Does Direct Mail Still Work? (Short Answer: Yes)

Dear Copy Bitch: We’re an HVAC company, and we keep encountering marketing consultants who say we should abandon direct mail marketing altogether. But here’s the thing: our direct mail pieces convert. The ROI is great. Still, I wonder if this is just an anomaly, and if I should get out while I can and redistribute my marketing dollars elsewhere. We have an optimized website, we add engaging content regularly, and we’re delving into social media. Should we put all our focus in those things, or is it okay to still have some of our marketing dollars going towards direct mail? What say you, oh wondrous Copy Bitch? And if you do think there’s still a place for direct mail, can you give some examples of effective direct mail pieces? Thanks for the great blog!

–M.H., Atlanta, GA

ANSWER: The death of direct mail has been greatly exaggerated, methinks. A good direct mail piece can still work — and might even have a greater chance of working today, thanks to the fact so many people are abandoning this marketing method (i.e. if done right, your piece has a great chance of standing out since there are fewer pieces of junk mail, at least in my mailbox).

Now as my regular readers know, I drink at the Altar of HubSpot, and I worship Saint Godin. HubSpot is all about inbound marketing, but it recognizes that outbound marketing tactics — like direct mail — still have a place in a company’s marketing plan. Saint Godin is all about what works and what makes sense for your business and, most importantly, your customers.

So, in essence, you’ve answered your own question: your direct mail is working, people are responding to it, you’re seeing conversions, and you’re experiencing great ROI. You have marketing dollars invested in inbound marketing efforts as well. Sounds like you have the right mix right now. The key is monitoring and measuring results. What works today might not work two years from now. But it sounds like you’re well aware of that.

So what does work? Here are three direct mail pieces that were delivered to my mailbox that caught my attention (for the right reasons):

  1. A free DVD of the Oscar award-winning movie Smile Pinki from Smile Train, a charitable organization that I support. Who wouldn’t love to get a free movie in the mail? And this movie has a great way of reaching other potential donors, since I’m bound to share it (and talk about it, like I’m doing here) with others.
  2. Coupon booklets – I always thumb through the coupon booklets I get and often use the restaurant coupons.
  3. The book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. He didn’t send me his latest book because I ordered it. He sent it to me because I’d bought books from him in the past and he thought I’d enjoy it. Of course, I’d planned on buying the book on my own. I hadn’t placed my order yet, but in the letter that accompanied the book, Saint Godin said that if I already had Linchpin, then I should pass on this extra copy to someone else who could benefit. (Is the guy brilliant or what?)

Here’s a piece of snail mail that caught my attention for the WRONG reasons:

TruGreen and Lowe’s sent me an over-sized postcard with a coupon for $29.95 off my first custom lawn treatment. Problem is, I’m in an apartment building. All of us in the building got this postcard. Someone wasted marketing dollars on a mailing list that included apartment numbers, a field that could have been easily filtered out, had someone been paying attention to the details.

The Anatomy of a Great Offer

Dear Copy Bitch: I’m launching a new website (I’m a fellow copywriter), and I wanted to know if you had any ideas for great offers. I can come up with this stuff for clients, but it’s hard to do it for myself.

—Steve T., Santa Monica, CA

ANSWER: Congrats, Steve! But before I answer, I must address that pesky pachyderm in the room. I know some people are wondering why I’d give advice to a copywriter, i.e. a competitor. Simple. I believe there’s enough room for all of us. Competition is good because it ensures we writers (lawyers, marketers, politicians) do as good of a job as we possibly can. I also believe in the concept of paying it forward. Many people have helped me along the way after all.

Okay, enough of the philosophizing. Let’s talk about the anatomy of a great offer. Here are some traits that I think all great offers have:

  1. It will provide me with something that I consider valuable.
  2. It’s easy to access.
  3. It’s easy to understand and/or use.

1. Make Valuable Offers

So how do you figure out what people will consider valuable?

Ask current customers. Shoot them a quick email or make a quick call and ask them what they would get excited about seeing available on your website.

Ask potential customers.
Think of the type of business owners you want to do business with, and ask them what they would consider valuable. Chances are if you don’t directly know some of these people, you know someone who does.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Picture yourself as a business owner who lands on your website. What sort of information would be valuable? Tips on how to proofread more effectively? A 21-point guide on creating blog posts that get people talking? A step-by-step tutorial on writing an effective web page?

