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5 Things to Learn from Direct-Response Copywriters

by Neil Patel

Direct-response copywriting is killer.

In today’s world of content shock and content proliferation, we need to learn a few things from the world of direct-response copywriting.

This is the form of copywriting used by marketers. It involves communication directly to the customer in way that compels them to take action.

Long before there were sites like Hubspot, Buffer, Kissmetrics, and CrazyEgg, there were direct-response copywriters who were absolutely nailing it with explosive copy. They were churning up huge interest in their products and scaring up droves of customers to buy their products.

The impact of these marketers is enormous. You use toothpaste? You can thank Claude C. Hopkins, the man who popularized it through direct-response copywriting.

These pioneers were masters. If you’re writing ads, headlines, blogs, page titles, articles, tweets, Facebook posts, or any other form of digital marketing, you’ve got a few things to learn from these direct response-copywriting heroes.

1. Direct response copywriting tests without mercy

Why is direct response copywriting so awesome?

In one word: testing.

We marketing data heads love data — powerful, actionable, crystal-clear numbers. Numbers don’t lie. And neither does testing.

David Ogilvy, the demigod of direct-response copywriting wrote this: “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”
never stop testing

Phrases like “always be testing” are common parlance in today’s digital marketing milieu. But who came up with this idea? It was born in direct-response copywriting.

Claude C. Hopkins, another grandfather of the direct-response marketing movement, wrote, “Tests are important and help us to understand our customers. Good selling is based on good testing.”

Testing is the holy grail of conversion optimization, growth hacking, and success.

2. Direct-response copywriting demands a powerful call to action

There’s no such thing as effective marketing without a call to action.

You and I tend to take the call for action for granted. We put CTAs everywhere. We test CTAs. We tweak CTAs. We realize that CTAs are where conversions happen.

One direct response copywriter, Scott Martin, explains the goal behind direct response copywriting:

In the direct response world, we produce advertising with one goal: persuade someone to take a specific action that leads to a sale. Direct response advertising is measurable. It’s accountable.

What good is copywriting without a logical endpoint — a goal, a focus, a point? It’s useless.

Derek Halpern wrote this: 

For the past 100 years, direct response copywriters have made fun of main street marketing because they didn’t include a call to action in their ads. But times have changed. They [main street marketing] now include calls to action for twitter and facebook. And people who study direct response can laugh for another 100 years.

That’s why the CTA is absolutely essential to successful marketing and successful copy. Your goal is sales. Your writing focuses on sales. You get sales.

It’s just that simple.

3. Direct-response copywriting uses long-form copy

There’s a myth that people don’t read copy. Let’s annihilate this myth once and for all.

People do read copy. In fact, they love it. And long copy is just as effective if not more effective than short copy.

The website TodayMade explains, “long copy is good,” and points to the early direct-response copywriters for evidence. Here is one of their examples.

palmolive ad

Want more prehistoric proof? In the early days of direct-response copywriting, fear of long-form copy was unheard of. Ogilvy proves the point with this magnum opus. Yes, that’s an advertisement you’re looking at.

financial advertising

The fact is, people are interested in reading long copy because they are interested in making the best choice for their particular purpose.

If long copy engages them, helps them, and informs them, they will read it. TWEET

My own experience confirms this. After rigorous testing, I determined that my long-form landing pages were scoring far more conversions than short-form variables. Long copy allows you to persuade more, answer more objections, and explain more advantages of your product or service.

Even search engines tend to favor pages that have more content. Take a look at the word count on blog posts, and where they appear in the SERPs.

average content length

Source

Don’t be afraid of long-form content. It could be your secret weapon to improved copywriting.

4. Direct-response copywriting focuses on the customer

One of the biggest differentiators between branding as a marketing strategy and direct marketing is this:

That’s a critical difference, and it is one of the primary reasons why direct marketing is more effective than typical formS of indirect marketing or branded information. Direct marketing obsesses over the customer.

Here’s what David Ogilvy said: “A consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence, and don’t shock her.”

Here’s how he applied his knowledge:

I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin. This is still working 25 years later.

dove ad

The best way to become an outstanding marketer is to understand your customer. Marketing does not exist without the customer. If you want to reach your customer, you have to first know them.

