Direct Response Love and Hate – with Andy Maslen!
Just last week, I was looking for something to occupy my mind while I waited for dinner to cook. As the spuds boiled away in their lightly salted, bubbling bath, I reached for a nearby book – Andy Maslen’s 100 Great Copywriting Ideas from Leading Companies Around the World.
It’s the kind of reference book that’s perfect for a quick flip through from time to time – solid, no-nonsense practical ideas that I find make for a good jump-start of the brain on occasion… but it’s also a book that offers something of an anchor for the wandering mind of the creative writer.
A reminder of something that, as a copywriter, it would be very much to your detriment to forget…
The fact that you’re a salesperson.
The ultimate outcome of your work as a copywriter is to encourage and facilitate transactions between your client and their customers and prospects. Whether you’re contracted to write blog content, website copy, direct mail shots or brochures the goal is (usually) the same – explain to people why your client is the one they should go to meet certain needs.
And thus to make your client money.
Andy’s afterword in 100 Great Copywriting Ideas touches on something that is at the very heart of copywriting, something that’s drilled into us from the early stages of learning the craft.
That something is never forgetting the basic desires that drive people – and how addressing these in copy makes for much more successful promotion than generic, high-level waffle.
With Andy’s permission, here’s what he has to say in the book:
Rereading this book in manuscript form, it struck me that many of the ideas could be interpreted by an outside observer as being somewhat cynical. There’s a lot of talk about playing on your reader’s emotions and basic drives. About how people are driven by ignoble motives and what you, as a copywriter, can do to exploit those to sell stuff. I guess, though I like to believe the best of people, there’s a part of me that is, if not outright cynical, at least a little wary of the reasons people give for acting in a certain way.
It’s only natural that we should want to present our actions in a positive light. It’s as if we have our own internal PR department, issuing press releases that always place a positive spin on our motives and our behavior. But is wanting to look good in front of one’s contemporaries really such a sin? Is a desire for material things really something we need to worry about? Is a need for praise or flattery up there with pulling wings off flies? I don’t think so. We are who we are, and those of us who make our living as copywriters ignore that at our peril.
AIDA or AI-DON’T?
It was later that evening, with a belly full of pork ‘n’ potatoes, that I came across a few negative opinions online (from within the industry) regarding the classic style of direct mail copywriting. You know the kind I’m talking about – predominantly US market stuff from the likes of Dan Kennedy, John Carlton, Clayton Makepeace and many others. Stuff that makes up a huge amount of swipe files industry-wide, and is still used when teaching copywriting today.
Said opinions referred to this style as ‘hard sell’, decrying its use of (sometimes extremely) long copy and formulaic construction (let’s just go with AIDA for now) as something that might work, but would rather be avoided in favour of a different type of direct response copy – a type that builds, and works in cohesion with, your brand.
What that means, entirely, I’m not certain – surely all marketing, whatever the form, should remain on-brand if that is something that your business is actively building and maintaining.
Taking this in, I flew back to Andy’s afterword… and wondered whether it would be valid to turn its perspective around to look at the mind of the copywriter herself – a warning of always staying aware of the copywriter’s own role, even before you start thinking about prospects.
Is such dismissal of proven profitable technique the result of forgetting what it is that forms the core of your trade?
The yearning, as a writer, to explore and embrace creativity leading to defiance of a more utilitarian style of sales writing that is, for some reason, beneath you – despite its proven commercial success?
A reluctance to admit the ugly truth that you’re in the business of making sales?
It’s absolutely true that much of the more visible use of the methods in question can be seen on landing pages flogging pipe dream information products and dodgy supplements through hyped-up, emotionally charged copy.
But shouldn’t we level our sights at the writers of such unashamed snake oil copy rather than the building blocks that give it life?
Because regardless of opinion, it’s obviously there because it works.
Quick! To the Maslenmobile!
