘I’m too busy to read this ten-page letter.’ He says: ‘God, do we need extra profit. I wonder if they’ve got something here.’ After that, it depends on how cleverly you tell your story.

All you have to do when addressing people is to bear in mind who they are. Don’t be put off by people’s desire to imagine they are either superior to, or different from others. Their motives are what matter. Indeed, if you have the right message, it will overcome even the most crass approaches.

Countless times, even the most aggressive, insensitive US mail order blockbuster has succeeded because it offered what people wanted. And if people want something, they want to believe they can have it.

Once again, it comes down to commonsense, no matter what the market you’re appealing to. If the product makes sense, and the motivation is there, you can usually find a way of presenting that product to the appropriate audience and selling it.

148. How can research help with creative?

Research can never tell you what people are going to do. But used intelligently and analysed carefully it can give you valuable insights into the following.

What subjects interest people?
What benefits enthuse them?
What makes them buy? – the “triggers”.
How do they decide?
Who decides? – the decision making unit.
What misconceptions do they have?
Why don’t they – or might they not – reply?
Is your positioning or proposition valid: do they believe it?
What do they think of various approaches – leading to better creative (Benefit Testing)
How good is a list?
What effect does your message have beyond the response?

149. Can I adapt an idea from one medium to another?

Most of the principles, which govern success in creative work, tend to apply to all media.

They apply to advertisements, door-to-door leaflets, direct mail letters, e-mails, complete mailing packs, inserts, television and radio commercials and posters – everything.

This is hard to appreciate when you first start as a writer or art director.

When asked to prepare a direct mail pack for a product which has already been sold successfully through advertisements, the tyro will commonly scratch his or her head and wonder how to set about it.

The answer is to start with what has worked already and see whether you can adapt it to the new medium. Not every approach will translate easily into another medium, but with a little ingenuity it often will.

If you start with the simplest format – an advertisement – and look at the elements, you can then build up from there to other more complex formats.

The elements of an advertisement (and also a single-sided leaflet and an e-mail which is not all text) are usually a headline and a picture which together attract attention; subsidiary headings and pictures supported by copy and captions do most of the selling job; and then the coupon or, if it’s a very small advertisement or an e-mail, the request to order or click through, write in or ring up gets action.

Building a good opening sequence in a simple mailing pack – envelope message, opening to letter, opening to brochure and heading to order form – is not radically unlike starting an advertisement.

The first difference is that the envelope message need not necessarily reveal the full benefit or offer: it could be a tease, designed simply to get you inside the envelope. The second difference is that once inside the mailing pack the reader can choose to turn anywhere – to the letter or the brochure or the order form.

(Some research suggests they turn first to the order form to find out what the commitment is and what the price is.)

Nevertheless, in all media, you must first get the prospect to start, and to start in the right frame of mind. Or to start paying attention to the broadcast message – once again, in the right frame of mind.

Let’s return to the AIDCA formula. The sequence is not rigid. Sometimes, the urge to action can come at the very beginning of the message. There are often other good reasons why it should. It may of itself compel a degree of attention. Sometimes the interest, the conviction and the desire are intermingled. But whatever you do you certainly have to attract attention somehow.

The only figures I have seen suggested that only 20 % of the readers of a newspaper even noticed the headline of the average one-eighth page advertisement – and then only a small proportion of those would carry on and read it.

Virtually every phone call is listened to, but this is the nature of the medium. And most catalogues are obviously opened, because they are either requested or, at the very least, seen as a pleasant read.

The situation is different with a television commercial: most viewers will probably notice your commercial and sit through it. The problem is, will it motivate them to do anything? In fact TV and radio have their own special requirements, but we are talking about your major direct marketing media, and especially how to get people to start reading your ads, mailings, and inserts. And keep reading them.

Happily, we do not have to guess what most often attracts attention, because the famous copywriter and research pioneer John Caples spent many decades testing to find out. It is benefits and news, not pointless originality.

Most e-mails are quickly deleted, and the most important element here is: who is it from? Spam trappers also block many benefit subject lines, so curiosity becomes more important. But it must have a point. Thus in writing to people who had not replied to a series of offers, Virgin Wines used the heading ‘Don’t be shy’. I used ‘Would you like me to just shut up?’

150. What sins should I watch out for in creative?

Just as there are universal truths, there are universal failings, and here are five common sins in creative.

First, reluctance to get to the point. We copywriters seem to have the mental equivalent of old motor car engines, which needed to be warmed up for a few minutes. We often put in a couple of paragraphs of waffle before we get to the proposition. Maybe it’s fear of being rejected when we do.

Second, being shy about the offer. Offers overcome people’s reluctance to read and their reluctance to reply. Unless you have good reason to do otherwise, the offer should be impossible to ignore.

Third, forgetting that there must be something for the reader wherever that reader looks. Hardly surprisingly, bold elements in ads attract more attention and the same applies to mailings. The reader’s eye may turn first to the letter, the brochure, the order form or some other piece in the mailing. Make sure your most prominent benefit and your offer are boldly featured wherever that reader may glance.

The fourth sin: making it hard to respond. American Express enjoyed a 30% uplift in sales a few years ago in one highly competitive market, largely by making the application easier to fill in.

The final sin is failing to do a complete selling job. I am not among those who believe the copy should be as long as possible. However unless you give every sensible reason why somebody should respond and overcome every reasonable objection they may have to doing so, you will not do well.

One respect in which people most often fail is in not putting in testimonials or impartial proof that what you say is true. As David Ogilvy once said: “Why should anyone believe the word of an anonymous copywriter?”

A school of salesmanship tried putting a testimonial in their mailing. This did so well they put in four more. Sales went up again. They ended up sending out fifty copies of testimonials from satisfied customers.

Simple. Obvious. But then, most of the things that make the big differences in business are simple and obvious.

