The 8 Key Principles of Direct Response Marketing

By Emma Rainville

Direct-response marketing has been an extremely lucrative, constantly growing industry for over 50 years, even amidst a pandemic. We are a 330 billion dollar market. The success of the sector relies entirely on a few key principles. Here are eight of the most important of them, and how they relate to us as online marketers of today:

1. The Money is in The List

What’s the one thing you absolutely must have if you’re going to sell your product or service?

That’s right! It’s customers.

In direct-response marketing, one of the biggest ways customers are sought out is through mailing lists. The better the quality of your list, and the more people on it, the better your response rates will be and the more money you’ll make. Furthermore, the better the quality of your list, and the more people on it, the more likely you are to be successful at selling affiliate offers on your list. 

If you are not already sending affiliate offers, we recommend you start. Not only can you make a substantial amount of money from the CPA payments from your affiliates will pay you, but they will also be sending your offer for a CPA payout, which will bring in more sales for your products. For years, Travis and I have seen people not utilizing their list as an asset, and plainly speaking, it’s just stupid not to. It blows my mind each and every time. 

In this space, a list can be many things. The most obvious instance is an email list. But more broadly speaking, a list is any collection of people who’ll read, watch or look at, what you put in front of them. Blog subscribers, Instagram followers, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, eventually Clubhouse followers, etc.

Successful Direct-response advertisers know the money isn’t in any list, though. This fact is something online marketers should take note of. Instead of being concerned with collecting an enormous number of followers, you should consider focusing on building massive numbers of prospects. Because if your followers are not also customers, you aren’t going to sell anything. 

If all they are doing is liking your content, you’re not going to make any money. Maybe building up your likes defines you as a person because you feel insignificant in the real world, I don’t know. For those of us that are in this to make a living, you can keep your likes and just give me clicks. 

It is better to have a hundred likely prospects than a hundred thousand freeloaders who never intend to buy anything. Maybe those “loves” on the photo of you half-naked mean more to you than revenue. What do I know? But for those of you not suffering from daddy issues or hardcore abandonment disorder, consider getting prospects instead of followers. 

2. Your First Words Count

Original Mad Man David Ogilvy famously noted:

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. It follows that, if you don’t sell the product in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your money.”

Your headline or email subject line should focus on how what you’re selling will benefit your prospect. Merely talking up yourself or your product won’t sell anything. For example, a homepage headline like “The most effective Weight Loss supplements in the World” will never be opened—even by qualified prospects who really want to lose weight. On the other hand, “Weight Loss Supplements Shipped to You Direct, Cheaper & Faster than Anyone Else—or Your Money Back” gives prospects a lot of reasons to read your copy and find out more. Particularly during a pandemic where everything is taking so long to get. Speak to the moment; it will get you more opens every time. 

The point is to get their attention in the headline or subject line. If you don’t, you’ve wasted everyone’s time. 

3. The Purpose of Advertising is to Sell Something

Many marketers are unduly concerned with ‘building brand recognition’, ‘increasing customer awareness’, ‘leveraging social media’ and all these other fancy marketing techniques. But what is the point of these things if they don’t measurably lead to more sales?

Of course, brand recognition, customer awareness, social media, and all that can be used to increase sales in a significant way. But all too often, marketers have no clear strategy as to how they should use these tools to bring in more revenue, which is the whole point. Sometimes they don’t even consider the question; they just ‘know’ they should be doing these things, since everyone else is, so it must be important, right?

I hear this and instantly want to become my 5’2’’ Jewish mother and scream at them, “If all your friends jump off a bridge, would you? 

I literally have her voice in my head saying that every single time a client or potential client says, I did it because “everyone else is”. I could hit my own head against the wall sometimes. 

If you haven’t understood how a particular marketing technique will help you make more sales, don’t use it until you figure out or learn how it will drive sales. If you’re already using it, stop focusing on it immediately and get some clarity on how you can use it. On the other hand, if you happen to have a clear idea but lack any way to measure your success, find a way before continuing.

4. The More You Tell, The More You Sell

Debating the value of long text copy vs. short text copy is pointless. The fact is that a piece of copy should be as long as it needs to be to sell as much as possible, PERIOD. Generally speaking, that means it should be ‘long’.

Long, that is, compared to most of the marketing materials you see online. Clients constantly complain about how long our copywriters’ sales letters are. Yes, people will skim the copy, but you can’t always say everything there is to say in short copy, and 500 words are NOT going to sell your product unless it’s a free + shipping offer. If that’s your business model, you’re on a sinking ship, and that deserves a whole other conversation. 

Marketers are often afraid that if they say too much, they’ll bore their readers out of buying. Ironically, what they should actually be afraid of is not saying enough to persuade their readers to buy.

“But Emma,” I hear clients say, “people don’t have time to read lots of information. And attention-spans on the web are short.”

Sorry, but that’s pure, unadulterated bullshit. What you mean to say is that people don’t make time to read stuff that doesn’t interest them, and they don’t devote their attention to things with no clear benefit. In which case, refer to point #1 of this blog post!

If what you’re offering is attractive to the people on your list, or the people that your affiliates and networks are targeting, and the benefit to them is clear, they will take the time to devote a lot of attention to it, just like you’re devoting to this article RIGHT NOW. Get it yet? 

If you read this far and you are still arguing with me in your head, just click off the page as there is zero chance you deserve to read my next three points.

