Conscious Creative: Take Inspiration From DM's Star Players
As I tell the attendees in the Direct Marketing Association seminars I lead on copywriting for various media, it's far easier to critique something that has been written than write something from scratch. (One reason that first draft may be so challenging can be found in former Poet Laureate Mark Strand's comment that, "All writing is writing against the void.")
And since all good writers are rewriters/editors, it's usually no problem for either me or my seminar audiences to find ways to improve a piece of existing copy. There's always a passive verb to turn active ("The book features ..." beats "The book will feature ...") or a little qualifier to prune ("You can make your fortune ..." beats "You can pretty much make your fortune ..."). But just as talented, young athletes find they can improve their level of play by studying the techniques and discipline of sports stars, so can copywriters improve their craft by studying fellow copywriters' winning direct mail packages.
American Heritage Dictionary defines a Monday morning quarterback as "one who passes judgment from a position of hindsight." For this month's column, I'd like to take that role with a direct mail letter written by my good friend and respected colleague Kate Petranech. She's a consummate direct mail pro: 26 years in the business as a copywriter/consultant; Direct Marketing Association of Washington (DMAW) Professional of the Year; and chair for many years of DMAW's justifiably well-known and well-attended annual conference.
Petranech's clients enjoy and appreciate her, so much so that they stay with her for years. One long-term client is the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific organization with more than 158,000 professional members.
ACS' current member acquisition control mailing was written by Petranech in 2003. Critiquing its two-page letter yields a number of smart things to remember when writing direct mail copy:
1. Flatter your readerand be specific in your praise.
The creative concept for this letter takes its lead from legendary copywriter Ed McLean's classic opening for a famous, formerly long-term control for Newsweek: "If the list on which I found your name is any indication, this is not the firstnor will it be the lastsubscription letter you receive. ..."
The ACS Johnson box begins:
You have been invited to apply for membership in the American Chemical Society.
To accept this invitation please complete the
enclosed application and return it in the envelope provided for evaluation and approval.
Note how that verbal duo of "evaluation and approval" converts what could be dull boilerplate copy into something special and specific. It continues to flatter prospects with the idea that their career will be validated with membership in the ACS.
2. Open strong, with short, forceful sentences.
Each year, our department compiles a roster of likely candidates for membership in ACS. This roster is forwarded to a select committee which
reviews and approves each entry. (Nice drama building with this narrative here.)
Your entry was included on their list.
As the copywriter, Petranech has done a masterful job here of manipulating her reader's emotions. You can feel the relief, pride and satisfaction that the recipient experiences. Good copywriters always manipulate their readers' emotions.
3. Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing.
Did you notice how separating that third sentence from the first twoturning, "Your entry was included on their list" into its own paragraphadds impact? Good writers "hear" the words, sentences and paragraphs they write ... and pay careful attention to almost musical pauses that paragraph breaks and punctuation can invoke.
I always say that the ellipses might be the copywriter's most potent and flexible punctuation mark. You can use ellipses to break up a sentence, like I did in the last paragraph. Or lead the eye from the outer envelope teaser copy into the package (as in, "See inside for details ...") or onto the next page of a letter. Ellipses provide both visual direction and rhythmic pause.
Another point of copy rhythm to pay attention to as you write is the natural rhythm of three. Think red, white and blue or tall, dark and handsome. Our hearts in a relaxed state beat in a rhythm of three: lub-dub-pause, lub-dub-pause. Lullabies often are set to a slow rhythm of three. Used in
direct mail, it's at once familiar and comforting.
You'll find lots of examples of the rhythm of three in direct mail copy. Here's how Petranech uses it in the ACS control:
You'll be briefed on breaking news, and the latest research findings in the U.S. and around the world. Gain perspective on issues from top practitioners, company presidents and policy-makers. And get a heads-up on government funding that could jump-start or stall future research.
The online edition will be a real time-saver ... allowing you to preview an issue for items of interest, research past articles and check on new job listings.
4. Remember the FOG index and pick the right words for your readers.
There's a handy Web site called http://readability.info that allows you to upload a document and determine the difficulty of reading your writing. The FOG index, developed by Robert Gunning, is one formula that assigns a school grade level, based on the following formula:
G=W + H x .04
G=grade level required to read passage
W=average number of words per sentence
H=percent of words with 3+ syllables
A good level to aim for is sixth grade.
When it comes to picking the right words, Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug."
Sprinkled throughout the ACS control letter are a number of unexpected but "right" words"relationships that will spawn new ideas," "behemoth of chemical data," and "signify your position." Since we can assume professional chemists have gained an education well beyond sixth grade, these words work in this letter and, in fact, add a nice element of braininess that's both flattering and convincingflattering in that the copy doesn't oversimplify topics for an audience that's more sophisticated and thus convincing that it represents an articulate, intelligent mix of products and services available to ACS members.
I hope this Monday morning quarterbacking on a successful control mailing is helpful. And if you haven't already, I encourage you to take a critical eye to the mailings that keep turning up in your mailbox time and again. With some careful research, you will identify a few quick maneuvers used by the pros that you can practice and master for your own soon-to-be game-saving controls.