151. How can I be original within a formula?

If you really want to compare direct mail to great art, it’s worth remembering that Mozart wrote 41 pretty durable symphonies, all to much the same formula. If you prefer Bach to Mozart, his example is even more apposite, since he composed with mathematical precision.

If you look at less lofty forms of communication, you will soon see that, no matter how original they may at first appear, once you break them down they tend to fit into one formula or another – and what’s more, people like it that way.

Look at just about any cinema hit or TV series. You know right from frame one that Clint Eastwood is not going to get killed. You know that whatever terrifying situation he faces, the hero will beat the odds. You know the villain will come to a fearful end. And you don’t resent this; you look forward eagerly to the predictable moment when good triumphs over evil.

And this has not changed. Fifty years ago, you could be equally sure that Clark Gable would come out of any fracas intact and with the girl. And for that matter, when Odysseus went voyaging after the battle of Troy, since he was the hero, Homer took care to arrange things so that he survived to see Penelope again.

Even apparently new ideas are usually variations on old themes. Years ago, Heineken lager introduced television commercials in the UK with the unusual line that ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’, illustrated by far-fetched situations like Nero being unable to give the order to kill a Christian until he’d had his strength refreshed by a Heineken.

New way to use an old formula

Everyone thought it was a most original way of selling a beer – which it did, very effectively. But it was merely a variation on a very old idea: the before and after sequence. It was the ingenuity with which a new way had been found to use an old formula that made the difference.

The moral is: don’t forget the formulae or the rules. Indeed, keep them firmly in mind, but try to exploit them in a different way. This is much more likely to reap rewards than just going off in search of any crazy idea that occurs to you.

152. Which incentives work best?

The best way to answer this is by testing, but offers divide into those which appeal to almost everybody – clocks, watches, and such – and those appropriate to your particular product like a financial booklet for a bank. Here are 19 offers you can make:

Free trial.
Easy terms.
Pay no interest – or less interest.
Free gift for ordering.
Free gift whether you keep product or not.
Sweepstakes entry.
No deposit.
Nominal deposit.
Temporary price offer.
Buy now – pay in a few months, e.g. pay for your Christmas gifts in January.
Two for one, and variations of this.
End of stock close-out.
Mystery gift.
More than one gift.
Discount or gift for quantity.
Discount or gift for buying in a certain period.
Double your money-back guarantee.
(You must always check on the nature of the guarantee for a product or service.)
We’ll buy back from you after a certain period.

(Sometimes used for investment products.)

153. Do limited numbers aid response?

Almost invariably limiting numbers increases response.

I first learnt this 30 odd years ago, when a seasoned direct marketer told me to tell prospects there were only 167 units of the product left in the p.s. Response doubled.

154. What is a time close?

The fear of loss is as strong as the thought of gain. Saying an offer is only open for a certain length of time always increases response.

Once by accident, the Franklin Mint ran an offer where they got the month wrong, which meant that the offer was only open for one day. It still worked.

155. When does curiosity work?

Clever curiosity lines rarely work in ads. But they often do well as envelope messages, and especially in e-mail subjects. Sometimes, a curiosity line can be very powerful.

Broadcast media, which are entertainment more than news-orientated, often find relevant and amusing curiosity is very good in attracting attention. Thus, in the 1950s, for a commercial selling hair-restorer, the opening line was: ‘Did you ever see a bald sheep?’

The problem with curiosity appeals is the same as the problem with humour. What some people find funny, others don’t.

In fact humour can work if it does not overshadow the message. The idea of a bald sheep is not only curious: it is funny.

Courtney Ferguson, formerly a colleague of mine, has a bizarre sense of humour which results in some pretty striking lines.

Walking past her desk one day I saw two lines she had written to go on the envelope in a mailing to sell dried minced beef to caterers. One said: ‘You can’t send cottage pie by post.’ The other said: ‘How to get 2lbs of minced beef, free.’ She had rejected the first as too far out.

We discussed it, and ran them both, the first very large, the second quite small beneath it. The results were great. There was a clear benefit. And caterers were naturally interested in cottage pie anyhow, which is a dull but popular British dish of mashed potato, minced beef, onion and stock.

You can’t lay down hard-and-fast rules about which headlines will work and which won’t – only for which are likely to. You could probably write a book on the subject.

But since nobody has done so, the next best thing is to get a copy of a marvellous opus by Vic Schwab called How to Write a Good Advertisement, which contains a list of 100 effective headlines. I keep a copy in my desk. Every time I’m really desperate, I still look at this list and see if it doesn’t start me thinking. It usually does.

156. Where will I find good headlines?

Two places. Popular newspapers and magazines – and buried in the copy.

Newspapers and magazines have to find ways to attract attention – or go broke. Copy them.

Writers and art directors tend to be like car engines: they take some time to warm up. Often the first ideas they come up with are like revving up; the first few paragraphs are just a series of circles around a problem.

You will often find diamonds in the mud by looking through the body copy for a good headline. (For the same reason, when editing copy you will often find it pays to cut out the first two or three paragraphs almost entirely.)

Sometimes the opening to the letter in a direct mail package is really the attention-getter. The envelope may have no message on it at all. Often the quietest openings – which merely single out the prospect – work best.

One famous opening is: ‘Dear Mr. Bird: If the list upon which I found your name is indicative …’.

Here is the soft, but very effective beginning of a successful letter for an insurance policy aimed at teachers: ‘Were you aware that there is an insurance firm which offers preferential terms exclusively to teachers and their families?’

The most boring, unimaginative way to single out a prospect is to say: ‘As a teacher, you …’. Not clever – and very common, but it does work.

157. How do I keep someone interested once I’ve got their attention?

Joe Sugarman, the US mail order wizard likened good copy to a ‘greased chute’. All you have to do is make sure the reader will read the next sentence after the one you have just written. Easier said than done.