5. The Only Kind of Copy that Sells is Punchy Copy

Internal marketing departments: listen up. Catchphrases like ‘vertically integrated’ and ‘leading provider’ are no better than “bestest on earth”. They are meaningless to your prospects. And I’d dare to guess that if you had to explain them, you couldn’t sound knowledgeable about them.

Writing your marketing materials to sound pompous, stuffy, and formal is an excellent way to avoid making any sales

People don’t read pompous, stuffy, formal copy. In fact, the more impressive and important your copy sounds to you, the more likely it sounds like meaningless garbage to your prospects. 

Regardless of your audience, your copy should be written in a punchy way. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘informally’ or ‘casually’. It just means you should write to your ideal prospect in exactly the same way you would speak to them. If you’d do that casually, fine. If you’d do it more formally, that’s how you should write.

For example, imagine I run into a guy at a local Austin dive bar (that is where I live), and he mentions he needs to find a DR consultant to build him a funnel. To get him interested, I wouldn’t say between sips of beer, “We’re a leading provider of top-tier full-service solutions”…I would order two more shots and beer chasers, perk up in my seat all excited, and say, “We can build a new funnel for you, from start to finish, it will kick your competitor’s ass, and you won’t have to do a thing except set the vision and approve the final campaign.” {insert high five here}

Which do you think would sell him? Talk to your customers digitally exactly how you would talk to them in real life. They will be more interested, and your expectations will be made and met every time. 

6. You Have to Ask For the Sale

Prospects will rarely buy anything if you don’t actually tell them to. When you include a clear call to action (CTA) in your marketing materials, your response rate will magically increase. Go figure. Crazy concept, huh? Now add a countdown timer for some urgency, let them know you have a limited supply, that there’s some scarcity, and give the prospect a little anxiety that they won’t get the product if they don’t act now. All of a sudden, your conversions will increase

This is really the ‘direct response’ part of direct-response marketing: you’re asking your prospect to take action; to respond to your offer immediately. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying something. Your offer might be a free special report. Or an email newsletter or whatever. But the critical thing is that you ask for a response.

Calls to action can be very short. They can just be buttons or links. But if you’re using longer copy, a good CTA will summarize the core benefits of responding, as well as including a clear and simple mechanism for doing so.

7. What You Offer Makes All the Difference in the World

Not only do your prospects have to understand your offer, but you also have to be offering something they actually want. This doesn’t mean you have to completely rethink your core business model if you’re not getting much success in your marketing. Rather, you have to look at how you are talking to your prospective customers.

What’s the difference, for example, between these two offers?

  1. If you buy two bottles, we’ll give them both to you at half price.
  2. If you buy a bottle, we’ll give you another one free.

There’s no actual difference between what you get with these offers. But offer #2 will invariably pull much better than offer #1 because of how they are worded. Instead of having to buy two bottles to get the discount when I only want to buy one, I only have to buy one and then I get a free extra one. 

Clients tell me all the time that this doesn’t make sense. Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. It makes NO SENSE to me either. The best I can say is people lose their ability to think critically when they read sales letters or watch VSLs. All I know is what works and I promise if you split test the two, #2 will beat #1 every time. I challenge you to prove me wrong

People love to get things for free, and they love to get things without taking risks. So premiums and guarantees are very important parts of any offer. They can make a huge impact on your take rate. But whatever you’re offering, the way you phrase it can make all the difference between success and complete and total failure.

Here’s a practical example from a recent consultation I did after a Clubhouse chat. A potential client was offering an online training service, and to get people hooked, she included a free trial. What she was finding, though, was few people were signing up for this trial. 

My sneaking suspicion is that the word ‘trial’ has lots of negative associations. “Try our free trial” comes off two ways. For someone who’s made purchases online in the last ten years, trial means: please be stupid enough to give me your credit card information so I can charge you every month and hope you don’t notice. For those new to online purchases (because they’ve been under a rock or just got a high enough credit score to get a credit card), it means that you are practically asking them to do you a favor

That being said, I think “Get your first lesson free, with no obligation” would work better. Let’s think outside the box a little instead of acting like a bunch of sheep and doing what everyone else has been doing and have beaten to death… literally. 

8. Test Everything, and I Mean EVERYTHING

Your offer isn’t the only thing you should test. Because every list and every product is different, it’s critical to test as many different ways of presenting it as you can.

You might be getting a 5% conversion rate off your existing marketing and making a tidy profit, but how do you know you couldn’t be getting a 10% conversion rate if you made some simple changes?

In direct-response, testing can take weeks to gather statistically significant results. It depends on how much traffic you have and where you start from. Never shift or pivot until you get statistically significant data. No matter how hard that pivot is. 

You should test things like different headlines, color schemes, trust icons, images, text under the VSL vs. no text under the VSL, VSL speed, URLs, checkout language, bonus items, 30-60-120 and 180 day guarantees, stock up options, price variations, etc. Anything you can do to get half a point on the CR. 

There are many web-based tools for split-testing different pages to see how variations perform. Google Website Optimizer and Visual Website Optimizer are two of the most popular options, but there are tons available. Most email campaign tools allow you to segment your list and send different campaigns to each, with different subject lines, calls to action, and so on. (I use MailChimp, but there are so many – AWeber and Maropost, just to name a few).

If you aren’t testing, you’re simply leaving money on the table. I’ve seen split testing a website yield a 400% increase in revenue. I can not emphasize enough the importance of split testing. 

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