Eight Lessons for Online Marketing Success I Learned From Direct-Response Advertising

Do you think an industry worth $170 billion dollars, and still growing during a recession, might have something to teach us about making money?

I think so. Especially when that industry is built entirely on a particular kind of marketing—a kind of marketing which is directly applicable to the Internet.

Direct-response advertising has been an ever-lucrative, ever-growing industry for over half a century. Its success relies entirely on a fairly small number of key principles. And with the Internet being a direct-response medium, these principles transfer directly over. Here are eight of the most important of these principles, and how they relate to us as online marketers:

1. The money is in the (right) list

What’s the one thing you absolutely must have if you’re gonna sell your product or service?

I think you’ll find it’s customers.

In direct-response advertising, customers are sought through a mailing list. The better the quality of your list, and the more people on it, the better your response rates will be and the more money you’ll make.

Online, a list can be many things. The most obvious instance is an email list. The correlation is pretty clear between sending out a ‘snail-mail’ sales letter to a mailing list, and sending out an email sales letter.

But more broadly speaking, a list is any collection of people who’ll read what you put in front of them. Blog subscribers; Twitter followers; Facebook fans; etc.

Direct-response advertisers know the money isn’t in any list, though. This is something online marketers should take note of. Rather than being concerned with building up enormous numbers of followers, they should be focused on building enormous numbers of prospects. Because if your followers are not also customers, you aren’t going to sell anything. Better to have a hundred keen prospects than a hundred thousand freeloaders who never intend to buy anything.

2. Your first words count

Original Mad-Man David Ogilvy famously noted:

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. It follows that, if you don’t sell the product in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your money.

Your headline or email subject line should focus on how what you’re selling will benefit your prospect. Simply talking up yourself or your product won’t sell anything. For example, a homepage headline like “The Leading Supplier of Blue Widgets in Blue Widget County” will fall on deaf ears—even for qualified prospects who want blue widgets. On the other hand, “Blue Widgets Shipped to You Direct, Cheaper & Faster than Anyone Else—or Your Money Back” gives prospects a lot of reasons to read your copy and find out more.

As a rule of thumb, if you can read your headline and then reasonably say, “So what?”…it isn’t strong enough.

3. The only purpose of advertising is to sell

Drayton Bird is very fond of quoting American advertising pioneer Raymond Rubicam, who said:

The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other justification worth mentioning.

He is very right, and this principle can seldom be repeated too often. Many marketers are unduly concerned with ‘building brand recognition’, ‘increasing customer awareness’, ‘leveraging social media’ and all these other fancy marketing techniques. But what is the point of these things if they don’t measurably lead to more sales?

Of course, brand recognition, customer awareness, social media and the like can all be used to increase sales—and significantly at that. But very often, marketers have no clear strategy as to how they should use these tools to bring in more money. Sometimes they don’t even consider the question; they just ‘know’ they should be doing these things…because everyone else is, so it must be important, right?

If you haven’t got a clear idea of how a given marketing technique will help you make more sales, don’t use it. If you’re already using it, stop immediately. On the other hand, if you do have a clear idea but lack any way to measure your success, find a way before continuing.

4. The more you tell, the more you sell

Debating the value of long versus short copy is pointless. The fact is that copy should be as long as it needs to be to sell as much as possible—and no longer. Generally speaking, that means it should be ‘long’.

Long, that is, compared to most of the marketing materials you see online.

Marketers are often afraid that if they say too much, they’ll bore their readers out of buying. Ironically, what they should actually be afraid of is not saying enough to persuade their readers to buy.

“But Bnonn,” I hear you say, “people don’t have time to read lots of information. And attention-spans on the web are short.”

Sorry, but that’s pure, unadulterated hogwash. What you mean to say is that people don’t make time to read stuff that doesn’t interest them, and they don’t devote their attention to things with no clear benefit. In which case, refer to point #1 of this article!

If what you’re offering is interesting to the people on your list, and the benefit to them is clear, they will make the time to devote a lot of attention to it. Like you’re devoting to this article right now. What—do you think you’re different to your prospects?

5. The only kind of copy that sells is conversational copy

Internal marketing departments: listen up. Catchphrases like ‘vertically integrated’ and ‘leading provider’ are no better than jargon. They are meaningless to your prospects. And I’d dare to guess that if you had to explain them, you’d get tied in knots trying.

Writing your marketing materials to sound pompous, stuffy, and formal is an excellent way to avoid making sales. People don’t read pompous, stuffy, formal copy. In fact, the more impressive and important your copy sounds to you, the more like meaningless self-aggrandizing tripe it sounds like to your prospects. Take this ‘what we do’ page for example. Can you figure out what this company does? I can’t!

Regardless of your audience, your copy should be written conversationally. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘informally’ or ‘casually’. It just means you should write to your ideal prospect in exactly the same way you would speak to him. If you’d do that casually, fine. If you’d do it more formally, that’s how you should write.

