Increase Your Creative Wins (1,147 words)
by Dean Rieck
A famous chess player once revealed to me how he wins so many games, often against far more experienced players. What he said was this: "I try to avoid making mistakes."
I've never forgotten that bit of wisdom, and routinely give similar advice to clients and people who contact me wanting to improve their direct mail programs. The first thing I tell them is this: "Avoid mistakes before seeking brilliance."
What sort of mistakes? There are a few particularly stupid things I see again and again, each guaranteed to screw up your direct mail big time. Here are seven to watch out for.
Allowing a trigger-happy "general" agency within killing range.
A large chemical company sent me a self-mailer to review. It was trying to generate inquiries for a special program, but hadn't produced the sort of response they wanted.
I could tell by looking at the piece that a general agency had created it. The copy was cutesy, full of pun-heavy, meaningless headlines. The design was garish, with wild colors and hard-to-read type styles. The offer was hidden. The response elements were buried. The central message was disjointed and unclear.
My review consisted of two words: "It stinks."
My solution: "Do it again."
The company said it could design the piece if I gave it some new copy and specific design direction, so that's what I did. But when I got samples a couple months later, I was shocked. The copy had been hacked to death. The design had reverted to its original hideousness. The result? More lousy results.
Bottom line: Most general agencies simply can't do effective direct advertising.
Having the artist design the piece first, and the writer fill in the blanks.
Once an agency sent me a mockup of a 3-D mailing to announce a trade show. The copy areas were indicated by neat little gray boxes here and there in the design. My job: fill in the blanks.
But, I asked, what about a response form? What about a letter? No, just fill in the blanks, thank you.
Designers should never lead the creation of a direct mail sales message. Images entice, impress, demonstrate, dramatize, amuse and suggest, but they don't sell. Words sell. And words come from the writer.
Plastering a clever teaser on every envelope you mail.
A teaser is a technique, not a requirement. But some people seem to experience physical pain at the idea of mailing a plain envelope.
A financial services firm asked me to write a lead generation package. I delivered it, and my contact called me to say some of my copy was lost.
Client: There is no teaser copy for the envelope.
Me: Oh, I didn't write any.
Client: Didn't write any? The envelope can't go out like that. The board of directors wants a professional-looking package.
Me: Really? I would think they want a package that gets the best response possible. And in this case, I think that means using a plain envelope.
Client: Well, our designer has some ideas for teaser copy, so we'll come up with something.
The decision to use a teaser depends on what you are selling and your relationship with your prospects. And it depends on whether you want your ad to look like an ad. Sometimes it should. Often it shouldn't.
Spending two weeks on the brochure and two hours on the letter.
Brochures are sexy. Letters aren't. But the old saying is as true as it ever was: "The letter sells. The brochure tells."
A newsletter publisher sent me a direct mail package that wasn't working. I could see the problem right away. The letter was a four-paragraph snoozer—little more than "Enclosed you will find ...." The company president said his secretary wrote it.
Here's the bottom line. If it's in an envelope, it needs a letter. And if you enclose a letter, it should sell. That's where you make the personal connection. That's where you make your pitch. That's where you close the deal.
Allot your time accordingly.
Creating a slow-reveal "Burma Shave" brochure.
Burma Shave once ran an outdoor campaign that presented a rhymed
message with each line on a different sign along the highway. As you drove past, the message was slowly revealed, saving the product name for the end.
Cute. But a bad technique for direct mail brochures. When there are a few words of copy or a clever graphic on each panel, the reader has to open the brochure to figure out the message.
Burma Shave signs had a simple purpose: to fix the Burma Shave name in the minds of buyers. However, your brochure has a much more difficult and immediate task: to support the sales message in the letter with explanations, details and proofs. People look to it for information, not entertainment
If you have something to say, say it right on the cover. Make sure your message is clear no matter how the reader skips around from panel to panel.
Playing hide-and-seek with the order form, guarantee and testimonials.
A software company tested six versions of the same mailer. All performed poorly. Why? The order form was hidden on the last panel of the brochure. The guarantee—one of the strongest I've ever seen—appeared only once in the middle of some text. And the testimonials were merely filler for open areas in the design.
But an order form is not a piece of extra paper. A guarantee is not a necessary evil to jam into the copy. Testimonials are not a design element. These are each part of the skeleton of your direct mail message. Without that skeleton, the body of your package collapses.
Whenever possible, make your order form a separate piece that falls right into your prospect's lap. Highlight your guarantee on every piece. And group your testimonials so they make a stronger impression.
Guessing instead of testing.
This is probably the stupidest mistake of all. Despite our industry's image of being filled with number-happy bean counters, a frighteningly large percentage of businesses don't test properly.
One guy wanted me to help him sell a software product. He was using a self-mailer, but I thought he needed an envelope package. He said he had tested envelope packages and firmly stated that they don't work.
After asking specific questions, I found out he had done one mailing. With a new offer. To an untried list. During a bad time of the year. And hadn't mailed against his control.
Testing is expensive, but not as expensive as rolling out a mailing that is destined to under-perform.
Avoiding stupid mistakes won't guarantee success. But like the chess player, you will reduce your losses and thereby increase your wins.
Dean Rieck is a direct response copywriter, creative consultant and president of Direct Creative of Columbus, OH. Reach him at (614) 882-8823 or DeanRieck@compuserve.com