Direct Marketing Copy – 7 Ways to Succeed When You Can’t Use an Offer to Sell


Crack open any direct marketing text and you will quickly learn all about the Elements of Promotion: List, Offer, Art and Copy.

You will also quickly learn that the Offer accounts for 30% of the effectiveness of any direct marketing program.

But companies working in the insurance and financial industries are generally constrained by federal and state guidelines from making a traditional offer. So what do you do when you cannot say 50% off, Buy One Get One, Early Bird Discount or Extra year of coverage FREE?

More often than not, the answer to this question is settle for less. But it does not have to be that way. There are a number of strategies you can use to boost your response rate, conversion rate and your overall ROI.

These strategies can be implemented by any smart marketing team, do not cost a lot and are all explained right here. So please, read on.

1. Leverage your USP to focus and strengthen the appeal of your message

If you want your direct marketing efforts to sell hard and stand out from the pack, you need to leverage your Unique Selling Proposition or USP. A USP allows you to quickly demonstrate what makes you different from the competition and focuses your message so that you always speak with the same voice.

General ad agencies have been using the concept of the USP to successfully differentiate their products and stake out turf in the marketplace for years. You just have to watch television for an hour to see commercials that demonstrate that the companies with household names know their USPs and know how to use them to put their products across.

Many direct marketers think they get little or no advantage from a USP because they narrowly target their audience. But actually the opposite is true. Because direct marketers know where their leads and their sales come from, they are able target their USP towards the people they most want to reach and offer that target audience a worthwhile benefit they will not find anywhere else.

To use a Unique Selling Proposition in this manner, you simply set up it up like this:

For people who meet a very specific set of criteria, our product is the best choice because it provides this unique benefit.

So give your marketers, your copywriters, and your sales people sales people a solid platform from which to launch their efforts. You will find that they will automatically:

  • Speak with one voice.
  • Reinforce each others efforts.
  • Create more effective solicitations.
  • Achieve better overall results.
  • Improve your ROI.

Essential Elements of your Unique Selling Proposition

The concept of the USP was first described by Rosser Reeves, former chair of Ted Bates in his book Reality in Advertising. According to Reeves, the USP has these three characteristics.

  1. You make a proposition to your prospect that says, Buy this product and you will get this benefit.
  2. The proposition must be unique, one the competition cannot claim or does not offer.
  3. The proposition must be appealing to your prospect and strong enough to provide a sustainable competitive advantage.

2. Pump up the value of your products and services.

You may not be able to make a standard offer. But that does not mean you cannot offer prospects something that makes them sit up and take notice. Good old fashioned value.

Pump up the value of your product and that value can go a very long way towards making your customer forget the lack of an offer.

Begin by referring back to your USP and take a long hard look at the unique differentiator of your product and its supporting benefits. Then make sure that those benefits are clearly stated and given place of pride in your solicitations.

Do not make the mistake of substituting features for benefits. For example: many companies place this common service feature in the middle of a bulleted list believing that that they have provided an important benefit:

24-Hour claim service

But prospects read right past it without realizing its importance because they can not see the benefit hidden away inside the feature. To make your prospect realize the true value of 24-hour claim service, why not pump up its value? All you have to do is demonstrate what it really means by using copy like this:

No matter when, or where, you have an accident, we will always be just a toll-free call away. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. Holidays included.

If you offer a broad range of discounts, pump up your value by pointing up the total savings of these discounts to your prospects. Most companies say:

People save an average of $400 when they switch.

Instead, demonstrate how many ways to save you provide by saying something like this:

We offer 8 different discounts to make it easy for people like you to save average of $400. Add up your discounts. Then decide what you will do with all the money you save!

I am sure you can see just how compelling a feature becomes when you exploit the benefit it provides. Now think how much more compelling your copy, and your overall solicitation, will be when you pump up the value of your products and services.

Are you overlooking benefits your prospects would love?

Spend five minutes in Direct Marketing and someone will tell you that benefits sell harder than features. And that the more benefits you promote, the harder your advertising will sell.

Yet with all the talk about benefits, it is surprising how many companies forget to mention convenient, benefit-laden services. Instead they hide these benefits away until the prospect becomes a customer, and then introduce them as Customer Service.

Do not miss the opportunity to hype these hidden benefits in your advertising. Instead, take the time to review all the services you offer your customers before your next acquisition campaign. Then allow your prospects to see how easy their lives will be when they choose to do business with you. Consider everything you do, including:

  • Automated payment options.
  • Monthly payment plans.
  • Automatic coverage increases or policy upgrades.
  • Accident forgiveness.
  • One-stop claim service.
  • Annual coverage reviews.
  • 24-hour claim service
  • 24-hour customer service

Start demonstrating the benefits of features like these. Then sit back and watch how this simple technique can improve your results.

