How to Act Like a Good Copywriter: Part I
While a direct marketing copywriter need not pose a threat to Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks, the ability to do some role-playing can be very helpful in creating successful communications.
Of course you should learn as much as you can about the product or service that you're selling. But it can be just as important, if not more so, to know as much as you can about the person you're selling to. You need to put yourself in his shoes, not to mention his mind and his mailbox.
This goes way beyond knowing basic demographics. It means knowing what your target is thinkingabout the product category, about your company, about your specific product, about your competitors and about his needs and desires. And it means capturing his mind-set as he's leafing through his stack of mail on the day your mailing arrives. That's why I think of this as "mind-set marketing."
Putting yourself in the place of your prospect can go a long way toward determining what type of creative you approach him with. Let's look at some of the points in the previous paragraph and see how they might shape a mailing. This month, I'll take the first three: your product category, your company and your product. I'll talk about the rest in Part II, next month.
What Does Your Prospect Think About Your Product Category?
Is your prospect likely to already be in the category? This is a crucial question. If he's not in the category, you have to take a market development positioning: Why does he need this product? In this case it may not necessarily be beneficial to say why he needs your product, just why he needs this type of product in general. This may be especially true if it's a relatively new product category. If you can convince him he needs the type of gizmo you're selling, and he happens to be holding a mailing for your gizmo, he's likely to buy it. Depending on other factors, this situation often calls for highly promotional announcement-like creative.
However, if it's an older product category, and he still hasn't bought into it, you need something to get him off the fence and finally into the category. That "something" might be a new feature, a new price or offer, or a spectacular guarantee. If this is the case, it dictates that the creative lead with that new something: "Finally, a gizmo that ..."
If, on the other hand, your prospect is already in the category, you have to take a competitive stance: Why is your gizmo better than the gizmo he already has, or, as in the case of say, credit cards, why does he need your product in addition to the one he already has?
Often, determining what your prospects think of your category is difficult because it's unclear how you should think of your category. For instance, let's say your product is a news magazine. Is your category news magazines? All magazines? All news sources?
It could be that as much as you'd like to sell your magazine on its own merits, it may be too difficult to make a compelling case for questions such as:
* Why should your prospect read a news magazine instead of, or in addition to, watching TV news or reading a daily paper?
* Why is reading a news magazine a better use of your prospect's time than reading other types of magazines?
* Why is your news magazine more worthwhile than other news magazines?
Obviously, it's tremendously difficult to do all this in a mailing, which is why many circulation directors don't even try. They instead rely on non-editorial-based tricks and offers to get their publications into peoples' hands.
Some categories are at, or way past, the saturation point. Take credit cards, for example. Qualified prospects are drowning in offers, and one product is more or less at parity with the others. If you're a card marketer, you have to take that into account. Put yourself in the customer's place. Think about the number of credit card solicitations he receives, and the fact that he probably already has one or more cards. It might lead you to hide the fact that your mailing is a credit card offer until the envelope is opened (instead of plastering "PRE-APPROVED" or APR rates on the outer envelope). Or it might lead you to acknowledge his situation or mind-set as a jumping off point for telling him why he should be interested in your card ("We know you may not need another credit card, but here's why you'll WANT our card ...").
Perhaps your bank already has a relationship with the prospect. That brings me to the next point.
What Does Your Prospect Think About Your Company?
Your company falls into one of three categories in the mind of your target:
1. He's heard of you and has some sort of impression of your company.
2. He has first-hand experience with your company.
3. He's never heard of you.
In the case of the first option, you should have an idea (through research) of what type of image your firm has in the mind of your prospects. The tonality and graphics of your mailing should be in line with that pre-formed image (unless, of course, your prospect has a terrible image of your firm and you're trying to change itsomething you probably can't do with a mailing anyway).
What does seeing your nameeven if it's only in the cornercard of an outer envelopesay to your prospect? Does it lend instant credibility to your offer or product? Then maybe you want it out there, big and bold. Does it telegraph what the mailing's about? Then maybe you don't.
Does your prospect think of you as a big, established company? Then that's what you have to work with, for better or worse. The tonality and graphics of your mailing should be in keeping with thatauthoritative and assured. On the other hand, if you're thought of as the rule-breaking upstart, you can use hipper copy, funkier graphics, humor and so forth.
GEICO is a great example of that. It would be a mistake for a more traditional insurance firm to try to beat GEICO at its own game. Even if a bigger company was competitive with GEICO on pricing, it would be better off using a more serious, authoritative tone, and setting forth an argument as to why big and established is better.
I can sum up the whole tonality issue with one thought: The Dell computer dude was great; an IBM computer dude wouldn't have worked.
What if your company currently has a relationship with the person you're mailing to, or has had one in the past? Then chances are it's a good idea to take advantage of itunless the relationship has been negative, or possibly unless you inundate your housefile with mailings. (At some point, you should test your housefile control with and without corporate identification on the outer envelope, to see where you stand).
In any case, an existing relationship gives you creative options (such as transactional-looking "important notice about your account" type mailings) you simply don't have in a cold mailing. It also lets you imply exclusivityan offer just for customers. And it's often a reason to use more personalization and imaged versioning, particularly if you can alter your pitch meaningfully based on that prospect's prior behavior with your company.
If your prospects have never heard of your company, you have to take steps to overcome their fear of dealing with an unknown entity. This takes on more or less importance depending on the price point of your product, and its importance in the lives of your prospects.
For instance, if you're selling a $9.95 video, you may not need to establish the company at all; the product is everything, and a $10 expenditure doesn't need a ton of reassurance. But if you're selling an insurance policy, a computer or a vacation package, then the entire sale might hinge on establishing a reputation for the company that stands behind the product. Be sure to include copy (possibly in a lift note), that helps assure the prospect that he's dealing with a reputable firm.
Finally, if your prospect has a negative perception of your company, it might lead you to use trickery to get the outer envelope opened. You might do creative that looks like personal mail instead of something coming from a corporation (don't forget to remove corporate identities from the cornercards and indicias). You might do something very "official"-looking.
If you get promotional, do all you can to get the prospect interested in your offer and product before his perception of your company can get in the way. And, depending on what you think the reason for the negative perception is, you might include copy that tells him how you've changed.
What Does Your Prospect Think About Your Product?
Does your prospect already have an opinion about your product? Is it good, bad or indifferent? You need to know what your starting point is so you know if you have a base to build on or a negative perception you have to counter.
For instance, when BMG Music Club moved to an 8-for-the-price-of-1 offer, it always made sure to mention there was no further commitment beyond the initial deal, because it knew that commitments were a negative perception people had about music clubs.
On the other hand, if you know your prospects already think highly of your product, you can say less about the product itself and more about the special offer that's going to help them get it ("Now you can get it at XX% off!").
Next month, in Part II, I'll talk about why it pays to know what your target audience thinks of your competition. Then I'll get personal and talk about your target audience's needs and desires (and how to position your product to meet them). Finally, I'll accompany your prospect to his mailbox on the day your mailing arrives to see what more you need to do to get yours opened.
Mark Hallen's ad agency career included stints as copywriter for Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, and creative director
at Grey Direct and J. Walter Thompson Direct. For the last 12 years, he's been doing winning direct mail and direct
response TV for agencies and directly for clients. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.