You must look back at what you have already said, and see what the person would next like to know. And – just as important – what you can deduce about them simply because they read the previous copy.

The only thing you know about the person who starts to read the body copy is that they have probably already read the headline. Thus, the opening should amplify or explain what the headline has said; enlarge upon it.

That’s why so many mail order ads begin with something like: ‘Yes, it’s true, you can (do whatever has been promised).’

The assumption is simply that if the reader found the last thing you said relevant and interesting, then all you have to do is follow with something that explains or elaborates (without wasted words) and carries your argument forward.

158. How do I make people want what I offer?

There has to be an underlying need for what you are offering, otherwise it will never sell. But the way in which you remind your prospects about that need, or amplify it, is very important. It’s usually done by the use of example, imagery and word pictures.

Here are some extracts from letters written for The Royal Viking Line who sell extremely expensive sea cruises:

From the very moment you step on board one of our ships, you’re pampered. A steward shows you to your Stateroom. We give you time to settle in … order Room Service … and relax, before inviting you to join your fellow passengers on deck for a big send off from port:

Champagne and a live jazz band spur on
the jubilant atmosphere. Waving crowds on the
quayside are showered with confetti and streamers
as the mighty ship pulls away.

There’s no more exhilarating start to a holiday. And as you lean on the railing, feel the quickening sea breeze …

Perhaps one of the greatest examples ever of creating desire for something comes from a famous advertisement for a piano playing course written by John Caples 65 years ago – ‘They laughed when I sat down at the piano’.

Here are two extracts from that ad.

Then I Started to Play

Instantly a tense silence fell on the guests. The laughter died on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first few bars of Beethoven’s immortal Moonlight Sonata. I heard gasps of amazement – spellbound!

As the last notes of the Moonlight Sonata died away, the room resounded with a sudden roar of applause. I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand – wildly congratulated me – pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm! Everybody was exclaiming with delight – plying me with rapid questions … ‘Jack! Why didn’t you tell us you could play like that?’ … ‘Where did you learn?’ … ‘How long have you studied?’ … ‘Who was your teacher?’

Fairfax Cone once said ‘Advertising is what you do when you can’t be there in person’; and of course if you were there in person you would demonstrate the product. That is why copy which paints word pictures is good copy. Here is an example which is not quite as old as the John Caples advertisement but nevertheless dates back about sixty years. I think you will agree that after reading it you almost feel as though you have tried this product.

You can prove the excellence of our goods in a second; just tear off a corner of this sheet; now get a magnifying glass and examine both torn edges. You find long fibres – linen threads – on ours, while on yours the fibres are short, woody.

159. How can I persuade customers to try my products?

Writing to sell is the literary equivalent of having the kind of face that nobody trusts.

First of all, they know you’re trying to sell them something. That alone arouses suspicion. Secondly, because you are not selling face-to-face people are often even more suspicious. So this section is very important. It’s an area, too, much neglected by lazy writers. Here are some ways to make your copy more convincing.

1. Make sure the tone is appropriate; and don’t overstate

I once received a letter from a firm talking about ‘an exciting range of loans’. Ridiculous. I am intensely irritated by this sort of thing – copy in which everything is superb, high quality, tremendous and fantastic. It belongs in a never-never land only inhabitated by poor copywriters.

Therefore, try to avoid superlatives.

The copy must always reflect the source. E.g., if you are a bank, talk like a banker; if you are selling health products, talk like a health enthusiast.

And the copy must not only be appropriate to the source; it must also be appropriate to the audience. What is the right way to address your prospect? Once again, most writers behave as though they’re addressing a group of subnormal teenagers.

2. Be specific

It reassures people that you know what you are talking about and they will get exactly what you have promised.

So spell out your offer (and everything else) fully. E.g. don’t say: ‘I will send you lots of lovely knitting ideas for an incredibly low price.’ Rather, say: ‘I’ll send you 73 knitting patterns, plus 12 free books of hints for 49p a week.’

3. If the product is at all technical, give the specifications

Some people will want to know, and those who don’t will be impressed anyhow. Always include exact dimensions and weights of products.

4. If it is a compilation, like a record album or anthology, give every title

Thus you convince people that they are getting a lot for their money. And, of course, somebody, somewhere will be looking for the one you miss out, and you’ll lose a sale. The one that would have made the ad a success.

5. Write in the present tense as far as possible

The words ‘will’ and ‘can’ and ‘could’ imply less certainty of benefit than the word ‘is’.

As soon as you can after opening the copy, you must move into the present tense. Thus, you say: this product does this; you feel this; not it will do; or you will feel.

6. Make it sound easy

Don’t talk about the buyer having to do anything – talk about the product doing it for them.

Thus, you do not learn to type – our course has you typing. (And, being specific, it has you typing in 30 days … and being convincing … your money back if it doesn’t.)

7. Re-state your benefits before closing

This is ‘make your mind up time’ – so bolster their enthusiasm just before you ask for the money. Remind them what they get by replying, and what they lose if they don’t.

160. Short headlines or long?

In the 1950s, one famous English advertising agency had a Hungarian art director. He would produce a layout, go to a writer and say: ‘I vant three vitty vords for the headline.’

Beware the three-vitty-vords system. Research shows that long headlines usually do better than short. Wit is often wasted on busy prospects.

Here are some successful headlines, none less than seven words long.

Here’s an extra $50, Grace. I’m making real money now.

We travelled 2,000 miles just to save 2c.

To men who want to quit work some day.

At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce is the ticking of the electric clock.

You can laugh at money worries if you follow this simple plan.

(This one, over seventy years old, was adapted in the ’90’s by a UK finance house. It worked.)

The amazing facelift in a jar. Used by Hollywood stars who don’t want plastic surgery.

How to burn off body fat hour by hour.

