3 “must-have” elements of direct response copywriting

December 18, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

A couple days ago, I got an interesting email from Neil Mattingley, a fellow copywriter and blogger from down under.

Hi, Dean.

My question is a tough one.

Assuming you have all the key element of a sales letter and you had to eliminate them one-by-one until you got to the bare minimum for a space ad, in what order would you do it?

I guess I want to have a clear understanding of what is essential in a space ad versus what is not.

And is there a relationship between a sales letter and space ad, or are they two separate beasts.

Neil Mattingley
Perth, Australia

That is a tough one. Neil is asking a highly sophisticated question about technique priority. How do you rank the importance of the various copywriting techniques and which techniques are absolutely required to get response?

I’m starting to sweat under my guru robes a bit. But let’s think about this for a moment.

First, let’s consider what is absolutely, positively required to do direct response advertising of any kind. As it happens, I have a solid answer for that. You need 3 things:

  1. You must make an offer.
  2. You must provide sufficient information for the offer to be accepted.
  3. You must provide an easy means of responding to the offer.

That is the core of direct response. You must have all 3. You can’t leave out any of these or you’re not doing direct response.

Direct response advertising, whether it’s a direct mail piece, a print ad, an email, or whatever, MUST start with an offer. “Offer” doesn’t necessarily mean dollars off as many people think.

An offer simply means the thing you are offering. It may be a special deal on a product, or a free sample, or a brochure, or anything. It’s the reason you give people to respond. For example, if you’re selling a book, you might offer a 30-day free trial.

Now let’s skip to the third item on my list, an easy means of responding to the offer. This should be obvious. If you make an offer, you must give people a phone number, a website address, a reply card, or some way of responding. And it must be easy.

You could tell people that to get your book and take advantage of the free trial, they can fly to Perth, Australia, but you won’t get too many people showing up, will you? Replying must be easy and quick.

Okay, so you must make an offer and you must provide an easy means of responding to the offer. I think everyone will accept those two items.

But what about the second item in my list, provide sufficient information for the offer to be accepted? Does that mean you need tons of copy for every offer? No. Every offer to a specific audience requires a certain amount of information, sometimes a lot, sometimes little more than the offer itself.

For example, if I offer you a subscription to Time Magazine for 50 cents an issue, what more do you need to know other than the offer? Time has been around so long, you already know what it is and what you can expect from it.

That’s why today you can sell subscriptions to popular magazines with what are called “invoice mailers.” These are envelopes with a sheet of paper inside that looks like an invoice and gives you little more than the title of the publication and the cost of the subscription.

On the other hand, if I offer you a subscription to Miniature Donkey Talk Magazine, you’re probably going to need to know a lot more about what it is before you’d consider accepting my offer. (Go ahead and click that link. It’s a real magazine.)

Plus, the more money you’re asking for, the more information you’ll need to share to make your case that the offer is a good one.

For every offer, there is an information sweet spot. Just enough to get a response, but not so much that you overwhelm.

So there you have the 3 essential elements of direct response:

  1. You must make an offer.
  2. You must provide sufficient information for the offer to be accepted.
  3. You must provide an easy means of responding to the offer.

But what about the other part of Neil’s question? How do you rank the relative importance of selling techniques? Unfortunately, I don’t have a ready answer for that other than “it depends.”

That’s because it depends on what you’re selling and who your potential buyers are. If you need to build credibility, testimonials may be vital. If you’re competing with other strong brands, your feature list might make the difference. If your buyers want quality but are price sensitive, you’ll need to explain why your price is so low and how you can still offer a high quality product.

Neil is interested in the bare minimum for a print ad. The simplest form of print ad is the classified ad, which is as bare minimum as it gets. Here’s one I wrote for a … um … male performance product:

ENHANCE YOUR RELATIONSHIP! Clinically proven “delay spray” for men. Works quickly. Only $8.95+sh for 120 applications. Shipped discretely. Privacy and satisfaction guaranteed! www.Stud100.com

This has all 3 basic elements, offer, information, easy response.

Now if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize I’ve been a little slippery with Neil’s question and instead made a general point about the basics of direct response.

So let me try to be more specific …

Assuming you have all the key element of a sales letter and you had to eliminate them one-by-one until you got to a the bare minimum for a space ad, in what order would you do it?

