4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters

August 19, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

direct mail copywriting superstarIn the world of copywriting, there’s an unspoken pecking order. And despite the growth of the Internet, direct mail copywriters are still the superstars.

Here’s an article by direct mail superstar Hugh Chewning about working as a copywriter in a business or agency, redefining yourself, and becoming more than just a hired hand.


When I was first starting my direct mail career thirty-some years ago, I wanted to become a copywriter. It was exciting and glamorous — the fighter pilot position within a direct mail agency.

Yet my mentor advised me to become a direct mail “generalist” rather than a copywriter. Copywriters, he warned, were “a dime a dozen.”

Well I took his advice and before I started writing copy, I learned about list selection, print production, how graphics affect results, what to test and how to analyze results.

Yet after all that, I make the bulk of my money from copywriting.

And over the years, I’ve tested against copywriters who wrote prettier words, enjoyed reputations more widespread and commanded larger fees.

And repeatedly, I’ve beaten them!

It isn’t because I’m a better writer. In fact, I freely admit that others write copy that’s richer and less choppy and often, they select a particular word that I wish I had thought to use.

But when I give more attention to the details — learn about the mailing lists and what’s tested before and then do simple things like use a serif font, indent my paragraphs and choose a layout that makes the letter more inviting — I gain a nearly unbeatable advantage.

Yet today, too many copywriters don’t give enough attention to the details. And in some respects it’s the result of their training.

Agencies continue to consolidate and grow larger. And in the process, they’re becoming more stratified.

Every account has a team leader, usually an account executive, who actually gets to meet with the client. He or she brings the client’s message back to other team members who develop the campaign’s strategy. Another team selects the lists while others handle design, production or backend analysis.

Finally, there’s the copywriter who is often brought into the job only after other team members have completed the creative brief. At that point, copywriters become little more than order-takers.

To do our best work, we must redefine ourselves as being direct mail people first and copywriters second. For example:

1. List selection. Learn which lists work and which don’t. Study all the demographic and behavioral data that’s available. Talk to list brokers and ask to be included in their e-mail announcements for new lists. And take the time to study “data cards” on the lists you’re now mailing.

You have a different perspective than the list broker and may be able to recommend lists the broker overlooked. Equally important, by learning more about the person you’re writing to, you can write more persuasively to their needs and desires.

2. Graphic Design. Understand how graphic design affects readership and its impact on response. Work closely with your graphic designer and recognize that it’s in their DNA to make things pretty and want to win awards. Your job is to make sure the design encourages readership and helps direct people to action. Let the designer do his or her thing with your collateral pieces but for the direct mail, you must remain in control.

3. Production. Meet with the printer and mail house and then talk with their competitors. Visit their shops and ask for samples of their other clients’ work. Often you’ll find that you can add personalization, features and involvement techniques to your mailing without significantly increasing costs. Or, you may find a way to produce your existing package more cost effectively.

Recognize that you, your printer and the mail house have shared interests. The better your package performs, the more you’ll be rewarded. And, higher-performing packages typically result in larger mail volume that will benefit the printer and the mail house. Let your vendors know that you want to work with them and encourage them to present their ideas.

4. Study past mailing results. Direct mail isn’t “fire and forget.” By studying the results of past mailing and tracking your current tests, you’ll avoid repeating past mistakes and discover new opportunities.

Let’s admit it. It’s cool being a copywriter. We use our words to persuade a reader to take a specific action, an action they won’t take unless we instructed them to do so.

But we can take our work to an even higher level by renewing our interest in the mailing’s list selection, package design, production and by taking time to learn past results. When we do, we’ll not only achieve higher response rates, we’ll be increasing our value to our organization.

Hugh Chewning is a direct mail specialist proving copywriting, strategy and consulting for consumer, nonprofit and business-to-business groups. You can visit his blog, Direct Mail Insight and sign up for free, practical and easy-to-use tips to boost your response.

Related posts:

  1. Is your direct mail copy headed for the trash?
  2. How to write a complete direct mail package
  3. An open letter to direct mail designers
  4. Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck
  5. 11 insider secrets for becoming a freelance pro

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Smart Comments

One Comment on 4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters

  1. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 20th, 2010 12:03 pm
  2. Hugh,

    This post was very valuable and I appreciate how much insight you shed on the fact that you don’t have to be the biggest and the brightest with direct mail in order to kick a lot of bootay.

    Feeding that crowd of hungry fish is always the way to go, and there are way too many entrepreneurs and small businesses alike that think they need to have that golden product first and then become a millionaire with the direct mail piece.

    They all seem to forget to start with the low hanging fruit. I like how you point out the difference in the wants of you and the graphic designer. There are plenty of ads out there that could have a much higher return, had the copywriter been involoved with the layout a little more.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire