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The Truth About Direct Response Copywriting
I’ve been married. Twice. For a total of 32 years (so far). And if I’ve learned anything from the experience, it’s that it’s always wise to apologize before doing pretty much anything.
… So for the article you’re about to read, please accept my humblest apologies.
I do not intend to insult, degrade, discourage or belittle anyone – least of all you, dear reader. To the contrary: My mission is to equip, challenge, inspire and motivate you.
In truth, my vision for you is greater, higher and richer than your own dream is for yourself. Tremendous success, wealth and personal fulfillment await you further down this path that you have taken – the road to achievement in the direct response marketing industry.
But to help you realize that dream, it’s high time someone told you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth …
WHAT THE INTERNET’S “DIRECT RESPONSE” HUCKSTERS NEVER TELL YOU
Right now, the Internet is lousy with ads promoting seminars, courses, books and reports on how to write great direct response sales copy.
A few – products offered by Michael Masterson at AWAI, Bob Bly, Gary Bencivenga, and a few others I could name – are by people I know and respect as great direct response marketers and are worth their weight in diamonds.
But many other copywriting and direct response products are promoted by poseurs: People whose only qualification is that they once attended a seminar or read a book on how to write sales copy. Truth be told, none of the best direct response companies would ever even think of hiring these people.
Ask any of these guys or gals to name the clients they’ve written huge winners for … the names of the great copywriters they’ve beaten in the real world … the names of companies whose sales and profits they’ve exploded … and you’re likely to get a blank stare.
Still, I’ve ordered a bunch of their stuff just to see what they’re selling. And you know what? Most of it isn’t half bad. These guys and gals have dutifully regurgitated many great principles that really can boost response.
The problem isn’t so much the quality of the information they sell as the tone and content of their ads. To read many of them, you’d think that direct response copywriting is just another “Get Rich Quick” scheme.
“It’s easy,” they say. “Just pay me a not-so-small fortune for my book/course/seminar — and YOU TOO can get rich in direct response!”
But in their haste to sell you something, the “infopreneurs” fail to mention a few “inconvenient” facts. And as fate would have it, what they’re not telling you could make all the difference in the world for you …
INCONVENIENT FACT #1: You have to think — HARD!
Writing effective ad copy isn’t about throwing a lot of random thoughts at a prospect until he’s willing to do anything – even buy your product – just to shut you up.
When you address prospects, you are talking to people who are busy, distracted and overwhelmed with competing advertising messages. So, it goes without saying that, to get and keep his attention, your message must be high impact, personal, benefit-laden and convincing.
But to keep your prospect with you, there’s something else: He must never feel as though you’re wasting even a second of his time. And that means your sales copy must also unfold in a tight, rational, logical, “If ‘A,’ then ‘B,’ and so ‘C'” way.
If your copy leaves the prospect confused or disoriented at any point in this process …
… If he ever finds himself wondering where in the heck you’re going with this … if he feels you’re moving too slowly — taking two steps forward and one step back … or if he begins to suspect that you’re going nowhere …
… Or worst of all, if he spots a critical flaw in your logic – or feels your argument is flimsy or just doesn’t hold water …
… Mark my words: You are going to get your tail kicked!
That means you need to painstakingly think your way through the entire chain of logic in your sales message. And frankly, that could be a bit of a challenge, because the vast majority of us never learned how to think in the first place!
Uh oh … I feel another one of those trademark Makepeace rants coming on … helpless … to … stop it …
Now, maybe you passed college-level logic classes with flying colors — or like yours truly, had a tyrannical father whose secret fear of insanity sentenced me to endless lectures on how to think rationally. If so, you’re a member of a tiny minority.
Because when it comes to teaching us how to think, the public school system is a miserable failure. Fact is, most elementary and secondary schools I know of don’t even try to teach kids how to think.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that the people who run our schools don’t deem thinking to be important — it’s just that they know how dangerous it can be – especially when you’re the one doing it!
Heck. If everyone in the U.S. suddenly began thinking about the politically slanted, historically incorrect, economically ignorant mumbo-jumbo that passes for “fact” in the public school system … in Washington D.C. … and in our pop culture and media …
… We might realize how much of the stuff we’ve been taught is pure crappola. We might even stop behaving (and voting) the way we’re supposed to!
Since we can’t have that, thinking is out; and learning – that is, remembering “facts” (or reasonable facsimiles of facts) as presented by (you guessed it!) them – is IN.