Worried that these types of offers give away too many trade secrets? Don’t. Educating your clients or prospective clients on certain writing tasks won’t put you out of a job. (Empowering people is never a bad thing. Well, at least in this case.) What it will likely do is 1) make them appreciate what you do even more and/or 2) make them advocate for you (especially if they’re reporting to people further up the food chain).

Something else to keep in mind: I believe in crafting multiple offers. Make them page specific. So if you have a service page on website copywriting, craft your offer around that. For example, a document called “What’s a title tag and why should I care?” might work well on this page.

2. Make Your Offers Easy to Access

Don’t make people email or call you. Make the offers free and downloadable off your site. Use simple forms (i.e. make the forms short). Get only enough info so that you can continue to stay in front of people, but don’t ask people to surrender every last shred of information about themselves. Don’t  use automatic opt-ins. If you have a question like “Do you want to subscribe to my newsletter,” make sure the “yes” box isn’t automatically checked. After someone hits “submit,” make sure whatever it is that people just signed up for—a document, a coupon, a webinar, access to a private area of your site—is obvious. Include easy-to-read directions if your offer involves anything that involves more than one step. A nice touch? Automated emails that include information around your offer.

3. Make Offers Easy to Understand

In your case, you’ll probably be providing tip sheets, white papers, and tutorials. Remember the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid). These items are not the place to show off jargon or impress people with your literary prowess. Instead, provide readable, practical information that a 10-year-old can follow, digest, and start using today.

The same holds true no matter what the offer is. If I run an online store, and I offer a coupon code, it should be clear as to what the code is and how and where I’m supposed to use it.

The best way to make sure you’ve taken care of items #2 and #3 is to test it yourself and then have some other folks go through the process.

Hope this helps!

Honest Marketing Copy: Ready for “Risky” Conversations?

Note from The Copy Bitch: I wrote this post in 2010, meaning SEVEN years ago (as I sit here reviewing it on 7/9/17). I was talking about “authentic copy” and “honest marketing copy” seven years ago, and now I’m screaming it at the top of my lungs. Be real, people.

The other day, I had a frank conversation with a client. I said, “Is your product really all that different from your competitors?” The reason I was asking was simple: it was a standard product. I’d gleaned that much from our conversations and competitor research.

He was honest. He said, “When comparing this product across similar tiers/companies, no–we’re NOT different.”

So the challenge I posed to him was this: “So WHY should people work with/buy from you instead of your competitors?”

He didn’t have a ready answer.

But I probed further.

Turns out that many of his competitors are newer companies. There’s no telling how long they’ll last or if they’ll last (although they might). My client’s company, however, has been around for 20+ years (although dealing with a sister product–not the newer product he was trying to sell, but still). The product he was selling requires ongoing tech support. It’s not a “one and done” type of sale. In addition, my client had plenty of experience working with the target audience he was going after (restaurant owners and small retailer owners)–he’d been doing that for years with his main business/other product.

OK.

So I recommended an honest message. I recommended truth. “Hey, our products aren’t much different from our competitors’. The software is pretty standard across the board in regards to the technology. Pricing is similar, too. Sure, you might get a discount here, a free trial there, but at the end of the day, the products are pretty much the same. So why should you buy from us then? Well, what you WILL get from us is security–we’ve been around for 20+ years. Many of our competitors are newer companies. We’re not suggesting they’re going to go under. But what we ARE saying is that you can count on us being here for ongoing tech support. We’re not going anywhere. Plus, we’ve worked with people in your industry. We already get what your challenges are, so we’ll set up the system to work with your business.”

See that? An honest message. A REAL message. Not sexy. Although in some ways (perhaps the same way I found James Comey very sexy during his testimony) it IS sexy.

Because the truth is sexy.

Authenticity is sexy.

Or refreshing, at the very least.

#gettingoffmysoapboxnow

Check out the original post from 2010 below.

Last month, HubSpot released some great news for me: a blog post titled “Calling All Content Creators: Marketers Spending More on Content in 2010.”

