Category: Digital Copywriting

Copy insights specific to online and email marketing.

A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

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How To Tame Technology

bigbrotherIt’s not always easy to know where technology will take us.

Still, you’ll want to do what you can to stay ready.

What happens, for instance, to copywriters in the digital age? Up until now, I’ve heard lots of people wax on about how different the online customer is from the customers you’ll write copy for in print. And for the most part, I consider that hogwash. People are people and bring their same desires and fears to the Internet.

But one thing that’s definitely true about the world of online marketing is that it has closed distances and allowed lots of small “niche” markets to come together. Something else that’s true is that the pace of exposure to those markets has exploded. So has the volume of exposure, in total products available.

So what’s that going to mean for you, the copywriter?

Quite a bit. If you want to survive, bottom line, you’ll have to make a few changes.

For instance, you’ll want to…

Write faster. With more markets breaking up into smaller segments, with more customers reachable online, and more niche products to sell, that means the demand for copy goes up.

So does the exposure to marketing messages. So does the competition for the customer’s attention. Marketing copy will get exposed more frequently, tire more quickly, and need more testing to find what ultimately works.

Demand for your copywriting skills should soar. But how quickly you can crank out a workable draft is more important than ever before.

Nurse your passions. The more focused, the more targeted the customer, the more easily he’ll spot a faker when he sees one. This is another reason why you should write copy, if you can, that sells to a special interest you already ‘get’ and get well… yourself.

Because when you’re passionate about what you’re selling, it comes across. You use the write lingo to talk about it, you have the right appreciation for the fine points. And more likely than not, you’ll already have the right connection with your target audience.

Know the niches. One-profile-fits-all is no longer the modus operandi of savvy marketers. To be honest, it hasn’t been for a long time. Breaking down markets into special interests has been the name of the game for as long as just about any of us can remember.

The only thing that’s changed now is that figuring out who those segments are and what they want has just gotten easier. Thanks especially to search engine tools, keyword tracking, online forums and user-run recommendations sites, and more.

But the better you ‘get’ what the niche customers care about, the better you’ll be at coming up with products or pitches that will sell inside of this increasingly narrow focus.

Know the products. Just like it’s going to make a big difference for you to better understand the niche customer, you’ll need to know the nitty-gritty details about the increasingly niche products too.

Not just because the products will be more specialized and therefore different from what you knew before, but also because niche customers are a lot more focused and educated too.

If you start talking about a product without fully understanding it yourself, the niche customer will spot your fakery from a mile off.

Discriminate better. No more taking on ‘sad sack’ projects, hopeless cases, or copy quagmires… ever again. In a world where the flood of products is rising, there are bound to be more duds out there than ever.

If you can’t sell it or it simply isn’t good enough to sell, most of the time, you’ll have to learn to say no. That doesn’t mean you have to shun every orphaned opportunity. Some might thrive, to the shock and pleasure of the client, with just a few unexpected tweaks.

However, other products are just duds. The reason they don’t sell well is because they don’t deserve to. If you’re absolutely sure this is the case with any new project, politely decline the gig and walk away. There’s no time for messing with these half-baked opportunities anymore.

Make sure you take your best shot. In archery, they tell you to aim twice before pulling the trigger. In copy today, do the same. That is, if you’re writing a new promo, keep an extra document page open at the same time. Call it “test leads.” Whenever an idea comes up for an alternate headline, jot it down in this second doc.

I try never to submit a package without at least one test lead. Sometimes, as many as four test leads and an original, all at once. In one recent case, I even wrote three entirely different versions of the whole promo. Without charging an extra dime. Why?

Because most of my copy gets tested online, where running alternate versions is cheap (nearly free). I get a royalty on every sale, no matter which promo wins. So I figure getting more than one iron in the fire more than takes up the slack.

Get savvy. Copywriting was always a gateway to other kinds of knowledge. List marketing, printing, design, even people management — you’ll know a little of everything before you’re through.

These days, it pays to get savvy about a few things copywriters didn’t even talk about just a few years ago. Like how search engines work, what a website should look like, email marketing and editorial, and so on.

You might even need to apply the same ideas to selling your own services. With an eletter of your own, for instance. Or a blog or website that shows samples of your work.

Expand your offer. The need to crank out copy faster is just one way to stay ahead of the “niche” curve. You’ll also want to look for other ways to monetize your talents.

Consulting on other people’s copy, for instance, for a fee. Or taking on student writers in a swap for some of their royalties. (I’m already booked up with writing students and mentored projects, for instance.)

The bottom line:

Be aware that you can’t just write for the big hits anymore. There’s definitely still a big “hits” market there. But you’d be passing up an explosion in niche marketing opportunities that’s just too lucrative too ignore.

Also be aware that the demand for good copy will soar yet again, as more and more products come to market. But that “good” copy will increasingly be defined not only how clean it reads, but by how precise and narrowly focused it is on the niches that will see it.

Not to mention, on how fast you can deliver it.

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