What’s Working Best NOW

Random Musings and Brain Droppings
On the Current State of Direct Response Marketing

Dear Business Builder,

Rather than attempt to focus on one topic, let’s try a little stream of consciousness stuff today – stuff I’ve been thinking about that I’m hoping will help you get some bigger winners …

square bullet Type Questions: Recently, I’ve seen a lot of debate online – and a lot of confusion – about which typefaces promote maximum readability.

Common wisdom says that in print, serif typefaces like Times Roman (the face used by most newspapers that has little ruffles and flourishes on the characters) are the most readable. The characters are heavy enough to be easily readable even when they’re relatively small – as in the 9 point type commonly used in newspapers.

In direct mail, type selection is usually driven by the format you’re using. In print ads, magalogs, special reports, bookalogs and tabloids, most marketers use Times Roman (or a close cousin thereof) for body copy.

In sales letters – promotions designed to look as though you just tapped them out on your trusty Smith-Corona typewriter – most mailers go with a typewriter font like American Typewriter.

And because many of our prospects are older, we insist that the type be 12 points or larger in size. (Wouldn’t do to require that grandma go find her spectacles before reading our promotion!)

On the web, most folks use sans-serif fonts like Verdana, Arial or Helvetica. Because our computer monitors pixelate everything, they can mangle the little flourishes on serif letters, causing eyestrain and fatigue.

And while Amazon and eBay and most other massive sites use little, tiny 10pt and even 7.5pt type on their pages, I try to stick with 12 point Arial or 11.5 pt. Verdana for long copy.

Now, here’s where it can get a little sticky:

Just because a typeface has serifs (in print) or no serifs (on the web) does NOT mean it is readable.

In print, many serif faces can get so fancy with all their little curves and flourishes – and line weight can get so light in places – they’re virtually unreadable. Bell or Bodoni MT, for example.

Ditto for sans-serif faces on the web: Some of them are so light, they almost melt into the page. Corbel, for example.

And trust me on this: Given the choice between the same old “boring” Times and Verdana typefaces and something artsy-fartsy and virtually unreadable, most designers will go the creative route, rendering your copy indecipherable.

My philosophy: Marketing is fraught with risk. There’s a risk your theme will fail to resonate with prospects … that your headline will perform a not-so-graceful face-plant … that your opening copy will leave prospects cold … that nobody wants the benefits your product offers at the price you’re asking … or that your spokesman reminds your prospects of the bully who stole their lunch money in third grade.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to add to this list of risks by experimenting with the typefaces you use. Stick to what is proven to work.

square bullet Size Matters: Still on the typeface issue, but this is important stuff.

A bunch of folks seem to think that all reverse type is evil; and they are dead wrong.

I know – we’ve all been taught that anytime the type is lighter than the background, it renders your words unreadable. David Ogilvy even made that point – quite eloquently, in fact – in Ogilvy on Advertising.

Problem is, it’s not always true.

Sure – if you set 12-point Times Roman in white on a black background, you might as well be setting your copy in hieroglyphics. Nobody will get past the first line.

But is the prohibition against reverse type true for headlines or deck copy set in big, fat sans-serif letters?

Before you answer, consider this …

  • Stop signs are white lettering on a red background. Are they unreadable?
  • McDonalds, Wendy’s and many other huge franchises spend hundreds of millions on market research and their signs are unanimously yellow or white type on red or dark blue backgrounds. Unreadable?
  • The Hollywood sign is made up of white letters set against the dark background of the hillside. Unreadable?
  • While Rodale tends to follow the “no reverse type” rule, Boardroom has made hundreds of millions using “Nazi colors” – yellow and white headlines on red and black covers. Unreadable?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have a disease called reverselexia – kind of like dyslexia, only it won’t have you on your knees praying to your dog.

The point is, when it comes to reverse type, size matters. The large lettering on a stop sign … on a McDonalds sign … and the 45-foot-high letters on the Hollywood sign … make the characters eminently readable – while the brilliant color contrast makes it impossible to look away.

The Bottom Line: Avoid reverse type in body copy at all costs. But for large headlines, white, yellow, or hot pink type on a black, red, blue or lime green background can actually give your promotion greater attention-getting power and impact.

square bullet Shortcut City: Several companies are now marketing programs – a popular one is called “Glyphius” – that purport to score the power of your sales copy for you before you actually test it in the real world.