So, deprived of the most elementary tools required to connect thoughts in a logical or rational manner, we are treated to entire TV shows called “The World’s Dumbest Criminals.”
We also get hip-hop – which, as anyone can see, systematically destroys both its listeners’ ability to select properly fitting clothes and the motor skills required to put a ball cap on straight.
… And of course, we get copywriters who create ads lacking any semblance of intelligent, rational, logical, linear thought … that jump all over the place without ever really going anywhere … and that seem to have the attention span of a three-year-old afflicted by a raging case of Attention-Deficit Disorder:
“I’m about to reveal a fact that can SAVE YOUR LIFE … Oh look – a pretty cloud!”
Writing rational, logical sales copy may not be brain surgery, but it does require some skull sweat to take your prospect step-by-step down the path to a purchase.
If I were attempting to sell a special report about how to build wealth with gold stocks, for example, I might employ a chain of logic that goes something like this …
1. It’s a fact that gold is soaring in value – up 112% since 2001.
2. It’s also a fact that gold mining shares are positively skyrocketing in value – Glamis Gold alone has jumped 3,000% in the last 36 months!
3. And it’s a fact that MY gold stocks – the ones I’ve begged, pleaded, nagged and cajoled my readers into buying – have positively exploded in value: If you had followed every recommendation I made since 2002, your $10,000 investment would now be worth more than TWO MILLION DOLLARS.
4. But is it too late for you to profit from this great gold price explosion? NO WAY! (insert bullets on the supply and demand fundamentals that can’t help but drive gold prices higher in 2006 and beyond).
5. All you need is the RIGHT gold stocks – and I’m going to tell you what they are. I’ll name the names and give you my strategy for minimizing your risk while maximizing your returns!
Now THAT’S a lean, mean, airtight chain of logic. It begins with two facts the reader already knows and/or that can be easily documented using third party sources: Gold prices and gold stocks are soaring.
Then, it documents a new fact (the success of the editor’s past recommendations) and shows why there’s still plenty of time to get your share of the profits.
Finally, it leads the prospect to the inescapable conclusion that since the stockpicker’s last recommendations would have made them millionaires, his NEXT ones could be worth their weight in (forgive me) gold.
But thinking things through like this isn’t easy. It takes energy. Focus. Dedication. Deep thinking is work.
On the other hand though, NOT thinking through every step in your copy rationally, logically, sequentially, linearly is the kiss of death.
INCONVENIENT FACT #2: You have to work — HARD!
Over the past six months or so, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing more than 20 of the top direct response business owners, marketing execs and copywriters in the nation.
You can read a few of these conversations in THE TOTAL PACKAGE: The interviews I’ve done with Gary Bencivenga, Arthur Johnson, Parris Lampropoulos, and Carline Anglade-Cole, for example.
And although each interview is very different, one quote keeps coming up in almost every conversation: “Writing is easy;” they recite, “you just slice open an artery and bleed all over the page.”
I’d like to take issue with my esteemed friends. To me, writing is NOT like slicing open an artery. It’s much harder and more painful than that – but only if you do it right.
As I just pointed out, sales copywriting requires you to expend the effort required to think your way through the logic and organization of your sales message. That can be hard, painstaking work — but it’s only the beginning.
Great writing also requires precision – and a substantial expenditure of mass sums of mental energy to select the words that will make each point quickly, in just the right way and with just the right tone and intensity.
I’m often amazed by writers who seem to sleepwalk through word selection – and wind up with a confusing jumble of mixed metaphors, inappropriate adjectives, too-weak or too-strong verbs and more.
Here, for example, is an actual fascination that was recently submitted to me for review. The copywriter is a young person with tremendous promise and world-class training who will one day be one of the greats – but who (actually) wrote …
o How to soothe the deadly creator of the 4 sneakiest killers in the U.S. — including the #1 reason you could end up in a nursing home (as young as your 40’s)!
This paragraph is, of course, a disaster. A complete jumble. A brain fart captured on paper. The verbal equivalent of projectile vomiting.
“Deadly creator?” That’s an oxymoron – a mindless, self-contradictory phrase.
And “soothe the deadly creator?” What the F*** does THAT mean? If there were such a thing as a “deadly creator,” why on Earth would I want to “soothe” him?
“Sneakiest Killers?” Thieves, embezzlers, cheating spouses and political spinmeisters are sneaky. Killers are “ruthless” … “savage” … “remorseless” … “brutal.”
And finally – HUH? What in the HELL does that paragraph mean, anyway???!