But the Great Content Proliferation of 2010 could prove problematic for businesses, and here’s why: now more than ever, what you say and how you say it matters. Yes, those two things have always mattered, but considering how fast The People can rebroadcast your messages via Twitter, Facebook, texts, and other social media, there’s A LOT of pressure on your words.

From my perspective, this means that “corporate speak” is a dying strategy when it comes to creating content, even in notoriously corporate industries. Stuffy, aloof, third-person, passive “Mistakes were made” ways of talking to customers won’t work when there are too many other CEOs who blog, tweet, text, and post status updates on fan pages in a conversational and familiar tone.

In other words: only real, authentic copy and messaging will rise above the endless chatter, not the platypus copy that results from well-meaning, but out-of-touch folks who red-line every natural phrase, who remove every bit of Chunky Monkey personality from the copy, who turn the copy into safe vanilla because it’s well, safe, even though it just won’t work in such a competitive vanilla-filled landscape.

You need to take risks with your copy, with your conversations, if you want your business to stand out in 2010.

But let me be clear about one other important point: the only thing risky about these conversations is the fear I guarantee 80 percent of my readers are experiencing right now. What I’d really like to call this newsletter is “Ready for REAL Conversation?” But we’re not there. Yet.

So let’s forget the adjectives and focus on the word conversation. The following addresses many of the questions I get from clients and onlookers alike regarding this pesky word.

1. What is conversation?
If you look it up, the keyword phrase you’ll see in most definitions is this: “informal discussion.” The very definition of the word gives you permission to have an informal tone.

2. Why should my tone with customers be informal?
Conversational, how I love thee! Let me count the ways! Informal methods (active voice, contractions, shorter words, shorter sentences) make your message easier to understand and retain. The formal method (no contractions, passive voice, $5 vocabulary words, longer complex sentences) involves more time and thinking. Need another reason? How ’bout this: because The People are accustomed to it now more than ever, thanks to 140-character texts and tweets. More? Okay, I saved the best for last: because it works.

3. So you’re advocating the dumbing down of society?
Not at all. I advocate that people read widely (fiction and nonfiction) and that they read balanced arguments about issues. But b2b and b2c copywriting should not sound like Proust. Why? Because reading Proust takes time. Ask yourself this: how much time does your audience have to read, understand, and remember your message? Not much, since they’re busy working, going to meetings, cooking, shuttling kids to soccer practice, working a second job, paying bills, shopping, sporting, and reading Proust. (Okay, I doubt most of your customers are reading Proust. Which should tell you something. But they’re likely doing those other things.)

4. I don’t believe you.
That’s okay. The proof is in the conversions. The best thing you could do is a split test (also known as A/B testing). Sending out a sales letter? Have two versions–a “professional” version and a “completely conversational” version. See which one converts better. My money is on the conversational one. You can do the same testing with email newsletters (start by testing subject lines) and website landing pages.

5. But conversational isn’t my style!
So what is your style? Pedantic? I doubt it. Listen, there are different levels of conversational (and the level you opt for will depend more on who your audience is rather than who YOU are). You don’t need to go the full monty the first time out of the gate. I understand–and accept–that not everyone, nor every business, can get away with using a well-placed “horse shit” in their copy. But a bunch of businesses can. And the ones who can’t could still have clean fun with “horse manure.” (Face it: “manure” is a funny and memorable word, especially when used in business writing.)

6. Okay, I’m not pedantic. But how can I do this conversation thing in my copy?
Listen to me: you already do. You just don’t know it. The absolute best thing you can do is this: record yourself having a conversation with someone about your business. Do not secretly record the conversation a la Linda Tripp, since this would be illegal. Ask permission and then record yourself talking to your marketing person, business advisor, co-worker, spouse, dog, whomever. (The dog is the last on the list because you really do need someone who can respond to you in order for this to qualify as a conversation. And if your dog talks back to you, there are other things we need to discuss first.)

Record yourself long enough so that you forget you’re recording. Just talk. Relax. Enjoy the conversation. Listen to what the other person is saying. Then respond. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Here’s what I’m betting you’ll notice when you listen back: how natural you sound. How authentic. How–holy crap!–conversational. You’ll be using contractions, colloquialisms, and short sentences. You might even start sentences with “and” or “but,” no doubt causing your poor sixth-grade English teacher to roll over in her grave. And guess what? The stuff you’re talking about will probably be interesting, specific, and concrete as opposed to the vanilla “expected” copy so many business websites succumb to. Your conversation will have personality.