With this in mind, I cornered Mr. Maslen at his desk at the Sunfish copywriting agency (alright, I got him on the phone) to pick his brains on the topic. I’ve seen him talk a few times of his successes with long copy, including direct mail, and wondered what he might think of this particular perception shift.
“I think the situation’s more nuanced than that,” says Maslen. “I think it’s as wrong to say that there are only two kinds of direct response copywriting as it is to say that there are only two kinds of advertising copywriting – the kind that sells, and the kind that builds brands. It’s more of a spectrum – though probably with blocks in it more than a continuous curve.
“At one extreme end of the direct response spectrum, you’ve got the ultra-long, ultra hard sell – yes, American style – copy, frequently selling things that are borderline Ponzi schemes… sort of, buy this DVD course to learn how to get rich quick, and the basic idea is to produce some DVDs telling people how to get rich and sell them with this formula. It’s a sort of vanishing-into-infinity cycle of credulity, I suppose.
“On the other end, where I actually work, you’ve got magazines like The Economist who sell subscriptions by – believe it or not – paper-based direct mail, amongst other channels. That is brand-building… I mean, if you talk to Mark Beard, who is the circulation marketing director of The Economist, I don’t think he’d say that what he’s doing wasn’t building his brand, but it’s also selling subscriptions at the same time.
“Most big utilities companies – Virgin Media [for example], and most financial services companies – are still doing paper-based direct mail let alone anything else. So that is direct response too, and most people I speak to who’ve tested copy length have found what everybody has always ever found… which is that the more you tell, the more you sell.
“John Caples was saying that, David Ogilvy was saying that… Drayton Bird was saying it, and so have I – because it’s true! And we all know it’s true because we’ve counted order forms. If you do an A/B split test and count the order forms into two piles, you’ll generally find that the biggest pile has come from the longest copy.
“I’m still waiting for somebody to publish a book saying ‘shock news: shorter copy out-pulls longer!’ I mean, people publish blog posts saying this is all nonsense, but they never actually publish the results of tests that back up their assertions with evidence… the numbers simply will not work in their favour, no matter how hard they say it.”
Synergy in Formula… Or Branded Into Oblivion
Comments made regarding the separation of classic direct mail and branded advertising raise the question of whether there really is a distinction between the two. I would argue that no, there isn’t… this is a construct of the copywriter-in-denial, leaning toward a somewhat self-pardoning concept to avoid the ground-level reality of being in sales. Andy warns against the dangers of letting the brand side take over:
“I’ve always felt that if you gave me the choice between a strong brand and a strong P&L… I’d have the P&L, thank you very much! There are plenty of people who are still in business who have an almost invisible brand, because they’ve concentrated their whole careers on making money. I mean, think of somebody like Warren Buffet, who’s very famous, but most people on this planet haven’t heard of Berkshire Hathaway.
“I said in Persuasive Copywriting, any industry is littered with formerly very successful brands who went tits up because they forgot to sell! I’m very into my cars, and dozens and dozens of car brands have just vanished because they couldn’t make more money than they were spending – and they were all investing heavily in brand-based advertising.
“Interestingly, if you take that hardcore American influence in direct response, you’ve got a company called Agora Publications – run by an American copywriter, Bill Bonner, who again nobody will have heard of – they publish MoneyWeek among other things. Bill’s been running that company for years, and they do that ‘formulaic’ direct response, and it’s very successful.
“I’m not so bothered about formulas – I mean, E = mc2 is a formula – the chemical formula for insulin is a formula. ‘Boy Meets Girl’ is a formula… I mean, formulas are formulas for a reason, and I’m always suspicious of a person who decries formulas in favour of originality and all the rest of it, because we’re not in the fine arts… we’re in commerce.
“There’s nothing wrong with formula. Formula’s great… why should copywriting be the only professional discipline that doesn’t have established practices that have been tested and shown to work?”