It depends on the product and the size of the ad. Apart from the 3 general elements we’ve already discussed, I honestly wouldn’t know what I would include or exclude until I wrote the ad. I’d probably write more than I needed, then take a hatchet to the copy to cut it down to size.

I guess I want to have a clear understanding of what is essential in a space ad versus what is not.

You must have a headline that is clear and offers a direct benefit. You must have copy that explains the thing you’re selling so there is no question about what it is or what it does. You must have a call to action that is specific.

If space permits, you should consider a picture of the thing you’re selling or an illustration of the main benefit, a strong guarantee, and one or more testimonials. And if you have a lot of space, you can add bullet points, a story about the product, a reply coupon, and other techniques.

And is there a relationship between a sales letter and space ad, or are they two separate beasts.

Yes and no. Yes because some of the information or techniques will be the same. No because a letter is specifically a personal message from one person to another, while an ad is a more editorial presentation of a selling message.

That’s the best I can do on this question. If you have a better answer or something to share, share it.

I welcome questions about copywriting. After all, this blog is for smart copywriters who want to become even smarter and improve their copywriting skills. Want to know something? Ask. I may not have all the answers, but I’ll tell you what I can.

Related posts:

  1. How to write a direct response TV commercial that sells

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Smart Comments

7 Comments on 3 “must-have” elements of direct response copywriting

  1. Neil Mattingley on Dec 18th, 2009 10:41 am
  2. Hi Dean

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my question (s).

    I now not only have a much clearer idea about what is essential in direct response advertising, I also have a way of deciding what other direct response elements to include – if at all.

    Rest assured you can leave your “guru” robe on.

    Thanks again

    Neil Mattingley
    Perth Australia

  3. Dean Rieck on Dec 18th, 2009 10:45 am
  4. My pleasure, Neil.

  5. Lorraine on Dec 18th, 2009 8:32 pm
  6. Thanks for this detailed and honest analysis. I like your thoughtful approach to explaining direct response writing.

    And I appreciate your articulating that no hard and fast rules exist. So many long-copy gurus and copywriting course “masters” imply that there is a formula. And they cram instructional materials with every rule, trick and suggestion imaginable without explaining how to customize copy for different offers, products, customers, etc.

    As you note, your choice of copy elements, “depends on what you’re selling and who your potential buyers are.” That’s a HUGE concept to wrap your head around. And only experience helps you ask the right questions and come up with thoughtful non-formulaic answers.
    .-= Lorraine’s last blog … 10 Best Holiday Gifts for Writers =-.

  7. Dean Rieck on Dec 18th, 2009 8:54 pm
  8. Lorraine,
    Well, I agree that there can’t be any set formula for everything. You have to adapt to the situation. Though, there are general formulas and proven techniques. Here’s an article that explains what I think about the various levels of copywriting mastery: http://www.directcreative.com/the-3-levels-of-creative-mastery-in-direct-marketing.html

  9. Rich Becker on Dec 18th, 2009 10:19 pm
  10. Dean,

    Excellent answer to a very specific question. All you’re sacrificing is attention in the ADIA (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action) model, but even with your example, you’ve done a fine job combing the Attention and Interest (a.k.a. Offer).

    I like it. Great day to drop by and wish you well.

    Best,
    Rich
    .-= Rich Becker’s last blog … Revitalizing Teams: Five Steps To Success =-.

  11. Alex Cohen on Jan 2nd, 2010 5:59 pm
  12. > Assuming you have all the key element
    > of a sales letter and you had to
    > eliminate them one-by-one until you
    > got to the bare minimum for a space
    > ad, in what order would you do it?

    One approach is to study old space ads that were proven winners.

    For example, if you’re writing a magazine ad, look over some of the classics and see which persuasion triggers were used in them.

    The other day I was doing just such a study of Joe Karbo’s famous ad, “The Lazy Man’s Way To Riches”. In it, Karbo primarily used these 6 persuasion triggers …

    1. Attention-getting incongruency
    2. Social proof
    3. Credibility
    4. Risk reversal (31-day hold)
    5. Objection resolution
    6. Offer/Call to action

    If you don’t have Karbo’s ad in your swipe file, you can find it here …

    http://tinyurl.com/ygzyg6x

    Alex

  13. Dean Rieck on Jan 2nd, 2010 11:06 pm
  14. That’s a cool link, Alex. Thanks.