3. Find your best prospects by getting to know your best customers.

Find a good prospect; the most important part of what makes your direct mail solicitation successful is already under wraps. But where do you look find the prospects who are most receptive?

Right under your nose.

The truth is your current customer base is a comprehensive list of the best prospects you have ever found. Each and every one of those prospects has already bought what you are selling. So if you want a better prospect list, all you have to do is:

  • Study your current customers.
  • Discover what attributes they have in common.
  • Find more people with those same attributes.

The science of data analytics calls the process of finding prospects just like your clients cloning. Any number of companies specializing in data analytics can easily clone your best customers and provide you with a list of individuals that should respond well to your solicitation.

To clone your customers, data analytics firms import names from your customer database along with any information you have about those customers. Then they carefully overlay additional information based on inferences made by what they already know.

Finally, they use this information to tell you exactly who your clients are and based on that information, which your best prospects are likely to be. This information then allows you to build highly targeted, better performing lists.

You are probably working with a company that can perform this type of customer analysis right now. So if you want a better performing prospect list all you have to do is tell your data firm who you are looking for.

Then leverage the power of your newly improved prospect list by writing advertising that exploits the needs and desires you know these prospects share. The results are sure to surprise you.

What are your criteria for a great customer?

To use your best customers to find your best prospects, you need to know exactly who they are. That means setting specific criteria by which to rank the people who buy your products and services. And that means knowing what is really important to you. Start by asking you what makes a good customer. Is it:

  • Frequency or number of purchases.
  • Size of policy or number of items insured.
  • Number of family members insured. Income/education level.
  • Method of premium payment
  • Multi-lines purchases.
  • Number and sizes of claims

Once you have a detailed picture of your best customer, you are well on the way to cloning that customer over and over again.

You also have all the information you need to hit your best prospect with a message that closely targets their needs, wants and attitudes, giving you a highly effective way of getting them to buy.

4. Change your point of view

As a marketer, nobody has to tell you that your goal is to generate more sales from all your channels. So you spend your time concentrating on how to increase response, lower your cost per order and improve your overall ROI.

Of course you do? It is what you want.

But while you concentrate what you want, do not forget to concentrate on the one thing that is most likely to help you achieve your goal. What your customer wants.

It seems incredible but more often than I care to admit, smart marketers hand me a marketing creative brief that carefully outlines all of their goals and neglects to provide me with the information I need to make that product attractive to their customers.

In short, they have forgotten to look at what they are selling from the point of view of their prospects. Your prospects do not care about whether or not you beat your control, or even if you make money. All they want to know is: What is your product or service going to do for me?

That is the question you must keep firmly planted in front of you whenever you begin any new marketing venture. If you keep finding innovative ways to answer your prospects questions, you will keep finding innovative ways to meet your sales goals.

So take the time to get inside the head of your prospects. Communicate what you know about what they want to the people who create your advertising and watch what happens.

Here is a marketing creative brief designed to create sales.

To change your perspective on your advertising, change the way you brief your colleagues. Answering the series of questions below will force you to think like your prospects and customers, which means you will automatically answer the question What is in it for me? from their point of view.

Marketing Creative Brief

What is the key fact or the most important thing we must know about this product and this advertising assignment?

What is the single most important benefit our product offers? What facts support this benefit? What are we really selling?

Who are we selling to? Why are we selling to these prospects now? What action do we want our prospects to take?

What negatives might our prospects cite regarding our product or our category in general?

Who is our competition and what do our prospects think of them?

Why are we better at providing what our prospects want than the competition? What medium/media are we using to reach our prospects?

What is the tone and manner of this project?

What elements are mandatory?

When must the project be completed?

What is the budget?

5. Use emotion to strengthen your message.

Your prospects are never going to purchase your products because it is the logical thing to do. But they might just buy because it is the smart thing to do.

See the difference?

Unless your advertising evokes an emotional response from your prospects, you will never get the great results you want, even if you have a great offer. And if you do not have a great offer? You have to create a great desire for what you are selling, or you are sunk.

You see, it is our emotions that move us, not our ability to think rationally. Even someone who claims to be completely unmoved by anything other than cold, hard logic will not act until he is motivated to do so by his feelings.

