Great Copy Ideas ... All You Have to Do Is Ask
If used properly, research can be one of a copywriter's most valuable allies in the process of creating a winning direct mail package. Notice I said "process." Writing successful direct mail doesn't just happen. You can't just stare at a blank computer screen and wait for lightning to strike. You've got to do your homework. And then be patient.
I've learned you can't hurry the process. And you can't take shortcuts. Believe me, I've tried.
In previous columns, I've discussed at length what I mean by homework and what I include in that category. One of those things is research, which can include focus groups and reader/subscriber surveys. It's a biggie, but it's only valuable if you know how to use it.
Get Some Focus
Focus groups conducted by publishers are made up of either past subscribers, current subscribers, orin the case of a new publication launchpotential subscribers within the target market. The group usually includes 12 people plus the moderator. Folks from the magazine or newsletter and you (as the copywriter) sit in an adjacent room behind two-way glass. You can see and hear the group, but they can't see or hear you. The moderator has been given specific questions to ask, things the magazine people want to learn from the group. Many times I've had an angle or concept that I wanted to explore, and the moderator has accommodated my request.
But what is it that we're looking for? What's in it for the copywriter?
I'm hoping to hear something from someone in the group that I can use as a direct quote, turn into a headline, or use as a concept that I can build my package around. For example, years (and years) ago, I worked at an ad agency that had Six Flags Theme Parks as a client. Six Flags was introducing a giant new roller coaster, and we conducted a focus group to find out what people's impressions were about roller coasters. Someone said he thought roller coasters were scary, and yet he liked the thrill of feeling afraid and taking a risk to his personal safety. This came up again and again in several of the groups. So, I used the "scare concept" for my copy. Here's what I wrote for the television commercial:
The first shock is seeing it. An awesome network of dipping, swirling wooden trackwith a 92-foot plunge that will thrust your heart into your throat.
Now, I know that's not a direct mail example, but it illustrates a copy direction I may not have taken if it weren't for the focus group.
More recently, I was doing a direct mail package for a well-established home and garden magazine. We were looking for new angles that would freshen a rather tired package. In the focus group, one woman said she loved the way her house looked when she drove up to it. It made her feel good inside. Another woman said that the way she had decorated her house was her greatest source of pride other than the daughter she had raised. It was obvious these women had a deep emotional attachment to their homesand that became the basic idea for the package. I looked for copy angles that played to this "feel good/sense of pride" idea. In fact, I used their quotesand others from the sessionsas key elements throughout the package.
Another thing you should pay attention to in focus groups is the reaction to covers, articles and columns. Quite often the ones you like just happen to be the least favorite of the group. What you learn here can help you choose the covers to show in the package, and which articles and columns to mention.
Besides focus groups, survey research from current and past readers and subscribersas well as non-readers and non-subscriberscan be helpful. You'll have to pore through a pile of papers that weigh a ton, and you may not find anything useful.
But what you're looking for are quantitative likes and dislikes related to articles, spreads, photographs, topics and covers. In this kind of research, you can study graphs and charts that show you relative percentages. You can see that 65 percent like the weight loss articles, 88 percent like the makeup articles, but only 45 percent like the "why we hate men" articles. In copy, you'd want to include the first two, but not the third. Focus groups don't give you this precise numerical breakdown, although they will say that the majority liked this, not that, and so on.
These surveys also will give you diagrams that indicate where the non-readers/non-subscribers perceive the publication in the marketplace relative to the competition. They might feel Arrow and Hunter is closest to Guns and Grenades. If this perception is wrong and the publication is really closer to Sticks and Stones, you know that part of your job as a copywriter is to correct that misconception.
Of Course, There's More to It
Of the two types of research, I generally find the focus groups to be the most useful from a copy standpoint.
But that's just me.
All this hoopla about research begs the question: What if your client never does research? Can you still create a winning package? The answer is, "Absolutely!" My point is that research is one of the tools a good copywriter can use to his or her benefit. But it's only one of zillions of other tools you have available to you.
You still can't get away from the fact that there's just no substitute for a copywriter's sixth sense. All the research in the world can be wasted on a copywriter who doesn't come with the "factory-installed, internal wiring" that is necessary for separating the wheat from the chaff, and then weaving that wheat into a super-duper headline, subhead or paragraph. It's the same innate sense that allows a copywriter to know when he or she is on to a great concept. It's like buying a house or finding a spouse. You'll know it when you see it. So, too, with useful research points.
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, Texas, and Aspen, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.