The lazy man’s way to get rich.

17 ingenious (but perfectly legal) ways to avoid paying your debts.

How to double your power to learn.

Research shows that readership of a headline drops from 100 % who may read the first two or three words, down to about 70 % who will read seven words. After that the drop is insignificant.

But we do not want 100 % or even 70 % of our readers to reply. No product can appeal to all those people at one time. We want a small percentage to whom we can make a precise offer. Precision is not often achieved briefly.

Of course, art directors love short headlines. It makes their layouts stark and dramatic. But drama is rarely what we want. Persuasion is our goal; and that takes words, not pyrotechnics.

161. Should I have an envelope message?

What – if anything – should you put on the envelope?

The purpose of the envelope message – if any – is not merely to get somebody to open the envelope. Most will probably do that anyhow. Human beings are generally too curious not to. The question is, will they be eager to open the envelope: will they open that envelope before the other envelopes? In other words, will the envelope message set them up?

The brilliant man who set the pattern for much of Reader’s Digest activities in the United States, Walter Weintz, wrote an excellent book called The Solid Gold Mailbox. In it he states that what you do with the envelope will have more effect on success or failure than anything else, because it will single out that message from the many others you receive that day.

Others believe there is no need to put any message on the envelope because that tells the reader that a commercial message is inside, and this tempts them to relegate it to after other envelopes.

America’s best direct mail copywriter, Bill Jayme, told me that the envelope message was to start telling people what the subject was, so he didn’t have to waste time doing so once they opened the envelope – he could get on with the persuasion. He also said rather more vividly that the envelope was ‘the hot-pants on the hooker’.

I incline to his point of view. First of all, if there is some indication of what that envelope contains, of the subject it is going to cover, those who are not interested needn’t waste any further time; whereas those who are will move forward into the package enthusiastically.

It has to be said that Bill Jayme has a substantial advantage in this area, because he writes very, very ingenious envelope messages. For Psychology Today magazine: ‘Do you lock the bathroom door behind you, even when there’s no one else in the house?’

Or for a holiday magazine: ‘How much should you tip when you’re planning to steal the ashtray?’

My advice to you is: first to ask yourself ‘would this message deter people?’ Then ‘would it encourage them?’ If the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Yes’, run the message.

Anything you can do on the envelope to impart urgency is worthwhile. For that reason, many mailings may start by asking for action with an indication that you might miss something if you don’t open the envelope. That’s why you’ll sometimes see mailing envelopes bearing stamps saying: ‘Offer closes in 14 days, please open now.’ Or: ‘Dated documents inside.’

Sometimes the type of postal indicia used can lift response. In the UK, certainly, you are allowed to design (within certain guidelines) your own postal mark on the envelope. Attractive ones seem to lift response slightly.

It’s difficult to predict what will and what won’t work. For instance, generally speaking, a white envelope will do better than a manila envelope; and a brightly coloured envelope will often do better than a white one. If, however, you wish your mailing to have a quasi-official appearance, then a manila envelope may be the best approach.

What is more, human beings are very strange. One client a few years ago tested an envelope which required the customer to buy their own stamp against his usual reply-paid envelope. Believe it or not, the reply-paid did not win this test. However, six months later in the same test to the same list, the figures were reversed. This is the sort of frustrating oddity which makes strong men weep.

162. What about personalisation and gimmicks?

If you don’t like them, you don’t have to pay attention to them, just as if you don’t like obnoxious TV quiz programmes you don’t have to watch them. Some say they insult people’s intelligence. Many intelligent people would never dream of visiting a fairground, whereas others still get childish delight from being whirled around on the waltzer and terrified on the ferris wheel.

Appropriately, Americans refer to many of these devices as ‘bells and whistles’: the sort of thing that used to attract attention to the circus when it visited town. I liken them to the fanfare at the beginning of a public event: they draw attention to what is about to come.

There is a certain type of personalisation which falls into this category. When it was first tried it increased responses by as much as 50 %. People like to see their names. The bigger the better. So one mailer sent out an order form with the recipient’s name in huge letters on it. He got hardly any responses. When he researched to find out why, he discovered that people loved the personalisation so much they were pinning the order forms up on their walls.

Often, of course, a mailing will try to make the personalisation unobtrusive, so as to look as though it really is a personal message. This is seen by the recipient as a sign that the mailer has taken the trouble to address him by name. It is really courtesy.

But, let’s face it, we like to be addressed by name and have our preferences recognised. What, after all, is more gratifying than to walk into a restaurant and have the owner say: ‘Good evening, Mr. Bird. I have reserved your usual table by the window.’ From the highest to the lowest, we all respond to this sort of thing.

All these attention-getting gimmicks are employed because they work. Take for instance plastic cards with your name on them showing through the envelope. We tested this some years ago and found these cards increased response in one instance by 70%.

Today, you can personalize an e-mail, then direct people to their own personalised website. It works.

The sweepstake works because – who knows? – you might win. Just as, when you go to the fairground sideshow – who knows? – you might win a goldfish.

Any device which creates involvement helps. The stamps you peel off and stick on order forms work. So do little rub-offs and things that show through envelopes indicating that something interesting is happening inside. Equally, touches of humanity help, like handwritten notes in the margin.

Some forms of involvement device work for more than one reason. Take those stickers. The idea of taking the trouble to sign your name and commit yourself overtly to buying a particular product or service is much more painful (and takes more effort) than simply moving a sticker from point A to point B on an order form.

This sort of psychological ploy works in every sort of market, not just amongst the hoi polloi. Fortune magazine, for instance, uses stickers. The only thing you have to take care with is the style of language and the look of the piece when using these approaches to more sophisticated audiences.

163. How many pieces in a mailing pack?

People usually question the need for a large number of pieces in an envelope. It is as natural as it is to question whether letters should be long.