For example, imagine you run into a guy at the pub, and he mentions he needs something like what you sell. To get him interested, would you say, “We’re a leading provider of top-tier full-service solutions”…or would you say, “We can build a new website for you, from start to finish, and support it afterwards—plus help you use it to bring in new clients”?

6. You have to ask for the sale

That’s right—prospects will rarely do anything if you don’t actually ask them to. When you include a clear call to action (CTA) in your marketing materials, your response rate will naturally increase dramatically.

This is really the ‘direct response’ part of direct-response advertising: you’re asking your prospect to immediately take an action; to respond to your offer. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying something. Your offer might be a free special report. Or an email newsletter. Any link in the sales chain. But the critical thing is that you ask for a response.

Calls to action can be very short. They can just be buttons or links. But if you’re using longer copy, a good CTA will summarize core benefits to responding, as well as including a clear and simple mechanism for doing so.

7. What you offer makes all the difference

Not only do your prospects have to understand your offer…but you also have to be offering something they want. This doesn’t mean you have to completely rethink your core business model if you’re not getting much success in your marketing. Rather, you have to rethink your language.

What’s the difference, for example, between these two offers?

  1. If you buy two widgets, we’ll give them both to you at half price
  2. If you buy a widget, we’ll give you another one free

There’s no actual difference between what you get with these offers. But offer #2 will almost invariably pull much better than offer #1, because of how it’s phrased. Rather than having to buy two widgets (when you only really needed one) and getting a discount for doing so, you’re just buying the one you intended to—and getting a free extra one.

People love to get things for free, and they love to get things without taking any risk. So premiums and guarantees are very important elements in an offer. They can make a huge impact to your response rate. But whatever you’re offering, the way you phrase it can make the difference between success and failure.

Here’s a practical example from a recent consultation I did. My client was offering a kind of online training service—and to get people hooked, he included a free trial. What he was finding, though, was few people were signing up for this trial. My suspicion is the word ‘trial’ has lots of negative associations. “Try our free trial” sounds almost like asking them to do you a favor. Would “Get your first lesson free, with no obligation” work better?

I can’t tell you for sure, because we haven’t tested yet. But it demonstrates the principle.

8. Test everything

Your offer isn’t the only thing you should test. Because every list and every product is different, it’s crucial to test as many different ways of promoting it as you can.

You might be getting a 5% conversion rate off your existing marketing, and making a tidy profit—but how do you know you couldn’t be getting a 10% conversion rate if you made some simple changes?

In direct-response advertising, testing requires weeks to gather meaningful results—and it can be very expensive. For example, if you want to test two different headlines, you have to create a separate mailing for each, print it, send it to a reasonably-sized segment of your list, and then wait for the responses to come in.

Online, split testing like this is simple, cheap—and you get results in mere hours. There are many web-based tools for split-testing different pages to see how they do—Google Website Optimizer and Visual Website Optimizer are two popular ones—plus of course KISSmetrics lets you visualize your conversion rate across split-tested pages. And most email campaign tools allow you to segment your list and send different campaigns to each, with different subject lines, calls to action and so on (I use MailChimp, but a lot of people are fond of Aweber)

If you aren’t testing, you’re simply leaving money on the table. I’ve seen split testing a website yield a 400% increase in profits.

Summing up

The Internet is a direct-response medium. Websites, being naturally interactive, are as direct-response as you can get. And emails are the electronic descendants of traditional sales letters. Any marketing you do online, then, can benefit from the application of the principles which have made direct-response advertising such a successful industry.

Bnonn is known in the boroughs as Information Highwayman—the dashing & debonair conversion-rate consultant and attention-thief. When he ain’t writing wallet-pilfering content or cleaning up at poker, he’s helping business owners get better returns from their marketing. His free Ace o’ Spades newsletter comes with a complimentary copy of ‘The Busy Business-Owner’s Cheat-Sheet For Web Copy That Works’.

  1. Amen!

    If you sell dentures, a list of 1,000 seniors, will beat a list of 100,000 teenagers every time. This is, of course, an extreme example, but people get hung up on size, rather than relevance and responsiveness (whether the people on the list buy things).

    People have been saying “people don’t read” for nearly a century. They read then, and read now – if, and only if- what they’re reading is interesting and relevant. To quote Claude Hopkins (writing in 1920):

    “Some say, ‘Be very brief. People will read for little.’ Would you say that to a salesman? With a prospects standing before him, would you confine him to any certain number of words? That would be an unthinkable handicap.”

    It was true then, and it’s still true. Say as much as you need to say in order to make a sale. No more. No less. Don’t assume your readers know you (or your product), tell them what they need to know to make a decision and act.

  2. Great stuff.

    If I may, number 9, “The most important sale is the second sale.”

  3. James, do you mean that follow-up sales are critical to long-term success? That’s very true. Just curious as to why you focused on the second sale specifically. Could you elaborate?

  4. The best list is filled with your existing and past customers. They are predisposed to buy from you already and will likely buy from you again.

    These are your VIPs. Coddle them.

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