"Direct marketing is advertising's ugly step sister"

This thought provoking headline was borrowed from Cynthia Maniglia who responded to my last post. Her blog "Copy Grove" contains some interesting posts with multiple examples of what it takes to create winning direct mail.

This post actually supports the assertion Cynthia makes rather than refutes it as she may have expected. Because there is some truth to it.

This does not mean that direct marketers set out to create direct mail that looks bad or that the creative people in this business can't create beautiful work. But it does mean that short copy with generous amounts of white space printed 8-color and varnished on the highest grade stocks does not often help them accomplish their cost per sale and cost per lead objectives. 

The direct marketing creative person marches to a different drummer.

The objectives of lowering the cost per sale and cost per lead requires a fine balance between what actually works versus what makes a package aesthetically appealing or unnecessarily expensive.

Direct response creative practitioners must change the recipient's behavior and not simply build brand awareness. This requires more copy and techniques that don't always look good.

Bear in mind that beauty to a creative person appeals to their highly honed sensitivity to aesthetics. But upper level client executives, believe me, are far concerned about sales results coming from their marketing budgets than beauty contests for their materials. 

So it is true that talented direct marketing creative types understand that beauty per se does not always help make the sale. In fact, production quality seems to decrease response even more often that it increases it, regardless of medium.

Direct marketing creative work must focus first on benefits and the offer 

 without letting the creative execution get in the way.

One classic example is the ugly coupon in print advertisements.

Ugly wins

When a coupon is called for, then don't play games with the layout trying to make it look aesthetically appealing. From the art director's point of view, the less it looks like a coupon and the more it looks like a copy block that blends in with the whole layout, the better. 

So what I get from non direct marketing art directors are these coupons with smaller type camouflaged in the corner of the advertisement by unusual shapes such as a triangle, smallish cut marks and so on. This approaches sacrifices response in favor of aesthetics. 

The prospect isn't looking for beauty. She wants ease of use and the symbols that say "Buy me!" or "Respond to me!" In other words, something like those ugly coupons.

Where "branding" and DM seem to conflict

Another good example are graphic guidelines developed by well meaning designers that establish the look and feel of corporate messages. Their rules even go so far as forcing direct response creative people to typeset the personalized letter text in their direct mail using an obtuse and often hard to read font when presented with the amount of copy a good letter requires. Such fonts recreate a direct response letter to look like an advertisement instead of a personal letter sent by an individual.

This blind adherence to design rules decreases direct mail response.

And I can't tell you how many unappealing mail packages consistently outpull the much more expensive, award-winning ones. 

The same concepts apply to DRTV. Pouring money into production quality rarely increases response and often decreases it.

Recipients tend to devalue the gorgeous direct mail package

Recipients recognize fluff for what it is and they are suspicious of mailers who spend too much on pure "creativity" as opposed to focusing on "what's in it for me?" for the prospect.  

Great looking print jobs may also tell prospects that this is just another piece of costly and useless advertising. While cheaper packages and creative work for other channels on low budgets may subtly imply that the message is more important than the look. From the recipient's point of view, the advertiser does not require the crutch of aesthetics because the benefits are so compelling.

Does this mean that we set out to do "ugly creative?" Definitely not. But it does mean that the pros in the business focus their creative juices on understanding how the clients products and services actually solve the recipients' daily problems building innovative offers than generate high response rates. And they do so within production limits that allow the creative work to win.

Most of our direct looks looks great.  

Creating beautiful direct mail packages within the client's budget is the least demanding part of the assignment. 90% of the effort requires studying the attitudes and needs of the perfect prospect and then creatively communicating that message in written or oral form for the highest possible response rate.

Posted on November 2, 2008 and filed under Direct Response Creative.