One marketer showed me a mailing package out of which tumbled eight pieces (two of them different types of order form). I couldn’t believe it. When I asked him for the reason, he laughed and said: ‘One piece in the envelope means one chance to make a sale. Eight pieces means eight chances. They’ve got to say “no” eight times.’

This reasoning was validated for me many years later when I heard of some research conducted by one large firm which learned that each piece in a mailing package is looked at for about three seconds before being discarded.

More recent research filmed customers looking at direct mail revealed that they tended to spend very little time on packages which only had one or two pieces in them. On the other hand, one of the pieces tested with a large number of pieces inside it, including a sample of the product – gained their attention for as long as five minutes.

Just as interesting, perhaps, is a simple look at the finances of direct mail. I am not going to give actual figures, since they keep changing because of inflation and obviously vary from country to country. However, the point is that the principal costs in a mailing are fixed.

There’s nothing you can do about them. You have the postage – a huge element. Then there’s the envelopes. The list rental. Handling charges and other unavoidable overheads. When you add up the figures, it may cost you only 35 % more to send out a ‘rich’ full colour all-dancing, all-singing package with lots of pieces than to send out a ‘poor’ two-colour affair. The question you have to ask yourself is: which will do better for the investment?

Unless you are only going for an inquiry – and certainly if you are going for a serious sale – the answer is usually the rich package. You’re getting more opportunities to sell for your money, once people have opened the envelope. If they’re not interested, they won’t look properly at any of the pieces. If they are, they’ll spend lots of time with them.

However, you should always test the number of pieces. I have seen removing a brochure almost double response.

164. What matters most in direct mail?

Targeting is more important than creative.
A brilliant new positioning – e.g. Intel were selling a product as a way of speeding up your computer; when they changed this to “Increase your brainpower”, responses leapt.
A better offer or incentive to act.
A good envelope message or treatment – e.g. a long envelope for a legal insurance policy.
A longer letter – they almost invariably do better than short ones making the same proposition.
An easier ordering or response mechanism.
Limited time or numbers.
Involvement devices – stickers, stamps, yes/no options.
Testimonials, proofs, guarantees.
A P.S.

Not all good mailings have all these elements, but a surprising number do.

165. How should creative for an insert differ from that for a mailing?

How does an insert differ from a mailing? Less than you might think. A mailing is pretty intrusive. The majority, even in a heavily-mailed country like the United States, still get opened and read. The question is: with what degree of interest? It is here that your skill comes in.

An insert is not as intrusive. In an insert you will almost certainly have precisely the same basic message as you would in a mailing for the same product – save that it’s all contained in one piece. (That is, unless you choose to make some sort of letter part of the insert – or even make a letter itself the insert, which has worked very often.)

There is no guarantee that anybody is going to look at what you have designated as the front as opposed to the back. Therefore, both sides must work equally well, as with a leaflet in a mailing pack. This applies whether you are talking about a two-sided insert or a folded insert. In the case of the latter, however, the messages on the outside should be designed to encourage people to look inside. They have something in common with envelope messages for mailings.

Equally, you could say that the outside of an insert can be viewed in much the same light as the headline of an advertisement. In both cases the task is to get people reading.

Think carefully about how your prospect or customer will look at that communication. By doing that you will be able to visualise what you ought to do. For instance, pick up the insert. Look at it. Would you want to open it? If you were the prospect, what do you think you would do if you received something like that? Then apply the same rules as to an ad or a mailing – does it contain all the elements of persuasion in AIDCA?

Research will tell you a great deal about how people are likely to pick up and read your communications. It does not cost much to arrange for typical prospects to sit and look at your insert while you watch. Even asking a colleague to do so will reveal something.

166. Which media grab the prospect’s attention straightaway?

Most media have to fight for attention. Three find it more easy. The internet, the telephone, and catalogues – if they have been requested.

People go on the internet almost invariably because they are actively looking for something.

With the telephone, there is no problem gaining people’s attention. When the phone rings they pick it up. Or, if it’s an inbound telephone call, they have taken the initiative themselves. They are interested to hear what you are going to say anyhow.

However, the telephone is unique: it is a two-way medium. It is also very expensive. You are paying all that money for the fact that, as long as you are polite, people will listen to what you have to say. So make sure they get the right message. This means, above all, having a professional script, delivered professionally. Relying on amateurs is not likely to work.

Telephone scripts allow for interruptions and reactions. This is not an inconvenience: it is a great opportunity as long as the script is planned properly.

Scripts should be divided in two. One side is the script as planned. The other is a series of pre-planned answers to questions and objections. The script will evolve as it is used, being adapted according to the reactions it receives.

My advice on telephone is to go to professionals. To begin with, get them to do the job for you, and then at the very least get them to train your own people.

The two biggest telephone sins: treating people like morons; and not giving them a chance to reply. If you simply read out a script without allowing for any reaction you learn nothing. You might just as well send out a mail shot.

167. How can I improve my catalogues?

Catalogues, being entirely visual, are apparently the medium with least in common with the telephone but they have a similarity when it comes to the creative approach.

You don’t have to worry about getting attention. Usually they have either been requested or they are received with pleasure. The challenge, therefore, just as with the phone, is to exploit that attention to keep people interested.

Clearly also the broadcast media like radio and television can grab attention added to which they offer the advantage of sound and, in the case of television, movement – both perfect for demonstration. But they are not automatically looked at or responded to in the ways that the telephone or catalogues often are.

Here are 15 suggestions for improving your catalogue.

1 Find a way to make your catalogue different

Certainly make it different visually, and try to make it different verbally, too. Develop a character for it.

2 Catalogues should not be impersonal

Some of them read as though they are produced by computer. Your catalogue should have an introductory letter to establish a relationship between firm and buyer. The letter is best as a separate piece, not just a printed section inside the body of the catalogue.

