Content Creation

Why Direct Response Marketing Will Always Have a Place in Business Copywriting

By Chelsea Baldwin on July 13, 2016

As content marketers, all we care about is providing value to consumers. If we don't provide value, they won't trust us. And if they don't trust us, they won't buy from us.

It's a good strategy, yes—but ultimately, providing value isn't what pays the bills. Sales are what pays the bills. And to make a sale, even after you've gone through painstaking efforts to provide wonderful value, you still need to ask for it. You still need to prompt the action of payment in some way.

That's where the effectiveness of direct response marketing comes in.

In a speech entitled "We Sell or Else," the late direct response advertising expert David Ogilvy once described direct response as, "a type of marketing designed to generate an immediate response from consumers, where each consumer response (and purchase) can be measured, and attributed to individual advertisements."

Here's the speech:

By that definition, we need to do more than just provide value to our consumers with our content: we need to make marketing and copywriting about selling. That means including a component that's specifically sales-driven—making it easy to track the way one specific part of one specific campaign is performing, and ultimately, whether or not it's effectively serving the bottom line. Is that whitepaper you created actually driving more customers? Is your CPC ad copy working?

"But the chasm between direct response advertising and general advertising is wide. On your side of the chasm I see knowledge and reality. On the other side of the chasm, I see ignorance. You are the professionals... Ladies and gentlemen, I envy you. Your timing is perfect. You've come into the direct response business at the right moment in history. You're on to a good thing. For forty years, I've been a voice crying in the wilderness trying to get my fellow advertising practitioners to take direct response seriously." -David Ogilvy

Direct Response vs. Image Marketing

So many times, when we think of marketing, our minds automatically drift to image marketing—the kind of stuff huge companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Nike can pull off. It has very little to do with the product or any pain point we consumers are actually facing; instead, it's all about the desire to associate ourselves with the image that company portrays.

Coca-Cola relies on image marketing.

Image marketing works for two reasons:

  1. We spend our money in ways that make us feel inherently better about ourselves.
  2. These companies have the money to make their images show up everywhere. (Which isn't the case for the smaller companies most of us work for.)

And in fact, lots of marketing classes exclusively study this type of marketing. After all, if these companies are so successful and profitable, shouldn't we be able to mimic them and be successful in our businesses, too?

Ideally, yes. But in reality, no.

Because in reality, unless we're working for Fortune 500 companies, our brands are not household names. Our logos are not plastered all over everything, everywhere. We might have an international presence, but we're not known in every single province of every country the world over. We can't rely on our images to simply be our marketing for us.

We've learned this a bit, which is why we work so hard to provide value to our prospects in different ways. But when the time comes to make the sale, we seem to default to the same attitudes held by these image-based companies: We assume that people buy when they feel the whim and are ready, and that this will be enough for us.

But, most of the time, the things we sell are not nearly as commoditized as soft drinks or tennis shoes. People don't just buy our services on a whim. So we have to be more deliberate. We have to be direct.

Why Direct Response Marketing Is So Effective

"Direct response marketing is a highly ethical way of selling," says Allan Dib on Successwise. "It's focused on the specific problems of the prospect and aims to solve these problems with education and specific solutions. It is also the only real way for a small business to affordably reach the consciousness of a prospect."

The thing is, direct response marketing (and copywriting) is so effective for three reasons:

  1. It talks about a specific problem the prospect has.
  2. It offers education around that problem and a specific solution to solve it.
  3. The above two factors combined blast through traditional image-based marketing and advertising to really stick out to a prospect—instantly hooking them to your message.

But also, as mentioned above, direct response is incredibly effective because of its data tracking.

Textbook direct response requires you to track each piece of your marketing material for its ROI with regard to the bottom-line metric that matters most: sales. Not Twitter followers, list sign-ups, or other vanity metrics. Sales.

And since A/B-testing SaaS companies have done such a great job of marketing their products and getting us all on board with the idea of tracking our data, most of us involved in online marketing at least have some idea of the importance of figuring out what works and what doesn't.

The question around data tracking in today's marketing isn't so much about whether or not it's essential—it's often about choosing what to track (because you can track everything) and how to track it.

Fortunately, there are plenty of SaaS data tracking dashboards suited to nearly every type of business model, from e-commerce to service professionals. You can track all the links in your email campaigns to see which ones result in actual sales. You can track whether or not someone who initially comes to your site from Twitter ever ends up buying anything. And you can track the average number of site visits it usually takes before someone purchases a premium product, all with these data dashboards.

There are too many of them to list here, but even Google Analytics can be set up to track the kinds conversions that matter most on your website for free.

In short, direct response is so effective because it makes methodical, predictable sales. And sales are exactly the thing we need to keep our businesses thriving.

Integrating Direct Response into Your Copywriting

As someone who's worked in a marketing department, I know how hard it can be to convince your boss that you can't advertise like Apple does and get the same returns.

Even though the data says it's not working, it can be incredibly frustrating when the CEO insists on mimicking his favorite large company's marketing because it's working so well for them—especially when his reasoning is that if it's not working, then it just means you need to make your advertising "better."

Most of the time, getting permission to run a small-scale experiment isn't too hard, so you can start with that and use your data to get permission to market more and more with the style of specific problem + specific solution for the purpose of selling, instead of trying to sell based on image and value alone.

For example, try implementing just one small funnel: a few ads, a landing page, a tweaked call to action in your lead magnet, and maybe a quick email autoresponder series. It doesn't have to take you a long time to write up and implement, and you don't need a huge budget to feed into the ads up front. But the conversion percentages will almost always speak for themselves and demand higher and higher budget allocations until you've converted the vast majority of your marketing from image-based to (the far more effective) direct response.

Here are some of my favorite cheap and easy resources to start learning direct response:

  • The Boron Letters
  • Mailed letters from nonprofits you support asking for more donations because of a specific need.
  • The sales page of the last info product you bought online. (You probably couldn't resist it even though it was a bit pricey, could you?)

Pore over these, highlight the themes you see cropping up, and write them out by hand. That'll give you the insight, knowledge, and practice you need to start making your company's marketing more in line with the direct response style that works than the image style that doesn't.

And hey, here's a secret: for more advice like this to help you with your company's marketing, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.


Chelsea Baldwin

Chelsea is the founder of Copy Power, where she focuses on helping businesses create the kind of content marketing that gets remembered. Via her blog, free eBook, and writing services, she helps site owners identify ways to keep readers on the page, and most importantly, convert.