The Direct Path to Finding Prospects and Customers Online

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There’s a type of marketing that produces more sales than display advertising, PR, or community-based social media.

It’s called direct marketing, and surprisingly, it’s not widely understood.

But we believe that when in doubt, go direct.

A lot of online-based businesses, especially those built around a blog, don’t realize that the kind of marketing they’re doing is a form of direct response marketing — in other words, taking a marketing message directly to your customers, instead of running ads that potential customers might see.

In the United States in 2010, direct marketing accounted for 54.2 percent of all ad spending, according to the Direct Marketing Association. That’s a whopping $153 billion. DMA also says those efforts produced about $1.798 trillion in incremental sales.

In the world of traditional marketing, direct marketing is considered an advertising discipline. Direct response copy is written for, and to, the customer.

Flowery, corporate-communications-speak laden with “messaging” hits the trash can faster than an Olympic sprinter reaches the finish line.

Even if you don’t think of what you’re doing today as advertising, you can use the same principles to speak directly to your customers — and grow your business.

How to go direct

You may have already discovered that writing direct sales communication can present a big challenge.

Even if you’re used to speaking to the customer with value, personality, and entertainment, when it comes time to ask for the sale, you need a new skill set.

The communication needs to work well for the medium your customer is looking at — social media, direct mail, email, mobile media, etc. And it needs to include proven techniques that convert prospects into customers.

The first thing to understand is whether your communication will be welcome. It makes no sense to use a method that will produce lackluster results. For example, a random “snail” mailing about an offering is (unfortunately) much more acceptable than a sales pitch on someone’s Facebook wall.

In our new book Marketing in the Round, we suggest listing all of the places you can communicate directly to your customer.

Figure out where they spend time, and what media they like to tune into.

Next, consider whether you can communicate to them based on your own resources and capacity. If your budget is small, premium direct mailers are probably not in the cards. But email and social media can be a logical choice.

In other instances, when marketing feels like an apples-to-apples comparison with the competition, using newer tactics in mobile and social media can make a huge difference.

Following are some questions your marketing round should ask when considering direct approaches:

  1. Do we have a list? And is it a list of physical mailing addresses, email addresses, mobile numbers, or is it a list of users following us on a site like Twitter or Google+?
  2. Given how our prospective customers use media, what are the most likely ways to achieve our desired outcomes?
  3. What can we afford to do? Do we have enough resources to make a multi-pronged approach, or should we stick with one channel for now?
  4. What are our competitors doing? Can we differentiate from them by using a different medium or adding a creative touch?

Remember your objective. Based on these answers, can you achieve your sales or customer service goals?

4 ways to write direct

Once you know where you will communicate, it’s time to write.

We can go on forever about how to write direct, but let’s cut to the chase with four sure-fire tips:

  1. Understand the norms of your selected medium. A coupon may work in email, on a Twitter feed, or on a direct mailer, but it sure won’t work as a comment on someone’s Facebook status update.
  2. Compel your audience with a great entertaining and/or valuable story. If your story fails to compel customers, you won’t get where you want to go.
  3. Write to the customer like you are sitting across the table from them. This is not a time to “message” at people. Talk with them.
  4. Deliver a strong, simple call to action. Fancy closes don’t usually deliver results. Straightforward calls to action do. Don’t give the customer too many choices. Direct results diminish with each new option you present.

Finally, a word about creative.

Creativity goes a long way in direct marketing. According the USPS, we know that 77% of all mail pieces are sorted, but getting them opened is a different matter all together.

Whether it’s an email message, a mailer, or a social media message, your direct marketing needs to be developed in a way that convinces the recipient to open it. This includes strong copy and great graphic design — creativity that sells.

Creativity can separate your company from the pack — as long as that creativity serves the needs and/or desires of the customer first.

Edit, edit, edit, your copy

Make sure your marketing folks either have the skill to write effective copy or are going to hire it out to a capable pro.

If you’ll be writing your copy yourself, be sure to investigate resources such as Copyblogger’s Copywriting 101, or C.C. Chapman and Ann Handley’s Content Rules.

Here are some exercises to vet and edit your copy:

  1. Read it to a small advisory group of loyal customers. Does the message move them to action?
  2. Does the communication have more than one call to action? How can you pare that back?
  3. Do you have more than three messages in the piece? If so, rework it.
  4. Go back to your original goal. Does this communication provide enough value to the customer to achieve that goal?
  5. Test the communication on ten customers. No response? Your marketing round needs to go back to the drawing board.

Send small sample communications to test different copy approaches. Watch what your audience members do more closely than what they say.

Let the strongest approaches lead the rest of your program.

Are you marketing directly?

Even a small-scale blogger can get seduced by the prospect of “monetizing” with advertising, while completely ignoring time-tested direct marketing principles and strategies.

Don’t let a lack of “sexiness” in direct marketing techniques fool you. There’s nothing sexier than bringing in prospects, customers, and sales. And with direct marketing and writing online, you can specifically test what works and what doesn’t.