3 Position is vital

Your letter, for instance, will almost certainly do better bound on to the front cover, just revealing the merchandise beneath, rather than looking like a printed piece inside the front cover. Your order form – better bound in than floating loose – should be constructed so that it is easily seen.

4 The cover is your prime selling spot

Tests show that whatever is on there will sell at least three times as well as if it were in the body of the catalogue. So you have to have good reason not to use the cover for merchandise.

5 Space is at a premium in a catalogue

Areas given over to ‘mood’ shots are usually not selling. Build mood into your overall treatment, don’t just ladle it in at intervals – it’s wasted space.

6 Don’t underestimate the number of items you can get on a page

Properly planned, it can accommodate more than you think. Pages with few items usually won’t make as much money as those with many – so you must have good reason for reducing numbers, e.g. a product that sells extremely well.

7 Create changes of pace and interest

Put in little ‘hot’ spots that make people open up on certain pages – like pages with heavier weight paper, gatefold pages and, of course, the order-form pages. Testimonials will also add interest, especially if you put people’s faces in them.

8 Every catalogue entry should be a ‘mini-ad’, with its own headline

That’s because your catalogue can point to what will work for you in ads or mailings. Beware, however: some items that do well in a catalogue don’t do well on their own. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re just gregarious.

9 Use the same style for your catalogue as you would use for other communications

One client of ours used to use a different style of copy, headline, photographic treatment and even typography for his catalogue to the one he used for his ads. He could never understand why items that did well in one medium so rarely did well in others; nor why he got relatively poor results from his catalogue when sent to his ad respondents. People who have responded to one style of presentation will not necessarily react well to another.

10 Photographs usually, but not always, do better than illustrations

They are more credible. If using illustrations, make sure they give a very detailed impression of the products. The principal reason why some prefer illustrations is that they add character.

11 Pay great attention to the order form and how it is planned

Making it easy to order, just by checking a few items and having the customer’s name already filled in, will have a critical effect on results. Study the order forms of good catalogues.

12 Reminding people how to order frequently throughout the catalogue pays

When they’ve seen something, they want it now.

13 Great care must be taken to ensure that the captions (and prices) are easily related to items

It’s infuriating for people when they have to hunt for information.

14 Catalogue results can be boosted enormously (sometimes over 50 %) by the use of contests and sweepstakes

15 For reasons of finance and logistics, it usually pays to use as few photographers or illustrators as possible.

168. How can I make the most of TV and Radio?

What you can do in broadcast media is affected clearly by the very limited time those media allow. That time is itself governed by another factor: you have to allow a sufficient period within the commercial to give details of how to respond.

Television is watched with a fair degree of attention by its audience. This is one of the reasons for its power. You don’t have to do anything particularly startling to attract attention. (Though this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.) The challenge is, having opened the commercial, to build people’s interest.

Here are three basic things to remember about TV or radio (bearing in mind that radio is TV without pictures). Here, once again, you’re trying to create pictures inside people’s minds.

First, you must seek a single, simple, central idea.

Rosser Reeves in his book Reality in Advertising uses the expression ‘there’s only so much room in the box’. People can rarely take on board more than one simple idea in a commercial. You may buttress it with supporting facts, but don’t try to introduce any conflicting thoughts.

For example, Reader’s Digest for some years used a brief commercial to tell people that a mailing is going to come through their door offering them a chance to win a sweepstake. In the UK the simple idea here was to put a former newscaster in front of the camera and let him tell people. This gave the whole thing credibility. The only time we moved away from the central shot of this newscaster was when showing the mailing coming through the door.

Again, in a commercial for a Time-Life series, they just put a lot of scary things on the screen in a logical sequence, which demonstrate the content of the books being sold.

This brings me to the second cardinal principle: never forget that TV is a demonstration medium. In the commercials mentioned, the first demonstrates the mailing arriving through your door; the second demonstrates the content of the book. The very first successful television commercials were made by somebody taking street corner hucksters selling food processors and similar gadgets through demonstration, and sticking a camera in front of them. It worked beautifully.

In the case of radio, demonstration is perhaps best used when selling record collections, which are clearly made for the medium.

The third thing to remember is that if you are going to be entertaining, that entertainment should derive from the sell. It should not be inappropriate. In the case of the food processors just mentioned, after doing straightforward pitches, it was decided to try using somebody entertaining to demonstrate the products. The agency very wisely didn’t build in entertainment for its own sake: they got a well-known cookery expert, Richard Simmons, to do the commercials.

He was quite funny, but he was talking all the time about the product.

Whereas, when Reader’s Digest tried to run a funny commercial with speeded up film of people running to the post box to post their entries, the gimmick overcame the idea. It didn’t work.

Here are some of the points likely to make your broadcasting work more effectively:

Are you really exploiting the medium? For instance, if you’re on TV, is it truly visual, or just words set to pictures? If you’re on radio, is it just words or are you using the medium properly to conjure up images in people’s minds?

Is there a key visual or sound which acts as a mnemonic device to fix in the memory? Have you repeated it?

Is the product the hero – or is the execution?

If there’s music, is it relevant or just gloss? The same applies to any visual device. Everything should be essential to making the commercial work better.

Do you get straight to the point? You have limited time: get people involved instantly. In particular, a dramatic opening at the beginning of radio commercials to set them aside from the tapestry of sound – a loud noise, a fanfare – are obvious things. A challenging statement is another, or some tricky form of delivery like somebody speaking very fast.

Does the product or service solve a problem? If so, is it shown clearly?

Have you made it clear this is a direct offer? Preferably at the beginning, so people know they have to take note of somewhere to reply to.

169. What makes a good brief?

A good brief clearly answers 5 questions:

Who are you talking to?
What do you want them to know and do?
When is the best time to speak to them?
Where do you find them?
Why should they do what you want?