To use your prospects emotions to do what you want, you have to think about what they want. Remember, your prospects only want to know, What is in it for me? So ask yourself these two questions:

  • What is the most important thing that my prospect wants that will draw them to my message?
  • What is the primary emotion I must target?

Or in other words, give him the one thing he wants, and offer her the one thing she longs for.

I can feel some staid bankers, and insurance professionals backing off in shock. Talking about emotion in direct marketing can feel sleazy or underhanded to people who deal with the financial bottom line every day.

You have to understand that most people will not purchase a flood insurance policy because it is a logical way to pay for repairs. They will only grab for their checkbook when someone tells them that water driven toward their homes by hurricane-force winds has the power of a 10-ton locomotive.

You see? Fear is a great emotional driver. So is love. So is greed. Why do you think the word FREE is so powerful?

Your package does not have to be large, expensive or highly promotional to pack a high emotional wallop. An official looking package gets opened because it makes people nervous. An invitation-style package because it makes people feel wanted and maybe even a little important.

And once you reach out and grab your prospects with emotion, then you have the ability to follow up with logic. That is because while people make the decision to buy based on emotion, they love to back that emotional decision up with logical reasons to make the purchase.

So do not neglect to feel the pain your prospects feel, or rouse their anger or stroke their pride. That is what makes them buy.

How many of these Persuasive Emotions make it into Your Advertising?

Take a few moments to analyze the ads you think are most effective and you will discover that the marketer probably started by asking one, or more, of these questions

  • Does your prospect want relief from something? (freedom from anxiety)
  • Is your prospect afraid of something? (fear)
  • Does your prospect want to feel sexier? (vanity)
  • Does your prospect want to appear to be smarter? (pride)
  • Does your prospect have an unfulfilled hope of some kind? (longing for fulfillment)
  • Is your prospect insecure? About what? (Worry)

Then start asking questions of your own. The types of emotions you will uncover are endless. In fact, I think you will eventually be adding to this list.

Altruism Anger Benevolence Boredom Confidence Confusion Curiosity Desperation Envy Greed / make money Guilt Happiness Hope/optimism Laziness / avoid effort Loneliness Love Lust Optimism Patriotism Pride Save money / frugality Save time Self-reliance / independence Surprise Sympathy Vanity / be popular / social acceptance Whimsy Win acclaim Wit

6. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Part I : Do not make any promises you cannot keep.

There is a television show about an ad agency on TNT called Trust Me, and its name is very apropos. All marketers and advertisers are in the trust business and everything we do either builds trust or tears it down.

We constantly make promises, both explicit and implicit, to our customers and prospects. While we keep our explicit promises very well, we tend to break a great many of our implicit promises.

Take for example, the popular Express Mail format. It is intended to be mistaken for genuine express delivery, but when the prospect opens what he perceives to be an important document, all too often he only finds junk mail. This disappoints your prospect, breaks the bond of trust and loses you sales.

All too often marketers mistake the format for the message. They think that if they put their sales message in an official format it will automatically lift response over a promotional mailing. More often than not, they are wrong. Why? Because they are not using the format in a truthful way.

Here is an excellent example of what I mean:

Some years ago, a telecommunications company mailed $5 and $20 checks in an official manila envelope. Cash the check and you switched your long distance service. The recipient could clearly see the check safety paper through the address window, and a message to the postmaster helped to make the envelope look important and valuable. When the prospects opened the package, they got what they expected, responded accordingly and the package remained the control for years.

Then one of the marketers who developed this check package decided it would work well for a financial company. This company had a credit card rewards program that mailed $25 savings bonds to cardholders when they earned 2,500 points. The same check format was used, but a facsimile of a savings bond replaced the check. Recipients quickly figured out they would have to spend $2,500 to get $25 that the solicitation promised. Response was dismal and the solicitation was an embarrassing failure.

It is easy to why the first package was successful. It delivered on its implicit promise. The second one did not and failed.

Yes, the first package had a hard cash offer and the second did not, but you cannot blame the lack of an offer on the failure of this package. A promotional package mailed alongside it, and with no offer, garnered outstanding results. The outer envelope had a headline that read:

In 2016 a college education will cost over $120,000. Are you saving enough?

Inside the letter offered the rewards card as an easy way to supplement college savings and the package out-performed all expectations because it told the truth.

So do not make the mistake of thinking a powerful format alone will influence prospects to respond. You will only succeed when your message fulfills the implicit promise your package makes.

Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Part II : Avoid a sea of footnotes.

Pick up a piece of direct mail in any one of a number of highly regulated industries and you will not have to look far to find an asterisk.