When Ogilvy helped to market the Rolls Royce, he knew he was targeting people who wanted a luxurious experience. He knew the customer, and he catered directly to them with this stellar ad.

rolls royce ad

By contrast, the VW Beetle was an economic car, not catering to the luxury consumer, but to the value-minded consumer. Ogilvy responded accordingly, focusing on the customer’s main desires in this VW ad. (Correction: Doyle Dane Bernbach created the ad, but Ogilvy talks about it in his book.)

VW ad

Once you figure out who it is you’re trying to reach, you need to understand what it is that will effectively compel that person to buy your product.

5. Headlines are all-important

You’ve probably read all the worn-out data about how many people read headlines, and how effective they are.

Believe it or not, the first data point on headlines came from the mouth of one of the first direct-response copywriters, David Ogilvy.

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Ogilvy was the master of headlines. He believed in writing value-defined and customer-focused headlines. They were absolutely stellar.

headlines that sell

The reason why he was able to popularize products was because he crafted the kinds of headlines that exploded in the customer’s mind, forcing them to pay attention and compelling them to buy.

Conclusion

Direct response had its origins in the era of Mad Men, but it hasn’t reduced an iota in its effectiveness.

Direct-response copywriting is alive and well and more effective than ever. By learning from direct-response copywriting, we can improve the effectiveness of our own copywriting, and experience the success that comes as a result.

What have you learned from direct-response copywriting?

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Neil Patel.

13 Comments

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Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg and Hello Bar. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue.

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  1. Ash Waechter says:
    June 9, 2017 at 7:40 am

    This is a nice summary of the main components of direct response copywriting. I especially love the attitude towards long copy. The average person doesn’t appreciate the value of long copy.

    Any time you can explain your product in full detail, you will have a leg up on the competition. I think this is why Shark Tank participants get a flood of business even if the don’t get a deal. Sure, there is a huge audience, but they get 7-10 minutes to tell their whole story and overcome any objections that people may have. That’s the power of long copy.

  2. Don Sevcik says:
    August 19, 2016 at 6:35 am

    About time Direct Response got respect. Especially in a world flooded with content marketing. Direct Response gets to the point, and you know instantly whether you have a hit or a dud with ads and an offer.

    • Visakan Veerasamy says:
      January 2, 2017 at 10:17 pm

      That’s true. I think sometimes it’s possible for people to get so caught up in building elaborate structures that they forget about simply asking for the sale.

  3. Scott Martin says:
    January 9, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Thank you, Neil, for mentioning me in this blog and for including some of my previous work for the Crazy Egg blog.

  4. fatih says:
    July 9, 2015 at 2:40 am

    Hey Neal,

    Great post. I especially enjoyed the quote from Derek. It was hilarious. A must read book on direct response copywriting is Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz. I cant stress enough how much everybody who is in marketing should read this book.

    Chris Goward wrote a great short post on the conflict between direct response marketers and branding marketers. You should check it out.

    widerfunnel.com/conversion-rate-optimization/purpose-of-branding

    Also, i couldn’t help but notice a small error in your post. The great VW ads of the 60s were not written by Ogilvy. They were written by DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach).

    All in all, thank you for this great post.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      July 9, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Nice catch, Fatih. Thanks!

      I love Breakthrough Advertising. Required reading, indeed. We’d probably benefit from reading it once a year.

    • Red says:
      May 23, 2016 at 10:47 am

      I love when people misspell the author’s name when it’s clearly written at the top of the article. It shows you are paying attention, have high regards for the author, don’t pretend to know everything and put forth the extra effort.

  5. Eric bauer says:
    July 8, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    The VW ads were not Ogilvy’s.

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      July 9, 2015 at 9:11 am

      Thanks, Eric. The correction has been made.

  6. Sue-ANn says:
    July 8, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Some things haven’t changed. Compelling copy to bring customer value remains the theme, it seems to me!

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      July 9, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Hi Sue-Ann. You’re so right. It’s all about delivering value.

  7. Dave Rosendahl says:
    July 8, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Hey Neil,

    Great post. Odd that you published this today — I was just thinking about the long copy question day before yesterday.

    Specifically, was wondering if anyone still employs the direct mail long copy letter that people like Dan Kennedy made famous.

    Have you come across that, specifically in the b2b world? Have you ever tried that for Kiss?

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      July 8, 2015 at 11:11 am

      My two cents: Believe it or not, I do get direct mail letters occasionally. Now that so few people are doing it, the few that I get are novelties, and I actually look at them. lol. Times have changed! I mostly see them in self-help, personal development and events.

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