How have you used direct marketing and copywriting in the past? How are you using it now?

Let us know in the comments …

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Reader Comments (30)

  1. says

    These are awesome tips!! I knew about the wonders of direct marketing but I also knew it is one of the most difficult forms of marketing. One has to spend astounding amounts of time and patience to reach out to the audience.

    • says

      I think it really comes down to understanding customers. The more you understand why they want to work with you, what their motives are, what they care about, the easier it is to speak directly to them. It truly is an understanding game.

  2. says

    “Understand the norms of your selected medium.”
    It doesn’t matter how compelling your message is if it isn’t in the right format. People expect certain things from certain mediums and it’s up to you to make sure your message meets those standards.

  3. says

    Awesome Tips. For more FREE tips on direct marketing, please see my website – www, and click on the “Marketing articles” link. At this new page you’ll find MILLIONS of marketing articles… oh, wait — maybe not millions, but HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of… wait, that too many, also. OK, you’ll find many many articles on marketing and direct marketing. The one paragraph description of each article will tell you if it’s funny or serious – but mostly all the articles – funny or technical – are about marketing and direct marketing. And all are free access. Have fun – hope you enjoy my site and my irreverent sense of humor, and find the articles of great value. Jeffrey Dobkin

  4. says

    I think the idea of direct mail can turn people off or intimidate them — notions of massive, impersonal campaigns with cheesy come-ons and sleazy offers. Anyone remember the minor LA Law character David Meyer, the “Direct Mail King?”

    But it can be done in a sophisticated way. About 10 years ago I decided to do a small, targeted direct-mail campaign to marketing/business development directors at law firms. It was a very simple one-page letter and one-page “sell sheet” promoting my services as a writer, packaged in a hand-stamped, white, 8 x 12″ envelope. It went to about 75 people and I followed up by phone. I ended up having tons of great conversations, made new contacts, sent a few proposals and ended up with three new long-term clients — all of them top-20 law firms.

    Part of the success was that i had an excellent list — these were the decision-makers I was trying to reach — plus experience that was directly relevant. But a big part of it was that the tone and look of the mailing was a good match for the audience. Law firms are conservative and marketers are skeptical. So the package was simple, straightforward and clean. No fancy graphics, no over-the-top come-ons or cheesy offers. I just talked to them, peer-to-peer. Many of them remarked that they were struck by how well-written the letter was, which is a key when you’re selling writing services, of course.

    I was actually pretty surprised at the success of a “cold” campaign, but I guess it all comes down to knowing your audience, speaking their language and offering something of true value.

    • says

      I think direct mail has a better chance that has in the past because fewer people are doing it. It stands out more. And everyone still has a mail box. To your point a long well written and compelling note can go very far. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

      The thing that’s important about direct marketing in general is not to assume it’s just physical marketing. It can happen via social media, too. It’s just one to one (or at least written that way).

  5. says

    Wow. Loved this article.

    There are so many ways that advertising and writing in general, especially on blogs, can be improved by direct response copywriting. I love that video by David Ogilvie. Can you tell I have a direct response copywriting background?

    I’m so glad you’ve made bloggers more aware of the topic here. It’s something that can definitely bring far more readers, at the least, and far more income at best, to bloggers and anyone else who cares enough to use it.

    Thanks for bringing this to the attention of all who read copyblogger.

    (From the Shameless Commerce Division of my business–with apologies to Click and Clack, the Car Talk guys–
    I’m doing some one-on-one personal trainings in direct response copywriting. If you’re interested and want to find out more, you’ll get the straight skinny on it if you sign up to get my emails–I’m sending an email about it to my list on Wednesday this week 6/7. Sign up at just saying . . . It’s not even on my website yet.)

  6. says

    We’re about to launch an “old-fashioned” direct marketing campaign on June 22 with two-page flyers.

    Our business is solely online, but we strongly depend on local customers and clients (we sell tangibles). We created a two-page “newsletter” that reprints pieces from our e-commerce website and targets a specific audience. We included an introductory story on the front page, and an overview of our services and our brief personal story on the second page. Our contact/call-to-action is in the form of a boxed “ad” placed in this newsletter.

    The newsletter/flyer includes the who, what, where, when, how, and why of our business and our relationship with the target audience.

    These flyers will be distributed at a local convention in their “goody bags.” They are printed in full, vibrant color, which will hopefully catch the audience’s eyes over the rest of the bags’ contents (which can vary in print quality).

    The expenses include printing the flyer (I created the original file in Microsoft Word and the printer converted it for Offset Printing, which costs less than digital printing, but is still impressive on 100lb glossy paper), shipping the printed materials to the “goody bag” stuffer, and paying the stuffers to place a piece in each goody bag.

    Convention holders may hire out the stuffing of the bags or do it in-house. The rates vary. Some services set prices on the weight of each piece and then multiply that by the number of bags for each convention they handle. Other services charge a flat rate for the entire lot for a specific convention.