Continuing down the road of AIDA, the ‘Four Ps’ adopted by American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI) and other variations on what is essentially the same core copywriting formula, Maslen states “Before you can talk to somebody, you have to attract their attention… and having attracted their attention you then have to keep their attention. Then you have to persuade them to do something, and then you have to get them to do it. A friend of mine calls it ‘tease me, tell me, please me, sell me’, which I really love – it’s much better than anything I’ve ever come up with!
“So the formula is just a basic rule for living… It’s just a description, really. The way [some of] those guys execute that copy is very, I suppose you’d call it, extreme… but you do have to ask the question if it’s so shit, then how come they’re still doing it?
“These guys are driven by profit alone. If it’s not working, they wouldn’t be doing it – and I have this discussion constantly when I’m teaching. If you keep seeing something over and over again, year in year out, I’d assume it’s because the person doing it is making a profit every time they do it. And when you discover something that makes you money, you tend to just keep doing it until it stops making you money.”
Longing for Long Copy
Long form direct mail is, indeed, still very much alive and well within the non-profit/charity and subscription-based sectors – who continue to rely heavily on it. Maslen advises that that’s very much his own experience, too:
“For both [The Economist and the children’s charity World Vision] we’ve done controlled A/B tests, and for both of them the long copy has out-pulled the shorter and the approach that’s working best for both is story-based.
“Now, they’d give you very short shrift if you suggested that they weren’t building brands – they both have gigantic brand books… tone of voice guidelines and all kinds of things. It’s perfectly possible to write very high responding, long direct mail that is also branded.
“There always has been, historically, this divide between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ – you know, branded versus direct response; creative versus the workaday. I think it’s much more revealing of the psychology of the practitioners than it is about the realities of commercial life and the transactional nature of the relationship between a brand and its customers.
“People have a problem, they want the problem solving… and it’s the copywriter’s job to join up the problem holder with the problem solved, and you can do that however you like – you can go and see somebody, you can phone, text them, email them, write to them, advertise to them or whatever. The best copywriters are the ones who persuade the most people that their problems can be solved by the client, I think.”
As we talk of the marriage between the creative and the commercial – the pull of artistic originality against the industrially proven – Maslen refers to the conflicted mindset within the field, saying “Lots of advertising types do want to direct films and write novels, and they see advertising as quite grubby, I think, and a stepping stone to something altogether more pure and white-gloved.
“I’ve never felt like that. I actually love commerce, and I like doing business, so I don’t have these hang-ups, like if I could only escape from this I could put my talents to proper use. I quite like doing business.
“If there is a dichotomy at all, it’s between the kind of copywriter who, as you said, sees it as a sales job and the kind of copywriter who sees it as a second-rate version of the kind of writing they’d really like to do, which is all artistic and literary… and you do tend to find more of those writers in branded advertising. Most direct response copywriters have got a more workaday approach to selling. Which is cause and which is effect, I don’t know.”
And when this kind of conflict leads to the generation of promotions that rely entirely on creative freedom, the result is quite often a campaign built on inventive or flashy imagery that completely forgets its original purpose: to sell.
Andy agrees, quipping, “Quite! Absolutely. Now and again you do read these comments where a writer or blogger is trying to justify that sort of advertising, and they’ll say things like ‘Oh, it’s a fantastic ad. Two minutes later I couldn’t remember what it was for, but what really stayed with me was the dancing pony on the roundabout.’
“That’s the exact point, though… you’re trying to justify this thing, and in the same breath you’re saying that you can’t remember the first thing about it except the imagery. Well, that was two million quid of someone’s money down the toilet, wasn’t it?”
Direct Mail is Dead. Long Live Direct Mail!
There’s been talk recently of something of an expected renaissance in direct mail – a large-scale return to paper-based promotion in a landscape that has become so concentrated on digital that the physical once more holds an effective surprise or novelty factor.
The notion seems rather unfounded, however, given the fact that direct mail has never really gone away – companies and charities like those mentioned earlier still making use of, and reaping the rewards of, long-form direct response copy. Maslen feels the same, telling me “It hasn’t gone away in the thirty years that I’ve been in the business. I started marketing in 1986… I wrote my first website copy in 1995… and in that whole time we’ve carried on writing paper direct mail for people, as brochures and everything else.
