Adams Hussey & Associates' Jim Hussey on Telling Great Stories
Emotional copywriting has been a marketing tactic mainstay since the dawn of man, practically. Want to engage someone? Want to get him to share your line of thinking? Want to get him to respond? Whether you're recruiting another caveman to join the hunt for food or trying to turn prospects into regular donors, tell a great story that they're likely to respond to.
Perhaps because that's not as easy as it sounds, or because other direct marketing techniques and new technology have bumped emotional copywriting down the priority list, there sometimes can be a stunning lack of originality in marketing copy today. To find out how and why mailers (and e-mailers) must get a better grip on telling fresh stories, especially in this challenging economy, I recently spoke with a master of this tactic, Jim Hussey, president of Adams Hussey & Associates. His company has offices in Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas and San Francisco, and its clients include the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Ethan Boldt: How do you and your company define emotional copywriting?
Hussey: It's definitely storytelling. There was a recent package that I wrote for one of our environmental animal conservation clients, centered on a wolf who dies a very tragic death outside the Yellowstone Park. That was an inspiring story because this wolf had been tracked by rangers throughout its life; it overcame adversity and had only three legs. The package was a success because people really responded to that story. I think most direct mail letters that are tied to emotion have to tell a story.
Boldt: Tell me how you deploy this tactic. Are you simply trying to tell a great story for a client that will evoke a strong emotion and one that translates into a response?
Hussey: The most important thing is you've got to connect with whoever is reading the letter. So the story has to connect to them. If the person is an animal lover, it's got to be something they can identify with. One of our clients is an association for aircraft owners. Typically, you don't think that's an emotional thing, but those aircraft owners and pilots are very passionate about flying—so it's important that you touch them as far as addressing their love of flying.
Boldt: Does response vary depending on the emotion aroused, from rage to sadness to guilt to fear?
Hussey: I don't think you can say that one emotion pulls better than the other. Any of those in the right circumstances can certainly pull a better response than a package without any emotion.
Boldt: Is it only particularly effective for fundraising direct mail?
Hussey: It works in other sectors, too. We also work with associations on their membership programs, and often those associations are addressing a need that an individual has. A lot of times they respond to stories of people who were in worse situations than themselves. For example, we work for an association that represents the rights for seniors, and often the more successful mail pieces are those that tell stories that are about similar situations to what the reader may be facing.
Boldt: Does shrinking of the package hamper your ability to use emotional copywriting?
Hussey: We haven't really resorted to that because I don't really believe that what is better is a short letter or long letter. I think what's best is whatever fits the need. Some letters can be done in two pages; others need three or four. Even despite all the pressures we're facing today, such as rising print costs, shipping costs and postage costs, I don't think you can take that shortcut and really get away with it.
Boldt: Does it belong on other components besides the letter?
Hussey: This is a trap that a lot of people new to direct marketing fall into. They think that 99 percent of their effort should be spent on the letter. You have to recognize that a direct mail package is a lot more than just the letter: It's also the carrier that pulls the person in; the other components such as brochures and buckslips. You have to use the whole package.
Boldt: How does emotional copywriting transfer to the e-mail or Web site? Or is the electronic medium the wrong place for too much emotion/storytelling?
Hussey: Everything conveys to the other. We're finding that the same type of stories and issues that work in direct mail also work online and vice versa. They're definitely tied together.
However, you have to be a lot tighter in your writing for anything that's Internet-based. Also, there are methods for trying to provide the reader of e-mail an option of clicking on a button to go to or the Internet site where they can read more about it.
Boldt: How has this timeworn tactic evolved? Because of current poor economic conditions, is it perhaps one of the most important tactics to win an increasingly stingy donor/prospect base?
Hussey: That's a very good question. Over the past one or two decades, it's become more and more difficult to develop a successful campaign based purely on the emotional value of the issue. I think some of that has to do with the various scandals that occurred during that time—the controversy over some of the 9/11 charities, the United Way's scandal. People are more skeptical about how their money is spent, so emotion alone just doesn't do it. You also have to be able to prove how their money is spent and prove the efficiency of the organization. They must understand that they're giving to something that is worthwhile and that their contribution is going to make a difference.
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Inside Direct Mail, a sister publication to Target Marketing magazine. To learn more about Inside Direct Mail, visit www.insidedirect mail.com.