In direct marketing campaigns -- the kind designed to provoke a response of some kind -- creative often takes a back seat to other factors. In the 60-20-20 rule (or any of its countless variations), Audience is essential ? Offer is Everything ? Creative is merely Compulsory.

Fine. Nevertheless, Copy is still King. Here's why: without good copy, your perfectly-targeted audience might never understand that wonderful offer of yours -- or, even if they're suitably impressed, may not summon up the energy to do anything about it.

So whether you're penning an e-blast yourself, or reviewing your agency's draft of an upcoming self-mailer, it pays to know the difference between highly effective copy -- the kind that commands high response rates -- and the kind that just speeds your campaign's journey to the recycle bin.

Nailed your lists? Got an irresistible offer? Great. Here are 8 ways to make sure the copy does its job, too.

1. Make your copy approachable. Even great copy won't work if people don't read it -- so present everything in digestible, "bite-size" chunks:

  • Split up any paragraph that exceed 3 lines in length ...
  • Present key selling concepts as series of bullets ...
  • Use ellipses ("?") - both within sentences and at the end of serial bullets - to keep the reader's eye moving ...
  • Sprinkle the page (or screen) with subheads (preferably bold or underlined, unless you're working in text-only e-mail).
  • Add more bold and underline treatments wherever important ideas lurk (remember, some readers skim ONLY the big-and-bold; others may decide to read more, but only if these highly-visible ideas draw them in).

Ultimately, your page or screen should be at least 45% white space (and more is almost always better). Does this mean you'll spend more on paper? Maybe, but the increased response rates will more than cover any additional costs. Worried about forcing online readers to scroll? As long as a call to action and hyperlink are visible at all times, physical copy length won't hurt you. It's the readability that counts.

2. Present the call to action early -- and often. Most audience members won't read your entire piece; and many skim, or skip around. It's critical to tell them what to do, then, as soon as possible (in a letter or e-mail package, no later than the 3rd paragraph). Briefly describe the offer, then tell readers to respond (and how to do so).

After that first call to action, give readers a few more reasons to respond - then tell them again (and tell them how again). If your copy is long (multiple pages or screens), always keep a call to action in sight. And because many readers look first at a letter's opening and close, always use the P.S. to tell readers precisely what to do.

3. Benefits first. Let's assume you're already sold on the value of communicating benefits over features. In direct response copy, there's an important trick that has to do with the way people skim these pieces: in nearly every phrase or sentence, express a benefit (of responding, or of using your product or service) - and write that benefit first.

Wrong: "Graphical, point-and-click user interface saves hours of your valuable time." (feature mentioned first)

Right: "Save valuable hours on a wide range of tasks, thanks to an easy-to-use, point-and-click interface." (benefit mentioned first)

4. Sell the offer, not the product. Whatever your campaign offers the target audience -- a free information packet, an instructive Web seminar, a gift for visiting a trade show booth -- concentrate on selling the benefits of responding and receiving the offer. (Why? Because your goal of your campaign is getting the person to respond, period.)

Selling the product may or may not be achievable (or even advisable) in the space your piece allows -- especially if it's a big-ticket item. If you can just get someone interested enough to respond to the offer, you can then leave the real selling to your sales force. Plus you can always include your product brochure in that free info pack.

Wrong: "Send for your free packet and discover the powerful benefits of the Acme Integrated Infrastructure Miracle Suite." (selling the product)

Right: "Send for your free packet and learn how companies like yours are already trimming costs, boosting morale, and earning higher test scores for their kids." (selling the offer)

5. Voice: be the helpful colleague your reader has been looking for. Most people like to take positive action, but many need encouragement. Everything about your copy should provide that helping hand. Here are two ways to find the right "voice:"

  • Use second person ("you") language. Don't talk about yourself, your company, or its products -- talk to the reader, about the reader.

    Wrong: "Our matchless products and services can help you increase productivity ?" (talking about you and your products)

    Right: "You'll eliminate hours of tedious labor every week, simply by ?" (talking about the reader, and benefits to the reader)
  • Keep it action-oriented. Repeatedly describe the reader taking action ("Call today and find out how ?"). Communicate concepts and benefits in active terms:

    Wrong: "These tools can really improve your bottom line ?" (this is about your tools)

    Right: "You can rake in more revenues and slash costs ?" (this is about the reader)
  • Stick to active language (it's easier to read, and it works to stimulate the kind of action you like: responses to your offer).

Wrong: "Our product is used in more than 300 companies in 20 countries." (passive voice invites drowsiness)

Right: "Call center managers are already using the Acme Solution to crank up productivity in more than 300 companies worldwide." (active voice plus action-oriented words)

6. Use the Shampoo Formula. Okay, it's a little more complex than lather, rinse, repeat, but it's a proven winner -- and it works in direct mail letters, brochures, broadcast e-mail messages, even on splash pages for e-newsletter ad and banner campaigns. Structure your copy as follows, and you'll reel in the widest possible range of respondents.

  1. Acknowledge pain or opportunity
  2. Offer benefit (ease pain, grab opportunity)
  3. Call to action
  4. Offer description & benefit(s)
  5. Call to action (Note: repeat steps 4 & 5 until you're out of compelling offer benefits - or space)
  6. Product mention, brief benefits
  7. Sweetener (a reason to respond NOW, such as a giveaway or limited-time discount)
  8. Summarize benefits of responding (keep it punchy!)
  9. Call to action

7. Every word counts -- but no need to count words. In direct marketing we can't afford to waste words -- but we shouldn't unnecessarily withhold them, either. Stop writing when you've exhausted all the most compelling reasons to respond without being repetitive -- and no earlier.

Hold back a few key benefits just to satisfy someone's idea of "ideal copy length," and you risk losing the reader who was on the fence, and needed a little more convincing.

8. Take the skimmer test. Finally, go back to the top and read only the headlines, subheads, and underlined or bold phrases. These words alone should tell your story -- if they don't, adjust as necessary.

Why bother? We already admitted it -- the audience, lists, media, and offer make the greatest impact on response. So why bother with all of this? The best reason: money. You'll spend a sizeable chunk on media, design, and production. Why wouldn't you want to maximize the return on your investment?

Douglas Smith is Creative Director at Connect Direct (, a full-service agency that specializes in direct marketing for high-technology companies. He can be reached at

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