Now do this: transcribe the conversation. YOU do it–don’t hire someone. I want you to feel the words as you type them out on your keyboard. I want you to see how they look on the page. I want you to envision how certain phrases and paragraphs would look and sound in your sales letter, on your web page, and in a marketing brochure.

Then ask yourself this: what risk is there in that?

(Note: I suggest doing the above exercise even if you use a conversational copywriter like me.)

7. But there IS risk! What if someone reading it thinks I’m an unprofessional moron?
Contractions won’t make you look like a moron. Neither will starting an occasional sentence with “but.” What will make you and your company look like an unprofessional moron? Misspellings and typos. Amateurish design. Unsubstantiated claims. Navigation that leads to the tenth circle of hell. Generalizations that waste my time. Hiding your contact info. Forms that don’t work. Sites that are blander than the vanilla ice cream that’s been sitting in my mom’s freezer since the Bush administration. The first one.

8. You say all this, but show me copy that works.
Okay. Check out these sites.

The Value of Good Copywriting

I received this email a couple of weeks ago (I’m not editing it):

Hi,

I am looking for someone to write web content for some of my clients and I would like to know what do you charge to write a 300-400 page. I have ongoing projects so this will be a long term project.

Thanks

– Don

What’s the problem with this request? The problem is that the prospect is thinking in rates rather than the value of good copywriting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand money talks and people need to be mindful of budgets and bottom lines (hell, I’m a small business owner, too). And I understand we’re in a tough economy. But when a web or marketing guy says to me, “How much do you charge to write 300 words of website copy,” he’s doing a major disservice to his client because he’s devalued what content can do: content can convert people into leads/sales or it can cause people to click away. This guy’s query smacks of “This is short copy, so it shouldn’t cost a lot.”

I was much more forgiving of this five years ago (even two years ago). But not today, at least not from a web/marketing guy who should have some understanding (if he’s serious about what he does) of the direct link between kick-ass content and conversions. This guy is stuck in ’90s Rateville instead of today’s Value City, at least according to this email.

Please know that I’m incredibly diplomatic when it comes to responding to people like this. Heck, we all need to learn about the wonders of Value City at some point (I did), and I’m always happy to share my knowledge and experience with a fellow freelancer. Here’s my response.

Hi Don,

Thanks so much for your email and for your interest in my copywriting services. I quote per project since every project is a little different.

Here’s what my quotes cover:

  • Talking to the client to get to the heart of what the company does…and figuring out how to engage the company’s core customers and prospects.
  • Providing input on design and the site map
  • Reviewing competitors’ websites to see what they do well (and what they don’t do well)
  • Reviewing all collateral materials (including, ideally, any messaging research that’s been conducted by the marketing people)
  • Crafting engaging copy for each page and following SEO best practices. This includes writing compelling, keyword-rich headlines; writing persuasive meta descriptions; and writing compelling calls-to-action (in addition to weaving keywords into the copy).
  • Brainstorming ideas for compelling offers (e.g. white papers). I’d charge separately for any writing that’s involved with these offers (i.e. I’d charge a separate fee to write the white paper).
  • One round of revisions

Note: I don’t typically focus on word counts per page (my main goal is converting site visitors into customers…sometimes this requires more copy and sometimes it requires less).

To give you an idea of my project quotes, I’m working on a 20-page site right now and charging $price redacted. I require 1/3 of the project fee up front and the balance is due within 30 days of the client receiving the first draft.

I write b2b and b2c copy. My style is conversational (which I believe is effective, regardless of the industry). However, some industries are a bit more “corporate” and prefer a more formal tone (think financial, insurance, etc). I refer these projects to colleagues who specialize in these areas (their rates are comparable with mine). I’d be happy to share their info.

Let me know your thoughts. I’d love to learn more about your business as well: are you a web developer, marketer, or…? Feel free to send me a link to your website or to send me portfolio samples. Also, how did you hear about me? If you’d prefer chatting on the phone, I’d welcome it. (I’m around during the holidays.)

Thanks again for your interest. Oh, one more thing: I’m booking into February at this point.