Let’s examine them in a little detail

Who are you talking to?
What’s the relationship with you? How do they feel about you?
What role do individuals play in the buying decision?
What kind of people are they? Or what kind of firm?

What are you trying to get them to think and do?
They think you’re cheap and nasty and would never want to buy from you; you want to persuade them you’re much better than they think… so much so they should ask for more information.
Complete a questionnaire.
Buy for the first time.
Buy a more expensive car.
They bought a refrigerator and you’d like to sell them an air conditioning unit.
Switch from, or ignore the competition.

When are you going to speak to them?
How do they decide to act or buy? How long does it take? What are the critical moments?
At what point are they in the relationship or buying process?
They’re new: best time to get them acting.
They’ve received a lot of mailings from you: they’re not likely to be too keen.
They haven’t heard from you for a while: they may be more responsive.
They’ve been with you a year: you want to say ‘Thank you’.

Where do you find them?
What’s the medium? Who reads it, listens to it or views it?
If it’s a list or database selection, what can you learn about the people?
If it’s a take-one, what’s the environment?
If it’s door to door, what kind of area?

Why should they do what you want?
Define the attributes of the product or service: what benefits do they translate into? E.g., fast acceleration means safer overtaking.
Determine the principal benefits, and the subsidiary ones.
Compare with alternatives.
Start considering what offers you might make.

Never forget the two questions your prospect has in mind.
What will it do for me that nothing else can?
Or can it do something better than anything else can?
Clear style guidelines – verbal and visual style and manner.
Background reading, and people worth talking to – salesmen, or research people, for example.

170. How to plan your creative treatment?

Whether you are a team, or a lonely individual here is a list of points to refer to as you work towards a good piece.

1 Your safest opening (though not necessarily your best) is your prime benefit and offer

On the envelope of a mailing. At the beginning of your letter. At the start of your brochure. At the commencement of your commercial. On the phone, too, once you have told the prospect who you are and what you are talking about, the benefit and offer are normally the first things you talk about. (Assuming your prospect has agreed to listen to you.)

2 Tricky, clever openings rarely work

Remember, the average ad is seen for perhaps two seconds, and each piece in a mailing package may be picked up and scanned briefly before the prospect decides to read or not. An instant statement, instantly comprehensible, is most likely to work.

Thus, one of the most effective headlines ever written in the insurance business is: ‘Cash if you die. Cash if you don’t’. Nothing clever about that, but it certainly got to the point.

But don’t forget that teasers – as long as they are relevant – often work well on envelopes. As do broken messages, like the first half of a recipe, to which you can only find the conclusion by opening the envelope.

3 Seek a dramatic central idea; preferably one that works in words and pictures

‘Unless your campaign contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night,’ said David Ogilvy. I have already quoted one such idea in the point above. Another was produced for a Xerox mailing which incorporated a stopwatch to dramatise the speed with which the product would be delivered.

If you can have an idea which is both visual and written, perfect! And if that word-picture combination demonstrates – as the stopwatch did – even better (see point 5). Finding a strong idea is vital. That’s why you shouldn’t just settle for the first one you come across. If you only examine one idea, it’s a little like buying one lottery ticket, when for very little more you could get ten – and multiply your chances. Seek plenty of alternatives. Work hard!

4 Is it the right length?

When asked how long copy should be, one of my former Indian colleagues said: ‘How much string do you need to wrap a parcel?’

The length should fit the objective. A complete sale takes more persuasion than an enquiry. An enquiry about something important, where big money could be involved or a difficult decision has to be made, calls for more copy than where the matter is trivial. Obviously it’s easier to sell something cheap than to sell something expensive, just as it’s easier to sell a new product with no competition than an old product with lots of competition. However, a new product may require a lot of explanation if it is unfamiliar, whilst a well known product will require little.

One thing to remember is the impact of the brand name. If it is famous, you will require less persuasive copy than if it is unheard of.

Because one maxim is that long copy always outpulls short, bad writers often write far too much. All you have to do is give every sensible reason why your prospects would want to act and overcome every reasonable objection to acting. Never use a single word more than required. In particular watch out for unnecessary adjectives – commonly words like ‘exciting’, ‘fantastic’, and the like.

5 Can you give a test drive?

When preparing your work, remember what I said earlier: what would a salesman do? A salesman would try to demonstrate the product. Good communications do the same thing, either in words or in pictures or both. Sometimes a direct mail pack can literally demonstrate the product. Nothing convinces more than an involving demonstration.

6 If your name is well known, feature it strongly

As I have pointed out to you, this could double your response. But make sure it is well known. Most people can only remember about three brands in a product category, until they are prompted. Even then they can usually only remember about seven. For this reason, if your firm is not well known, you will often find it pays to lead your letters with your benefit and offer (your ‘headline’) and put your letterhead at the base of the page.

7 In mailings, give great thought to the envelope

Remember the shape, the texture, the colour can all influence response. When wondering whether you should have a message on the envelope, remember that normally the answer is ‘yes’. The editor of ‘Who’s Mailing What’ in the US analysed the 100 most successful mailings in that country. Over 70% had envelope messages. And don’t forget that texture, colour, shape and brand names can all be envelope ‘messages’.

Remember, the offer, or a hint of it, should usually go on the envelope, together with an indication that people must reply quickly.

Don’t forget that envelopes have fronts and backs and insides. If there’s a window envelope, there’s a space behind that. That should be used also.

Some mailers use the entire inside of the envelope to put testimonials on. I have also seen it used as an additional order form.

8 The letter is the key element in direct mail, the most personal part of the communication

The letter comments, amplifies, makes more human, ‘sells’ the facts in the other material.

People expect to receive a letter. They like getting letters. If you can’t afford a costly mailing, then leave out the brochure not the letter. (On one occasion an American insurance firm left a beautiful horoscope brochure out of a birthday mailing to customers by accident. Sales jumped 25%.)

