Old Meets New: Direct Marketing Days Are Here Again

Look out, email marketers. Old-line direct-mail pros are muscling in.

Some 5,000 direct marketers attended last week’s DMD (Direct Marketing Days) New York — far surpassing attendance numbers at any recent Internet marketing conference that I’m aware of. And the energy was palpable.

When it comes to email, a lot of direct marketers get it. They’re excited about it, they understand that it’s just another channel for one-to-one direct-response marketing, and they’re moving quickly to cash in on the higher response rates and lower costs.

And, yes, they seem to understand the caveats about permission (not an issue with direct mail) as well as privacy.

A number of sessions at the three-day conference covered email marketing. Stalwart direct-mail copywriters, such as Herschell Gordon Lewis and Bob Bly, led several sessions.

E-marketers can always learn something from direct-marketing pros, so I stopped by to see what was applicable to B2B email marketing. What follows is a roundup of useful tips — some tactical, some delving into the nitty-gritty of copy — along with my comments.

Many of these tips are not new. But they bear repeating. And it was interesting to hear them rephrased by the old direct-mail guard.

Aggressive Email

Lewis is a veteran direct-mail copywriter and the author of the 1984 classic, “Direct Mail Copy That Sells!” He is also a bit controversial. He takes a hard-sell approach (take a look at the copy on his Web site) that may not appeal to some.

“Are the creative rules for email the same as for a Web site?” he asked, then answered, “Email attacks, whereas a Web site is passive. It squats there, waiting.”

Email versus Web content is an important issue. Email is a “push” tool, and a powerful one. If your message is not carefully targeted to your recipient, if it’s not relevant and interesting, if the offer isn’t compelling, if the copy doesn’t sing and sell — well, then, don’t point and shoot (a.k.a. hit Send).

One, you won’t get the response you want; two, you’ll irritate your reader; and three, you’ll be contributing to email marketing’s less-than-stellar reputation among those who don’t live and breathe the Internet.

Have you noticed? Many folks equate the words “email marketing” with spam now that so many poorly conceived marketing messages are clogging our inboxes.

Subject Lines and Body Copy

Lewis offered a number of specific copy points, both about subject lines and about body copy.

Re: subject lines, he recommends using words such as “attention,” “congrats,” “flash,” “hot,” “inside,” “miracle,” “shocking,” “private,” and “SOS.” Some of these may be more appropriate for business-to-consumer (B2C) email.

Still, the problem he sees with many B2B messages is that they are neither one to one nor warm and friendly enough. Say “I,” not “we” in your message, and sign it from a real person. “Be as personal as possible without being assumptive,” Lewis said. Good advice.

Other useful tips: Don’t use initial caps in your subject line (dead giveaway that it’s an “ad”); keep the first sentence short; fire your biggest gun first (i.e., the offer or your hook); put the first “click here” (link to landing page) as high as possible; make no paragraph longer than seven lines; leave plenty of white space; and, as a rule of thumb, use no more than 100 to 125 words in a prospecting message.

A Different Animal

Bob Bly is a respected direct-mail copywriter with a 20-year track record and big-name B2B clients such as AT&T, IBM, and Prentice Hall. He’s written or coauthored a number of books, including “Internet Direct Mail: The Complete Guide to Successful E-Mail Marketing Campaigns.”

Bly has also moved into email copywriting, which he calls “a whole different animal.” He draws a clear distinction between email and direct mail: Direct mail is a “long copy” medium; email is a “short copy” medium.

Whereas a successful direct-mail piece can be thousands of words, an email message of 300 words is perceived as long. Yet, he emphasizes, not all the rules have changed. You still have to move a prospect through the proven stages of AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action).

Heavy-Lifter Landing Page

The challenge is to distill a direct-mail package down to its core essentials, Bly said, and then figure out how to translate that to email and the Web.

So, for example, a four-page direct-mail letter can become one email message linking to one long landing page or multiple landing pages. The total may still be half the copy used in direct mail, he said, which begs the question, “Why do you need so many words to sell offline?” Check out some of Bly’s B2B email marketing samples.

Content: Free or Fee?

Another point Bly made is that selling information products through email is tricky. The reason? The culture of the Internet, at least until very recently, has been to get content for free. We’re still “experimenting with models to sell information products online,” he said.

Indeed, the debate about free versus fee content is heating up. More on that in a future column so let me know if you have thoughts on the subject.

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