Best,
Robyn

Note: I used the word “rates” in my response to him. Why? Because this guy is my audience, and I need to talk in his language. I’m not going to convince him to go from caring about rates to value overnight, but it’s my hope that my email planted the seed.

I never heard back from the guy (even after sending a polite follow up that said “Just wanted to make sure you got my email to see if you have any questions), and I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there going, “Well, duh. You’re kind of blunt. And the guy was only talking about 300 words, and you overwhelmed him by talking about full-blown sites. This is overkill. And your price was probably sticker shock. Not to mention your closing line ‘I’m booking into February.'”

It’s true. I am blunt. For a reason. The person who responds to this email saying, “Yeah, let’s talk some more,” is someone I’d probably want to work with because he’s showing me that he’s seen the lights of Value City and would like to get closer. (Or that his email didn’t tell me the whole story, like maybe he really is a resident of Value City, but that this fact just didn’t translate in his query.)

Is it overkill? I don’t think so. Even if I’m writing only one page of copy (and I can’t for the life of me remember when I’ve been hired to do just that), I want that copy to work (i.e. convert), and that involves much more than simply sitting at a keyboard and banging out 300-400 words (why 300-400? Search engines don’t require specific word counts anymore, if they ever did).

Sticker shock? I’d be willing to bet that’s what this guy experienced when he saw my quote on the 20-page site, but that’s because he’s not thinking value.

Was my last line a “show-off” line. Nope. I’m booking web projects a month out (at least the completion of said projects). If this guy was looking for a 48-hour turnaround, it would be a waste of time to continue talking, so I think it’s only fair to say what my booking schedule is like (And yes, dear readers, it’s true: saying I’m booking a month out DOES sound like I’m selling myself by showing I’m “in demand.” The Copy Bitch has to don her pretty little sales hat from time to time. She is a working girl, after all.)

By the way, value won’t ravage your bottom line. It will improve it. And value won’t hurt your budget, if you base your budget on value. But if your budget is based on cheap rates, well, remember what your mama used to tell you about getting what you paid for.

Marketing Tips: Yes, You Have Competitors (Even if You Think You Don’t)

Dear Copy Bitch: I have a copywriter working on my website copy, and she recently asked me who my competitors are. Here’s the thing: I know it’s a standard question, but we really don’t have competitors. No one does the work as well as we do. We really are different. How do I explain this to the copywriter? Her copy should be focusing on what makes us so great, right?

—Awesome Company, Boston

Answer: Sure, from your perspective your nearest competitor is so far behind you that there’s no way anyone would possibly opt for said competitor over you, right? That’s a fine and dandy attitude to have if you’re, say, eight and still thinking the world revolves around you. But how ’bout putting on your big boy or big girl pants and looking at it from your prospects’ perspectives?

Your prospects don’t know you’re the be-all end-all in your industry, and they certainly won’t “get” it just because you tell them so on your website. Your copywriter is smart for asking about your competitors. Why? Because it’s important to look at how your competitors are positioning themselves, their services, and their products so that you can figure out what they’re doing right (because they will be doing something right, I guarantee it), what they’re doing wrong (ditto), and how you’re really going to demonstrate your company’s unique qualities (i.e., your unique selling proposition).

Remember, your website (and any other marketing vehicles) should be about your customers and prospects first. Acknowledge their needs, worries, fears, and pain and then demonstrate how your company fulfills those needs, relieves their fears and worries, and eliminates their pain.

There’s an adage in creative writing: show, don’t tell. The same is true here. Telling me you’re the greatest and that any “so-called” competitor is a lying heap of horse manure won’t be as effective as showing me how well you take care of your current customers and what makes you different from the competition.

Pretending the competition doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough or is too far behind you to catch up is dumb-ass marketing. Don’t do it.

Why I (Sometimes) Hate Writing Websites

This might sound weird coming from a copywriter, especially since I have a whole page devoted to my website copywriting clients. Especially since I’m knowledgeable about SEO copywriting (not all copywriters are). Especially since website writing tends to bring in the big bucks. (Reminder: SEO = search engine optimization.)

But when the web project isn’t set up right from the get-go, well…let’s just say they aren’t my favorite thing. (Note: I have gotten better at sniffing out the projects that aren’t the right fit.)