You can get the best of both worlds by illustrating your letter – but make sure it’s still in the letter ‘convention’ by using a typewritten script.

9 How many pieces should there be in a mailing?

The principle here is similar to that governing length of copy. The more you have to say or can say, then very often the more pieces you can usefully put in. The common analogy is that the letter is the salesman, whilst the brochure is like the store. This is not exactly true, but the brochure is probably going to put over the same arguments as the letter with illustrations and in a slightly different tone – it’s just less personal.

It may be that you find the need for other pieces. Suppose you have a lot of testimonials or press comments: these could go on a further piece of material. Suppose you have decided to have a sweepstake; that may be featured in a further piece. I have already mentioned the lift letter which reminds people that the offer is so good they shouldn’t turn it down.

These letters used to cause some amusement when first introduced. They always said on the outside: ‘Only open this if you are thinking of saying no to this offer.’ Inside the copy would begin: ‘Frankly, I am amazed …’ whereupon the writer would express his astonishment that anyone should turn down such a great opportunity.

If you want to see how an elaborate mailing should be put together, look at one sent out by Reader’s Digest or by Time-Life.

Overly sophisticated marketing people are cynical about such mailings. But from inside experience I know that every element has been tested and retested year after year.

They are probably not selling the same sort of product as you, but if you examine them carefully you will pick up a great deal about what to do and what not to do. One thing you should note particularly when looking at Reader’s Digest material is how careful they are to tell – very often at the beginning of a letter – how easy it is to respond and exactly how to do so.

You will also notice that they lay overwhelming emphasis on the offer. Having done their best to create a good product, and having a fine reputation, they know as long as they illustrate and describe the product appealingly, the critical factor is the offer.

171. How should I evaluate creative work?

The Big Four

Review against the objective. Go back to the brief. Has it has been met? What are you trying to achieve? Strong enquiry or weak? Store visit? Attendance at an event? Sale or free trial? This determines length of copy, number of pieces and the approach.
Zero in on the big things – not the trivia. Never mind whether you like the grammar, punctuation, or photography. Decide whether the idea is right – then turn to how it was carried out. A big idea is absolutely relevant – but surprising.
s it right for the product or service? Reject jokes about serious subjects, cheap treatments for expensive products. Beware of clever openings. They must be appropriate and neither confuse your prospect nor overpower your message.
Does your competitive advantage emerge fast? Don’t examine the work. Scan it quickly, carelessly – as your prospect will. Does something catch your attention? Your benefit or combination of benefits must be better than alternatives – not necessarily to all – but to a significant proportion of your prospects.

What’s your first impression?

Review each main element carefully. Envelope; headline/picture combination; order form or coupon; captions; opening of letter or ad; PS. Are they all working hard? Is there some news or benefit whenever the eye alights? Watch for human faces: they increase attention.
Is the message utterly clear? Check for good verbal and visual communication. Do words and pictures demonstrate the benefit? Do they clarify the message? Some visuals conflict, mislead or add nothing. If there’s a good idea and offer these details make an enormous difference.
Is the main offer the best you can make – and seen quickly? Is it strong enough to overcome disinterest and the fear of commitment? If you were the prospect, would you want to (a) read (b) act?
Check for all the essential elements of persuasion. AIDCA should all be there. Pretty quickly you must get into a series of statements the reader can easily agree with.

Gaining and keeping attention

If you can say it’s new, do so. After benefit/offer, news is the most potent appeal. If it’s new, or new to them, or even new from you, say so.
Is it precise – or vague? Is the promise or claim quantified? Exactly how much do they get or save, and how quickly? In numbers and cash – preferably not percentages.
Does the heading or envelope tell them: “there’s more to come”? Don’t use all your ammunition before the battle. Make them read on.
Why are you writing? Why should they be interested? Have you something new, different or better for them? If they’ve bought from you, or you’ve written to them before, or it’s a year since the first purchase, or they’re an important customer, say so. This increases response.
Does it “track” logically – or stray? Copy openings must deliver the promise in the heading or on the envelope. Then everything must follow, step by step. Is one strong idea carried through? Extraneous thoughts – even good ones – will confuse.

Building a persuasive argument

Are you talking to the reader – or yourself? Beware of boasts unless you can prove them. They don’t care how wonderful you think you are. Is it really that good? Words like ‘exciting’ are a warning sign. Don’t use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. The best writing is me to you.

Is it trying to satisfy everybody? Don’t waste money and persuasion on those unlikely to respond. Go hell for leather for the best prospects. You can’t be all things to all men.

Beware jargon and showy or pompous language. Anything written to please you is unlikely to please your reader. Jargon only works with special groups that appreciate it. Good copy is usually conversational, just as you would explain something to a friend.

Is it convincing? And complete? Is every sensible reason for responding given – and every reason for not doing so demolished? Is there proof? Testimonials? Media comment? Technical data, if it is that kind of product. A sample, if appropriate.

Does it give a “test drive”? The best messages make you feel almost as if you’re there, experiencing what is on offer. They convey an emotional sensation which is far more persuasive than logic.

Going for action

Benefit and offer reminder. Unless it is very brief copy, before you ask for action remind people what they get, how little is being asked – and how easy it is. It often pays to restate the offer in the PS.

Is it really fighting for a reply? Say what they lose if they don’t reply quickly – and gain if they do. Do the work for them. Big, easy-to-fill-in response device must restate the deal. No needless forms or writing, especially the signature. Stickers, ticks, YES/NO better. Emphasise easy payment, telephone ordering, etc.

The big question. You are not the prospect. Set aside your prejudices. Put yourself in their shoes. If you were that person would you reply? Show it to someone who knows nothing about the job – who might be such a prospect. Do they understand everything clearly? Do they think it’s worth it?

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