What’s Wrong With Direct Marketing Today


By Robert W. Bly


            It’s no secret that direct marketing isn’t what it used to be.

            Oh, it can still work. But costs are rising, response rates are falling, and it’s tougher today than a decade ago to get long-running controls in the mail.

            So, what’s wrong with direct marketing? In my opinion, the three biggest problems in direct marketing today are the “3 C’s”: creativity, clutter, and credibility.


            “One of the most insidious trends to emerge in the past few years is the mediocrity of all forms of creative,” says consultant Don Libey. “The technological embedding, digitalization, and all-important web functionality have supplanted true creative excellence with the dreary grayness of creative expediency.

            “Direct marketing – a discipline that thrived and reached heretofore unachieved success in commerce – did so on the power of creative originality, innovation, and the master of the creative disciplines. With the rise of technological disciplines, creative has lost its cachet, its prominence, and its importance.

            “Those who seek to maintain the highest standards of creativity will gain more than those who allow creative vigor to wane and become rote, flat, and automated. We live in the dangerous ‘Gray Period’ where only technology is admired and beauty has become abstract.”

            After years of exposure to direct marketing, consumers have become increasingly sophisticated, skeptical, and wary. As a result, packages must be stronger than ever to become winners, as evidenced by the shrinking number of long-term controls we see in the marketplace today.

            Solution: creative that worked 10 or 20 years ago won’t work today. Marketers have to work harder than ever to get their message across in a fresh, compelling way. And that means great copy written with a higher level of skill and sophistication.


            The late Paul Bringe, a first-rate DM copywriter, said it best: “When the feed is scarce, the chickens will scratch at anything.”

            Meaning: the more marketing messages prospects receive, the less attention they pay to any single message. Result: declining response rates.

            And today, the “feed” is anything but scarce: consumers are exposed to more communications in general, and marketing messages in particular, than ever before.

            Depending on what source you consult, the average consumer today receives somewhere between 247 and 3,000 marketing messages daily. In addition, the average household received 888 pieces of third-class mail in 2005, nearly triple the amount mailed in 1969.

            The average American watches TV 30 hours a week and spends 110 hours a year reading magazines. The journal Webology reports that there are more than 1.4 billion pages on the World Wide Web. In addition, more than a billion e-mail messages are sent daily in the United States.

            With all that noise competing for your prospect’s attention, is it any wonder that they don’t remember your advertising or that your response rates are down?

            Solution: in most instances, a single promotion is no longer enough to break through the clutter. Target your prospects with a series of regular marketing messages. Example: DRIP campaigns for lead generation or an e-mail conversion series delivered via auto-responder to visitors who register at a Web site.


            Clayton Makepeace, who as far as I know is the world’s highest-paid copywriter, coined the phrase “the skepticism syndrome” to describe the proliferation of “ridiculous claims on the Internet and to a lesser extent in direct mail.”

            The degree of hype in marketing today is nothing short of incredible. As a result, prospect cynicism is at its all-time high.

            Solution: in direct marketing promotions, copy that creates credibility traditionally comes later in the piece, after attention is gotten, a need or problem identified, and a solution proposed.

            To combat the “skepticism syndrome,” Makepeace advises that you start establishing credibility much earlier in the promotion – as early as the first or second page.

            One of his favorite techniques, which I see Makepeace using in magalogs selling financial newsletters, is a “pre-head” -- a line of copy above the headline on the front cover in which the credentials of the newsletter editor are immediately highlighted.

            Example: in a magalog promoting Martin Weiss’s Safe Money Report, the pre-head reads: “Just released: the astonishing new forecast and warning from Martin D. Weiss, Ph.D. – the investment prophet who warned you about the stock market crash of 2000 – 2002 six months in advance.”

            The copy comes back to Weiss’s credentials and track record in numerous sidebars throughout. But by positioning that first credibility statement in a pre-head at the top of the front cover, addresses the reader’s skepticism – “Who the heck is Martin Weiss?” – and gets it out of the way immediately.

            Another brilliant Makepeace technique for creating instant credibility is to address the reader’s skepticism in the headline. For example, a promotion for a nutritional supplement to aid vision had the headline, “Why Billberry and Lutein Don’t Work.”

            In a recent interview, Makepeace explained to me that the reader most likely tried a vision supplement before, and it probably didn’t work, and it probably contained bilberry or lutein – or both. Therefore, this headline is in agreement with the reader’s beliefs. It also implies a solution: if you are telling me why something doesn’t work, you are probably also going to tell me what does.


About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 60 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt & Co.). His e-mail address is rwbly@bly.com and his Web site address is www.bly.com.