I count four competing thoughts, none of which work together AT ALL! (See, I CAN be a brutal critter – but to paraphrase Mike Meyers, “I critique because I love.”)
When I see a paragraph like that, it tells me that somebody is just being lazy or getting rushed – or worse; counting on me being too lazy or too rushed to catch it or call them on it.
Great ad copy requires patient persistence. I’m often surprised that so many folks seem intimidated by the enormous volume of copy required to fill a 24-page tabloid.
If the thought of writing an 18,000-word sales message boggles their minds, how would they feel if they knew I’ve often done five, ten, even fifteen very different drafts before I was satisfied?
… Or that I once did a staggering 27 drafts (my all-time record) of a 24-page self-mailer before I allowed it to go to the designer?
Why work so hard? I did it hoping just to make a handful of extra sales.
Look at it this way: Let’s say you need a 1% response to break even on a mailing. For every 1,000 folks who read your sales message, ten will have to buy or the mailing loses money and you’re a bum.
But if you can convince just two, three or (please, God!) five extra people among those 1,000 prospects to buy – if you generate a 1.2% … 1.3% or 1.5% response rate — the mailing makes a profit.
Just do that and you’re a hero – and whether you’re writing for fees, royalties or a chunk of the net profit, direct response heroes invariably get rich.
Think about that as you meticulously review your latest “brilliant” draft – the one you think is already finished: If the differences between being a loser and a hero is just four sales per thousand … and if being a winner could mean an extra hundred thousand dollars in income for you this year … doesn’t it just make sense to polish that copy until it shines?
INCONVENIENT FACT #3: You have to have the determination
to rebound from failure
Anyone who tells you that a certain approach to ad writing or marketing “never fails” is either a liar or a fool.
I don’t care who you are, what copywriting guru you follow, how many books you’ve read or how clever your tactics: Sooner or later, you’re gonna bomb. You’re going to bite the big one. You’re going to defecate all over your Guccis.
You’ll spend an entire month of your life – maybe more – pouring your heart and soul into a chunk of sales copy. You’ll have expended every ounce of energy to make sure the organization was tight and logical. And you will have spent days on end sweating every word choice – and weeks polishing the copy through endless drafts.
Then, you wait. It could be another six or eight weeks before the thing is designed, printed and mailed – or programmed and posted on the web.
For nearly three months, that promotion was like a lottery ticket in your pocket. You dreamed of the moment when the results would be announced, making you a direct marketing god and bringing you mountains of cash.
Then, one fine day, your phone will ring and a voice on the other end will say, “Uh, is this … ? Yeah. I just got the returns report and well, it looks like you suck.”
… Just kidding! Just kidding!
Nobody will ever say that to you. Nevertheless, that IS what you’ll hear.
The only question that matters is, “What then?”
I’ll tell you what I do. I get pissed off. I mean punch-the-wall, kick-the-coffee-table, throw-the-cat LIVID! And I vow by all that’s holy, that this will never, EVER happen to me again.
Then I use that energy to dive back into the work at hand. And that’s what you’re going to have to do, too.
THE HEART OF A CHAMPION
In many ways, these are the times that try direct response marketers’ souls.
Anyone who thinks direct response marketing is the path to fast, easy riches is going to be sorely disappointed. In times like these, it takes the heart of a champion to persevere and win.
The advent and rapid evolution of the Internet, its free content and mind-blowing profusion of new marketing techniques … the explosion of competition in the mail … rising skepticism among prospects … falling response rates and rising costs … are conspiring to make this business more challenging with each passing day.
At times like these, your mindset is everything. It takes the heart of a true marketing champion to win consistently.
If you think this is easy … if you sleepwalk through your work … if you fail to invest the mental and physical energy required to get the details right … if you resent honest, well-meant criticism … and if you’re going to cut and run the first time the going gets tough, there’s not much I or anyone else can do to help you.
But if, as my high school football coach loved to say, you’re eager to pour 110 percent of your genius, your creativity and your energy into this …
If you’re willing to take the time and expend the energy to do it right … and obsess about the minute details that must be right to bring in every last sale …
If you’re willing to expend every ounce of mental and physical energy at your command … take your best shot … accept the consequences … take a hard, honest look at what you did right and what you did wrong … and learn your lessons …
… And if, when all else fails, you can muster the will to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and do it better next time …
… There’s no stopping you. Whether you’ve made it yet or not, you’re a winner. And someday soon, you’ll find yourself relishing the winner’s rewards.
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