Sometimes those asterisks appear in the headline.

Sometimes they appear in the headline on the front of the envelope.

I am often told that the sea of footnotes is part of an effort to be totally honest. Other times I am told that they are required by law.

You cannot always avoid an asterisk and a footnote and a lot of unexciting information is required by law. But just popping in a footnote every time you are forced to mention a negative can actually hurt your overall credibility. Prospects very quickly begin to recognize that an asterisk is a red flag denoting that some bad news is coming. So instead of hiding a problematic fact, the footnote not only calls attention to it, but also tells your prospect that you are trying to fool him by attempting to hide the bad news.

So what should you do? Find a way to state as much as you can as forthrightly as you can. For example, if you are selling auto insurance you need to tell people who will qualify for your best rates. Often you will see a statement like the one below:

Safe drivers save money with our best rates.*

* You must not have received a moving violation nor had an at-fault accident in the past five years.

But the requirement seems less burdensome, and your copy appears much more open and friendly if the qualification is stated like this:

We cannot offer our best rates to everyone, but if you are a safe driver who has not had a moving violation or an at-fault accident in the past five years, we stand ready to help you save money now.

Both examples state plainly that you must be ticket and accident free to get the best rates, but in the first example, you give your prospect a benefit and then take it away in footnote. While in the second example, you bestow a special benefit on the people who qualify.

Being honest and forthright can also help you to sell harder. Imagine how intriguing mailing would be if the envelope had a headline that read:

Open now to find out why the state of Idaho will not let us make you any special offers (and how we can still help you save an average of $300).

Yes, Terms and Conditions will still wind up on the back panel of a brochure or tucked in a box on the back of a letter. But the more straight you are with your prospect, the better your results will be.

7. Ask for the sale. Ask again. Then make it easy to say yes.

Have you ever received a solicitation, decided to buy and then discovered you could not find the order card? Or have received an e-mail invitation and struggled to find the link to reply?

Frustrating, right?

Yet far too many companies spend far too much money on direct mail, e-mail and other forms of direct response advertising that actually makes it difficult – or impossible – for a prospect to respond.

I once received a beautiful dimensional mailing from an automobile manufacturer. It was an Advent calendar, and each window featured another benefit of the cars. It cost a fortune, but nowhere in the piece was there a phone number, or an address for a dealership near my home. I was entranced, but to what purpose? There was no one I could talk to about buying a car. (I was in the market, too!)

This car company threw their money away in a very dramatic fashion. But even experienced direct markets miss plenty of opportunities to encourage their prospects to respond.

Here is a short list of common mistakes:

You forget to ask for the sale. It may seem pushy, but once your prospect is interested, they want you to tell them to buy and to show them how to do it. So be forceful. Make sure your call to action is clear, concise, easy to find and repeated often.

You give your prospect too many choices. Less is more. You want your prospect to make a simple yes or no decision. So do not clutter up your piece with additional choices. Forcing them to choose between a dizzying array of options like buy now, attend a seminar, and request more information by mail only confuse your prospect and encourage him to do nothing

You offer too many ways to respond. Yes, some people prefer to mail a card. Others want to call. Still others like to check your website. But giving four options and repeating them constantly only confuses your prospect. Offer several options if you must but pick one as your primary response mechanism and push that one harder. Response is sure to improve.

You make the order card or application hard to complete. The harder you ask your prospect to work, the less likely he is to respond. So make forms as easy to complete as possible and if the information is available without causing privacy issues fill in as much as you can.

You make it hard to find the response device. Toll-free numbers set in 24 point type may not always look pretty, but they get noticed. So do large bursts on e-mails that say Click here to order. And don’t hide an order form on the last panel of a brochure. Instead clearly mark it, and include a call to action on the front or at the top. Then put it where the client cannot miss it and refer to it often.

You can never mention the toll-free number too many times.

It is axiomatic. The more times a prospect is told to call a toll-free number, the more likely he is to respond. So find as many natural opportunities as you can to tell your prospect to call and then provide that number. How many times can you repeat the toll-free number without interfering with the message? A lot more than you think.

I find that striving for six mentions in a one-page letter is an excellent goal. It cannot always be achieved, but each additional mention generally helps to lift response. But remember, the mention of the number must be organic. If it sounds forced, you can turn your prospect off.


Try these suggestions for yourself, and I think you will find that you will see an increase in response. But remember, the only way to know for sure if something will work for you is to test, test, test! So get out there and test and see just how well you can succeed.

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