Defining the Copywriter's Mission
It's time for you to get moving on the creative for a new direct mail acquisition package. You do a search for a new freelance copywriter or you brief your agency, and you give out the assignment. You provide background material including research, the current control and previous failed efforts, etc. It's all good, professional direct marketing management.
You have forgotten one key thing, though: What is the copywriter's job or objective? You're not alone in your omission. Very few creative briefs cover this; there are almost no conversations between client and creative team about it either.
"But," you might ask, "isn't it every copywriter's job to write a great package?" That gets to the heart of the matter: What do we mean by "great package"?
Do You Find Yourself in Any of These Situations?
Let's say that you're the new business manager for a consumer magazine that uses mostly sweepstakes mailings
to generate new subscription volume. "Great package" in this case would mean a mailing that generates the highest gross response, i.e., sweeps entries. Here, the copywriter's job is not to be concerned about how many respondents cancel the magazine after the trial issue, or how many trial subscribers convert after the first year. It is solely to get response. No matter how much the copywriter wants to romance the magazine, that is not his or her job. Including anything more than a minimal product description tends to depress response in sweepstakes mailings.
Less clear cut was this situation, which happened a few decades ago. The writer was the legendary Bill Jayme and the client was Business Week. The assignment was to create a new package to beat the control. The result: Jayme's effort generated the highest gross response in decades, but the pay-up was only 20 percent. Net paid was about the same as the much lower-pulling control. Had Jayme done his job? Not in this case; his test package clearly oversold or misrepresented the magazine. The circulation manager's role in this: He did not inform the writer about what metrics were important.
Then there's this scenario: A copywriter was hired by a gourmet dine-at-home service to create a lead generation package for new business. This was a launch, so there was no control. The copywriter was given the company's mission statement, a copy of the catalog for existing customers, and a roster of the lists that would be used for the test. He was told that the objective was to generate phone calls to the company's internal sales force. The package mailed and the copywriter received the bad news: Very few people called. But what the copywriter didn't know changed the scenario entirely. In the frenzy of developing a new package, the client didn't tell him that the mailing would be followed up by outbound phone calls. The results of this follow-up met the company's expectations. However, the copywriter knew that he could have developed a better package all around had he known the client's real objectives. The strategy behind the package should have been much different: There should have been less detail in the mailing, and more memorable points that the telemarketers could connect to in their sales pitch.
When More May Be Less
In B-to-B lead generation, most would argue that the copywriter's job is to create a package that produces the highest number of leads. After all, the sales force isn't under marketing's control, so how those leads convert has nothing to do with the copywriter's efforts. Assuming that there is some degree of quality to the leads, this is true.
However, there are circumstances in which producing a high number of leads should not be the objective. Suppose, for instance, that the sales force consists of one person and that same person is the "product"a business coach. Here, the job of the copywriter is to produce just those leads most likely to turn into sales. A mailing of 5,000 pieces that generates 10 leads and eight new coaching clients is much more successful than one that generates 25 leads and the same eight new clients.
Tactician or Strategist?
What about this situation: The copywriter is brought in to a major insurance mailer. The mission clearly is to beat the control, and here we're talking purely about generating leads. The client is sophisticated and has tested a raft of packages over the years.
To beat the control, what are the copywriter's marching orders? Should he or she analyze the control, failed tests and competitor's winners, and then come up with variations of the control? Or should the writer swing for a home runa completely new big idea? (Of course, "anything goes" does not apply because of insurance regulations.) The copywriter cannot answer that question without the guidance of the client. The client's answer probably will depend on how well the control is performing relative to the company's goals.
In general, is it the copywriter's job to leverage major societal trends into a package? Or just to stick to proven direct mail tactics?
Wanted: Better Job Descriptions
The point is that it is not enough to say to a copywriter: "Beat the control." In addition to available research, you need to define how you measure success and what your tolerance is for risk. And copywriters need to ask these questions of clients who don't know enough to provide the information.
Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation,
insurance and financial services, high-tech, and B-to-B marketing. He works with direct response agencies in addition to having his own clients. Read more of Stein's articles at www.leemarcstein.com.