So how do web projects fall apart before they even start? Please know that this isn’t ego talking, but an SEO copywriter should be involved in the project from the very start. Yeah, even before you find a web developer. Why?

Simple.

Many web designers and developers don’t know the ins and outs of SEO. Designers are focused on creating engaging designs. Developers are often excellent programmers and coders. Both probably know something about SEO (it’s hard not to, at least today). But do either stop and think deeply about marketing? About messaging? About who the audiences are? About the keyword phrases people will use to get to the site? A good SEO copywriter will likely have strong marketing chops and think about these things and talk about these things first. And guess what? The answers to the messaging and audience questions will affect both design and site architecture (if you want the site developed correctly, that is).

Most of my website clients come to me as an afterthought. They think, “Oh, we need a website, so let’s find a web developer.” It’s usually the web developer who makes the referral to me, but by then, too much has happened. While it might seem logical to start with the web developer, it’s not an effective strategy.

If you’re building a new site, start with an SEO copywriter first.

Buy her expertise for 2-3 hours and have her work as a consultant. She’ll pick your brain on marketing messages, goals, expectations, competitors, keyword phrases, audiences–in other words, ALL the things you need to know before you can really do anything else.

Once all this info has been researched and digested, you should hire someone to do the keyword phrase research based on your keyword seed list (some SEO copywriters do this; others will refer you to search engine optimizers). Your keyword phrases will influence site architecture, the site map, and the design. At the same time this research is being conducted, you can begin talks with web designer/developers.

If you’re re-launching or revising your existing site, start with an SEO copywriter or SEO first.

Same thing. Buy the copywriter’s expertise or the SEO’s expertise FIRST. In fact, I’d say you should start with the SEO first, in this situation, even before turning to the writer (SEOs will review technical stuff; not all writers–even the good ones–are well-versed in that).

Note: there are web developers who really know SEO and tout this as one of their offerings. Still, most of these will involve a writer from the start, or close to it. There are also developers who say they know SEO, but it’s more cursory knowledge (which isn’t necessarily bad or misleading…after all, they’re developers, not SEOs). And there are a lot of indy developers who rely on writers and SEOs for the optimization part. Do your homework. Good developers will welcome working with writers from the get-go and/or respect the fact you’ve started your website project with a writer. Beware of the ones who don’t “get” this.

If you’re at the beginning of your web marketing project and need some advice, let’s chat. (Or check out my web writing portfolio to see examples of my work.)

“Make Your Mole Famous” – A Word on Compelling Headlines

So I just saw an interesting banner hanging over a heavily-traversed street in town:

MAKE YOUR MOLE FAMOUS.

Certainly got my attention. The first thing that flashed through my mind was Cindy Crawford’s mole and then the actual animal, even though I soon realized I don’t really know what a mole looks like.

Anyhow, the headline was in bold, and, of course, I needed to know what the heck it was about. Apparently, it’s for a new research study (the sub-headline following the headline indicated as much, but I couldn’t get all the info without causing an accident).

It’s a great headline, much more exciting than: Be Part Of a Mole Study or Be Part of a Research Study. So kudos to the person who came up with the headline.

However, boo to the follow-up. I’m pretty sure the research study is being sponsored by an organization called “SMOC.” However, upon googling things like “mole research study” + “SMOC” + my town’s name, I got nothing. Same if I googled the headline alone. Same if I simply googled “mole research study Massachusetts.”

So, dear banner-sign-creator, what if someone sees the banner and wants to be part of this study but doesn’t have time to risk getting into an accident to see if said banner has contact info? Shouldn’t there be something online–something that people can easily get to via a search on the phrase that he or she will likely remember, like “Make Your Mole Famous”? Why, yes. Yes, indeed that’s the way it should be. Ideas:

  • Create a web page on your site dedicated solely to the mole research study. In the title tag, you should use the headline: Make Your Mole Famous – Mole Research Study – Massachusetts. That should cover a variety of searches.
  • See if makeyourmolefamous.com is available (that would be a good URL to have on literature around town–fairly easy to remember).
  • Buy PPC ads on “Make your mole famous” and “mole research study” — I bet the cost won’t be prohibitive.

Lesson: think through every step your prospect/customer needs to take in order to complete the task at hand (be it a sale or sign-up for a research study). Do NOT make these steps hard. Make it as easy as possible.