“I always think it’s rather amusing when people talk about a ‘renaissance’ in direct mail. They’re often people who have no background in direct mail, [or] people who are quite young and have virtually no background in anything, and because they haven’t had their eye on the direct mail ball, they haven’t noticed the rest of us kicking it around.
“So when they suddenly – I don’t know how – realise that response rates are going through the floor and nobody’s clicking in banner ads anymore… what else is there? Direct mail!
“Calling something a ‘renaissance’, I think, is a flip-side of saying something is dead. ‘Content Marketing Is Dead!’ will be a headline in about two years’ time, and then in about five years’ time suddenly we’ll see a ‘renaissance’ in content marketing. Because they’re cycles that happen.
“Those who’ve been around for a little while will remember things such as Customer Relationship Marketing, which was the successor to Database Marketing, and there was Permission Marketing… that was a topic for about five minutes.
“There will be a renaissance in awareness of and respect of direct mail from people who hitherto have consigned it to the dustbin of history – but the actual practice itself has just been chugging away quietly making people very rich… as it has done since about 1905. I mean, I’ve got a piece of direct mail that’s [from the] 19th Century in my folder! The post date, I think, is 1899 or 1900. That’s the earliest piece of DM that I own, and it’s been going on ever since. Its popularity waxes and wanes, but not its practice.
“A nice myth to debunk about direct mail is that you can’t use it to sell anything expensive. In 1989 we were selling ring-bound market reports… £5,000 of copy, by direct mail! We [sold] about 30 copies… that’s, what £150,000 in revenue for about 500 quid on photocopying. I had a client who sold a million quid’s worth of reports by direct mail. He had a £20,000 credit card report and he sold 50 copies by direct mail… using the ugliest mailing package you could imagine.”
Our Brains are the Same – It’s All About Engagement
The digital age has also led to a good number of ‘new’ rules for copywriting, one of the most influential – and most spurious, in Andy’s view – being the assertion that the internet has reduced people’s attention spans by orders of magnitude, rendering (truly) long copy ineffective and obsolete. On that, he says, “Somehow the internet has caused the human brain to rewire itself in, what, 20 years, to have a shorter attention span than it had before? Highly unlikely.
“The entire human population – so seven billion people’s cognitive processes have been changed in 20 years? And yet these are the same people who will queue up to get the next instalment in the Game of Thrones series – this thousand page paperback book, you know. I don’t understand… what, they do or they don’t have a long attention span?
“[People] keep reading as long as it’s interesting. So if you write a long direct mail letter that’s really, really interesting to the person reading it, they keep reading it! If you’re really, really interested in Game of Thrones you’d read a thousand page novel. If you’re really, really bored by Game of Thrones you wouldn’t read a one page novel about that place – because it’s not relevant to you… it’s not interesting or emotionally engaging.
“In a way, the novelist and the direct response copywriter are basically plying the same waters – relevance, emotional engagement and [staying interesting].”
And interesting it most certainly was, chatting with Mr. Maslen.
What are your thoughts on the current standing of long copy and direct mail? Have you used it successfully in your own business, or as a copywriter do you find yourself recommending it often? Are our brains truly being squeezed shut by information overload online?
Perhaps rather than discounting tried and true direct mail formulae as old-fashioned and pushy instead of looking at the real-world figures that demonstrate its efficacy, we should adopt and flip a common phrase when we spy verbal snake oil: Don’t hate the game, hate the player.
Long form direct response copy can indeed be a hard sell… but done correctly and ethically, is more often a ‘hard won’ sell.
Now that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Many thanks to Andy Maslen for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about this topic. You can grab the book I mentioned earlier, 100 Great Copywriting Ideas right here from Amazon, and also his latest publication, Persuasive Copywriting: Using Psychology to Persuade, Influence and Sell, here. They’re fab, so do it!