“The severest test of an advertising man is in selling goods by mail.”
If Claude Hopkins is right, our digital writing is severely tested each day. This fourth chapter in Scientific Advertising, “Mail Order Advertising: What It Teaches” explains why learning to craft mail order advertising can help us all communicate better.
How Print Beats Your Webpage
Do your e-words drive the sales they could? Advanced as we believe ourselves to be, the current rigors of assembly and transmission make many webpages far less effective sales tools than print. We’ve been honing paper ads for hundreds of years. But daily I see scattershot web pages that clients expect me to get aloft with words alone.
Words can be like battering rams. But they don’t break things without logistics. You’ve got to hone your web page’s back-end, its page speed, and swing it higher on search. Then you can write and add graphics. But carefully. Every element on the screen has to do psychological work, from the pictures to the headings and captions, to the invisible flow.
That’s all not much different from crafting a mail order.
Your Copy Has the Hardest Job of All
“It is far harder to get mail order than to send buyers to the stores,” says Hopkins. “It is hard to sell goods which can't be seen. Ads which do that are excellent examples of what advertising should be.” The mail order writer pays by the inch, and when all space counts you learn what sells.
Here’s what happens when you don’t: “A man was selling a five-dollar article. The replies from his ad cost him 85 cents … Another man submitted an ad which for two years brought replies at an average of 41 cents each. Consider the difference on 250,000 replies per year. Think how valuable was the man who cut the cost in two.”
His point is well taken by our Pay Per Click team. Knowing what works and what brings returns takes constant testing, which is scientific or at worst, procedural. The two differences between PPC and Hopkins’ ads are space and reply time. PPC is a straightjacket offering little more than headlines of enticement. (Not to be outdone, Hopkins spent at least as much time on headlines as he did on sales copy.)
Use Scientific Advertising, Now
Unlike PPC, with traditional ads or web writing you have plenty of room for trouble. To get out of it, apply the rules of mail order:
- “Mail order advertising is always set in small type. It is usually set in smaller type than ordinary print. That economy of space is universal. So it proves conclusively that larger type does not pay. Remember that when you double your space by doubling the size of your type. The ad may still be profitable. But traced returns have proved that you’re paying a double price for sales. In mail order advertising there is no waste space. Every line is utilized. Borders are rarely used. Remember that when you are tempted to leave valuable space unoccupied.”
- “There is no boasting, save of super-service.” (We learned about service last week. To find boasting look anywhere.) “There is no useless talk. There is no attempt at entertainment. There is nothing to amuse. Mail order advertising usually contains a coupon. That is there to cut out as a reminder of something the reader has decided to do.” Sometimes the offer may be stashed or bookmarked for a long time - months - until the person decides it’s finally time to buy. It’s behavior more common with a hefty sale.
- “In mail order advertising the pictures are always to the point. They are salesmen in themselves. They earn space they occupy. The size is gauged by their importance. The picture of a dress one is trying to sell may occupy much space. Less important things get smaller spaces.”
An ad that you double in size will only pull double the buyers when that extra space is filled as powerfully as the first. Let’s see two examples.
Fine Ads, Until He Craved His Golden Eggs at Once …
“A man advertised an incubator to be sold by mail ... he increased his space 50 percent to add a row of chickens in silhouette. It did make a striking ad, but his cost per reply was increased by exactly that 50 percent. The new ad, costing one-half more for every insertion, brought not one added sale. The man learned that incubator buyers were practical people. They were looking for attractive offers, not for pictures."
Here’s a similar ad to the one Hopkins describes above. Do you think it would grab buyers without the illustration? Likely, and for two reasons. One: The chickens don’t add to my understanding of the product. Two: The offer is alluring enough: “Live Chicken. Have it Killed …” I’m reading that.
Why Mead Is Perfect
Compare the chickens to this Mead Bicycle ad. The pictures give me useful and arresting information, because these are the exact bicycles I could own. This ad happens to be from 1923, the date Scientific Advertising was published, and Hopkins spoke with Mead himself:
“Mr. Mead told the writer that not for $10,000 would he change a single word in his ads. For many years he compared one ad with the other. And the ads you see today are the final results of all those experiments. Note the picture he uses, the headlines, the economy of space, the small type. Those ads are as near perfect for their purpose as an ad can be.”
I think we can infer, based on Hopkins’ rule that well-used space converts, if the bicycles hadn’t been shown, Mr. Mead would have gotten about half the response - because the bicycles provide us useful information. (What works better: These unique, hand drawn bicycles from 1923, or a guy in a suit from Shutterstock drawing on glass?)
Make Your Ad Sell
The moral for Hopkins ... write and design the way you sell in person. With nothing extra: “What real difference is there between inducing a customer to order by mail or order from his dealer? Why should the methods of salesmanship differ? They should not. When they do, it is for one of two reasons. Either the advertiser does not know what the mail order advertiser knows. He is advertising blindly. Or he deliberately sacrifices a percentage of his returns to gratify some desire.”