    Every person attending the convention will receive this goody bag. It’s a target audience that is located nearby, but they could have far-reaching influence (which is our hope). We’re eager to see if this method works.

    • says

      I really love this idea! It’s funny how the old is now new. It works phenomenally well! You’re taking the handwritten note to the next level. Love!

  7. says

    Hi Geoff,

    Create a crystal clear, simple call to action. Spot on advice.

    Any time I wrote an unclear, confusing or lengthy call, my results were not so hot. Gotta be super clear and direct. People have no time to wade around your call.

    I picture myself as a general, writing a command, an order. Not in a forceful way, but in an authoritative manner. As in, do this next. I mean we want people to take a call to action, right? If your content is top shelf and your product or opportunity is valuable then tell people what to do next, so they do it.

    As for the edit another critical step to take. The quality of your work sends a strong marketing message. People who are mindful attract more prospects than people who make careless errors which a simple edit would fix. Take your time. Never rush. No need for 20 edits, but at least 1 or 2, it’s worth it.

    Thanks for sharing Geoff!


    • says

      Love that word mindful. When we are mindful about our actions and our words people feel it. When we just go through the motions or just want something, people all can see it. I think this is universal, applying to all forms of relationships, not just business.

      Thanks for the props!

  8. says

    Great post Geoff and Gini:
    And thanks to Copyblogger for its continued endorsement of direct response copywriting.
    A quick point on creative: Many people mistakenly believe that great creative means cute, clever, funny concepts and headlines.
    It’s not.
    Great creative is clear, persuasive and relevant messaging. Not easy to do and not always talked about at cocktail parties, but it works.

    • says

      Well said. I think creativity means inspiring people. Inspiring people doesn’t mean sensationalism, it just means getting them to do something, at least in advertising.

  9. says

    Good post about Direct Marketing – the principles of which I banged on about in a recent comment, but it’s good to hear the subject being promoted again. One thing about this post though, it doesn’t really put over the point that, unlike the old days – when we Direct Marketers only had paper and ink and physical mail-outs to communicate our messages – the fantastic thing nowadays is we have digital DM; much faster and cheaper to deliver, easier to target the right propects, develop copy testing strategies, and get results. And with Web technology, we can deliver so many MORE creative, and interactive approaches, too! One other thing: it still depends on the quality of the copy to attract, develop desire, promote calls to action, and sell. Good design cannot sell on it’s own, but copy still can – even if this digital age. Overall, Direct Marketing techniques are once again enjoying a ‘golden age’ (like my Agency enjoyed in the 70’s/80’s) but can now be more accurate, better developed, more effective and profitable than ever before!

    • says

      I’m not sure how much more integrated we can be when we bring up social, mobile and email as direct marketing channels, but I’ll take your point into consideration. Thanks for the feedback.

  10. says

    You hit the nail on the head with “Figure out where they spend time, and what media they like to tune into.” Many business owners, especially small business owners, skip this step. Or, they may ‘think’ they know ‘who’ their target customer is, but in reality, the customer turns out to be someone else. This is why it’s imperative to know and understand who really is the target audience.

    • says

      This is the one that drives me crazy, personally. I love to ask, “Why?” whenever a client or prospect tells me they want to get on Twitter or Facebook. Just because they’re popular doesn’t mean it’s the best place for you to spend your time or money.

  11. says

    It’s good to see direct marketing getting some “air” time. Many years ago, before the internet and social media took off, the ony form of marketing we did was direct marketing and yes, it cost alot of money (we had big budgets) but 9 times out of 10, it worked. Working as a small business owner of today, clients don’t do the large scale mailouts in the traditional sense but instead prefer to use electronic forms of delivery which is way more cost effective and offers more flexibility.

  12. says

    I’m happy to find this post at the right time when I’m planning to write direct emails to some potential people at certain turning point of their businesses. Now,I feel more assured to go ahead with my plan.

    What I’m going to do is to create some great tool for each of them one by one and offer it for free and then approach them to invite them to something that can even help their businesses further. I think there must be something in it. I mean there must be something in the email that makes them happy and gets their attention to something valuable. Then, it could be more powerful.

    Rahman Mehraby
    TraveList Marketing Blog

  13. says

    Wonderful post! And I couldn’t agree with you more when you said: “Send small sample communications to test different copy approaches. Watch what your audience members do more closely than what they say.” Thanks for reminding us that we should be as keen and observant as much as is humanely possible.

  14. says

    Hi Geoff,

    Really learnt new few techniques from the article and would love to work on your given suggestions and really seems to me that I previously what I doing was some thing missing.

    Thanks for providing very informative article..

  15. says

    Excellent tips !!! Direct marketing is simply taking your sales pitch straight to your customers. Most types of marketing, specially those that use standard sources such as tv, radio stations, and print publications, act in an indirect manner. The only medium a direct marketeer has to bring a message to a client

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