Don't Hire Bad Writers
Last month I launched into direct mail packages that are dead on arrival, doomed before they leave the copywriter's word processoryet somehow get produced, and mailed!
Question: Why are these packages being approved?
Answer: Because those who make the decisions on the client side are shooting in the dark. Many (not all) wouldn't know a bad package from a sure winner. They're betting big moneyand crossing their fingersthat one of the test packages they've commissioned just might work. If they get a winner, they won't know why. And if all the tests lose, they still won't learn from their mistakes.
Question: Why are these packages even being presented by copywriters for acceptance?
Answer: Because people who write this awful stuff: a) aren't really direct mail writers; b) continue to get jobs because clients don't know any better; and c) have convinced themselves they really are direct mail writers, and thus feel justified in walking the walk and talking the talk.
It's almost as if there are a bunch of people out there who've spent a night or two at a Holiday Inn Express, woke up one morning, and decided they were direct mail copywriters. Yet these people get assignments! The industry is enabling bad work to take root and growto the extent that it's now strangling the very industry that supports it.
Good-bye great packages. Hello vouchers.
You might think: Now, Ken, aren't you being a little too harsh? You get up on the wrong side of the bed or somethin'? No, I'm just expressing what I know to be a huge problem in the industry.
Case in point: I was recently sent six direct mail test packages that my client had mailed over the years. (I had asked for these because it helps me to see what roads they've already been down before I recommend a new direction.) There were two 6" x 9"s, two 6" x 11"s, one 9" x 12" paper and one magalog. Format wisea good test. (The control was a backer with a double postcard.)
Well, guess whatof the six test packages, none beat the control. In fact, none even came close. The most successful had a gross index of 48. Two tied at 47. One was a 40 and another a 39. And the magalog scored a whopping gross index of 36.
Not one test package even indexed a 50. If it had been a boxing match, it would have been stopped before the net orders came in!
Now hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it's easy to pick on these packages after we know how they performed (or didn't!) But reallyif you saw these packages and read the copy, you'd put the odds of winning (or even eking out a 75 gross index) at slim to none. (Out of my sense of decency, and in order to protect the identities of the publisher and the creative teams involved, I'm not going to show you these packages. It's sort of like Texas roadkillyou sure can smell it, even if you never see it.)
My point? Six test packages that can't even index a 50 is a lot of wasted time and money on the publisher's part. And to learn what? That its backer control is so strong nothing can touch it? That traditional packages don't work anymore? That we're witnessing the end of direct mail in our lifetimes?
No. It means that: a) clients aren't being selective enough in awarding assignments in the first place; or b) aren't willing to pull the plug on a creative team before the package goes into production. Sure you'll pay a kill fee, but better to kill a bad package than to let it slither out the door and get into the mail.
So how do you know who to hire and who not to hire? Well, last month I talked about how to judge a creative portfoliohow to look for packages that were alive, jumped out at you and had chutzpa, zest and pizzazz! (If you can't detect a pulse, they're not alive.) I focused on outer envelopes, and I said I'd get into the rest of the package this month.
Well, before I do, I'm going to plug a friend's book"Winning Direct Response Advertising," by Joan Throckmorton. I have the second edition, written in 1997. I think it's the best soup-to-nuts explanation of what makes great (i.e. effective) direct mail tick. I looked on Amazon.com and they said it's out of print, but you can get used copies. It's even worth a trip to the library. Whatever you have to do, try and get your hands on one. You'll learn all you need to know about how winning direct mail works. And that should help you evaluate those piles of direct mail samples you get from writers and designers. Joan includes tons of examples of great outers, letters, brochures, order cards, lift notesthe works.
Now, my quick rules about letters: First, make them look like letters used to look. The body of the letter should look as if it came out of a typewriter. The font should be either Courier or Prestige Elite.
The Johnson Box area can be typeset in a font that matches the rest of the package, but it doesn't have to be. People still read four-page letters, despite arguments to the contrary. I prefer four-page letters to two-page letters. Remember David Ogilvy: "The more you tell, the more you sell"? (I'm betting that three-fourths of all magazine circulation departments out there just said in unison, "David who?")
Give a condensed version of the offer on page one, and the full offer completely on page four. Make sure it doesn't begin on page three and carry over.
Find a clever, rhythmic way to close the letter before the sign-off. Use three or four sentences that start with "if," "for" or "when."
Have the letter signed with either a No. 1 pencil or a felt-tip pen. That makes for a bolder, more authoritative signature, and not a skinny, wimpy one that looks weak.
As far as how the letter readsit's tough to explain. Like a girl with great eyes or a guy with a firm butt, you'll know a good one when you see it.
A good direct mail letter reads like a Lexus drivessmooth, tight and effortless. You should be able to go through four pages like a hot knife through butter. If you stumble, hit a speed bump or two, or get lost, it's not a good letter. If you've got to force yourself to read page one, it's not a good letter. If you'd rather be shopping with your mother-in-law than read page one, it's not a good letter. Get the idea?
I think my time is up, so I'll put a period here. And get into order cards and lift notes next time. Go buy Joan's book. And don't hire bad writers.
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.