Of the 300 or so marketing books I have, over 200 are on direct response. Of the hundreds of hours of recorded marketing seminars I have, nearly 90 percent are direct-response oriented. Of the 300 or so copywriting requests I get in a year, nearly 100 percent are for a direct response ad, from clients who pay us $1,400 a page for returns that are far greater.

Direct response marketing is the bell-ringer, the sales-getter, the top lead generator of all time. And it is an art form that is as mysterious as it is effective.

When giving seminars, people sometimes confuse “direct mail” and “direct response.” Mail is a medium, like newspaper, radio, whatever. Direct response is an ad category that goes directly to a prospect and asks for a response.

Small Formula, Big Results

There are many formulae for direct response, but a classic and proven one goes like this:

Headline: A compelling benefit to the prospect should be contained in the headline. Start here. This is, by far, the most important part of your ad. It is not about the penguin, or the “Your company name” in the headline. It’s not about “Since 1958.” And if you include “For all your heating and cooling needs,” I’m calling the ad police.

Pain: The initial opener of the body copy is intended to relate to the reader and recognize that they have a “problem” — such as discomfort, energy bills, repairs, etc. (There are seven “official” pains in behavioral psychology that we relate to HVAC, as in the above, plus others if you throw in IAQ.) You must stir the emotion here.

Gain: This section is where you announce your solution to the problem. These paragraphs illustrate your willingness, ability, and experience, and describe how your solution benefits them. Include such text as, “When your energy bills drop like a rock, you’ll be even more comfortable, but you won’t spend a penny on repairs or payments. That’s because of our 6-month ‘no pay’ plan that…” and go from there. You see? It’s just a matter of good communication without bragging. No one likes a braggart.

How: How refers to the “action” they need to take to get these gains. Do not ever leave them hanging. Tell them exactly what to do, who to speak to, and even what to ask for. Leave one ounce of confusion and you’re sunk. A confused mind always says “no.”

Now: Let them know when you want them to respond. Part of the “offer” in direct response is the urgency with which a person must act. Basically, an offer with no limit is not an offer. You have to grease the wheels of commerce by being bold enough to limit the time or the quantity. Do not put a time limit more than 21 days out or no one cares.

In your P.S. (which I recommend for all direct mail letters) or at the end of your offer, you need to restate the essence of the benefits or the “bonus” you’ve decided to include if they act now. (There’s a good bit more info on creating a fantastic direct response promotion at www.hudsonink.com under “Free Reports.”)

The classic direct response letter “look” is akin to that of a personal letter, written in a “me to you” style, with minimal company or manufacturer influence (as in logos, letterhead, etc.). The format for a newspaper would be that of “advertorial,” which has the appearance of editorial, but is most certainly an ad.

“That Won’t Work For Me”

Yeah, I hear you. You may also say, “That won’t work in my market,” or “with my customers,” or “for this company.” We helped clients sell $330 million in replacements last year using lots of direct response.

These people also have good reputations, high-quality images, and adoring customers who presumably are not all gullible nitwits. Direct response has a poor reputation from those who either (a) haven’t tried it, (b) have only seen bad examples, or (c) want to feel their customers are somehow “superior” to the incredibly alluring techniques employed by good response copy.

I also hear that these direct response offers are “too wordy” and “no one will read all that.” These are excuses. The truth is that readership drops off sharply at about 50 words, but after that it doesn’t drop much until 1,000 words. (That’s about 3 pages.)

However, an overuse of direct response is lethal to your credibility. Yes, I just said that, even though a substantial part of my livelihood comes from the creation of direct response promotions. Too much of anything is a killer, and even more so in direct response.

In May, you should use a good portion (up to 65 percent) of your marketing message as direct response. If not, customers just start choosing based on price and availability, rather than extremely beneficial, hard-hitting reasons to act. Do not “wait for the weather,” which is a sign of marketing weakness. Do not “wait to get your share” because of the deals your competitor didn’t close. In fact, do not wait for anything.

Get out there. Be aggressive. Let direct response marketing pull in the lead volume that allows you to be selective, price yourself accordingly, and make the profit during the peak season that allows it. Let your competition do the waiting.

Seasonal Strategy

May marks the end of the school year and the beginning of vacation and warm weather. Capitalize on this with massive “preseason” replacement offers and last minute tuneup or preventive maintenance offers. This is the time to snatch leads and sales from competitors waiting on the weather. If you miss sales now, you miss them for the year. Be very aggressive. Use your hardest direct response ads now.

Media Watch

Newspapers:Reduce service offerings in newspapers. Concentrate more on replacements. Use direct response ads now to get leads that your competition is waiting on. No waiting. Be aggressive.

Direct mail letters: Target your mailings for direct response re-placement offers. For May replacements, we like deferments, monthly payments, or trade-in campaigns. Target and be aggressive.

Postcards: The very last of your direct response service postcards for tuneups and preventive maintenance should be out. Now may be a good time for image postcards for replacements to attract any stragglers wary of direct response.

Alternative media: Your yard sign presence should never be taken for granted. Do not forget these on every lengthy service visit or install. Your name should be pounded into your market and this is the time.

Radio: Radio can increase from the spring lull to include your preseason offers that are also in print. Remember, your name should be branded at least twice in all radio ads.

On-hold messages: Move messages over to spring and warm weather replacement sales.

Yellow Pages: This is your costliest advertising expense. You deserve results. Have an ad designed that pulls leads. Fax your ad to us for a free critique.

In the following month, continue hitting media hard, but plan on a slowdown of direct response in favor of image and all-purpose ads as the weather begins to add to your lead count. Discounting from price books becomes less of an issue, and better “value selling” techniques take over. Plan on doing a “competitive intelligence” survey next month. Get ready to blow your replacement sales wide open.

Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink. He can be reached at 800-489-9099, 334-262-1115 (fax), or www.Hudsonink.com.

Publication date: 05/26/2003