The programmers claim to have loaded the program with words that have been most often used in successful promotions – and if your promotion contains those same words, you get a high score.

Sounds interesting – and I admit Glyphius is fun to play with. But how useful is it really?

Well, we’re running some tests now, and I’ll let you know what we discover in an upcoming issue.

What concerns me though, is that some gullible noobs have suggested that Glyphius is actually a substitute for real-world testing.

According to one of these Glyphius pimps, he could have saved me the $200,000 I spent split-testing several headlines simply by running them through Glyphius.

Sorry – that’s worse than merely ignorant – it’s dangerous.

Because, as important as your word choices are, they pale in significance when compared to the importance of the message your copy conveys.

If Glyphius and these other programs could rate how well your theme connects with your audience … the persuasiveness of your selling propositions … and how compelling your offer is … it would be worth its weight in gold.

But it can’t. Because those things change from market to market, from product to product and from minute to minute. It takes immersion in your market … great instincts and lightning reflexes to get it right most of the time.

It takes a human.

More than that: It takes a talented, creative human who knows more about his prospect than the prospect knows about himself.

All a canned copywriting program can do is tell you if you’re using words that have already been used in promotions that your prospects have seen a gazillion times. If you are, Glyphius thinks that’s a good thing.

But if you present the world’s most compelling theme, propositions and benefits without employing overused words like “GUARANTEED!” in every headline … that, according to Glyphius, is a bad thing.

My advice for now: The software that really will get you the response you’re looking for runs only on the world’s most powerful computer: The one sloshing around inside that one-quart container perched at the top of your spine.

It consists of lessons you and others have learned about how to persuade and motivate human beings in the real world – and it’s the only kind of “copywriting software” I’d be willing to pay for.

square bullet The Day the Hype Died: “Hyperbole” is one of those words that everyone uses but almost nobody understands.

Most folks think “hype” refers to sales copy that makes exaggerated claims. Or copy that has a lot of high-energy words in it.

Not so.

The dictionary says hyperbole is “an obvious and intentional exaggeration,” or “an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as ‘to wait an eternity.’”

In other words, true hype is nothing more than a literary device that can come in pretty darned handy when you need to drive a point home.

… Like when I said in a health package, “A surgeon will cut a hole right through you just to get at your wallet.”

See? Hype. “An extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally.”

But when someone tells you your copy is “hypey,” they mean something completely different – don’t they?

In most cases, they mean your copy has too much energy. It’s too exciting. To emotionally exercised.

Over the years, I usually let those kinds of comments roll off me like water off a duck. So long as the level of emotion in my copy felt appropriate for the subject at hand, I figured emotional energy was a good thing.

But the direct marketing world has metamorphosed in recent years. Since about 2001, if I had to set a date to it.

The saturation of our markets with bombastic high-energy copy – combined with advent of mainstream Internet advertising – calls for a very different approach to setting the tone of our copy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m NOT saying high-energy copy doesn’t work anymore. It can and it does.

But so does low-energy, warm, personal copy that leverages a relationship with prospects and customers to slip through their anti-advertising defenses …

… and then appeals to the intellect with logical, persuasive sales arguments …

… and then counts on the intellect to trigger the emotions that will produce the sale.

Right now, for example, we’re using high-energy copy to sell a supplement product online.

And, we’re using much lower-key copy to sell an investment service.

Both campaigns are doing gangbuster business.

What’s more, each campaign mixes it up.

After purchasing the supplement above, you get a mix of high-energy and warm, personal communications from my client.

And from time to time – when the investment news from overseas is particularly exciting, we blast a high-energy message for our international investing service.

My rules of thumb:

  1. Make sure the emotional tone of your copy is appropriate for the subject at hand
  2. When planning a series of promotional e-mails to existing customers, realize that, when everything’s emphasized, nothing is emphasized. Create a rich emotional texture in your campaigns – alternate between warm, personal bonding communications and higher energy copy when appropriate.

Hope this helps …

Yours for Bigger Winners, More Often,
Clayton Makepeace Signature
Clayton Makepeace
Publisher & Editor

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7 Responses to What’s Working Best NOW

  1. DaveC says:

    Thank you for opening my brain to reverse type.

    And for explaining hyperbole.

    That Glyphius app appears similar to the scientific “models” and “estimates” that brought us global warming. I’m sure your test results will be interesting.

  2. Gary Raimo says:

    I am not worthy, I am not worthy, I am not worthy ‘O’ Great One.

  3. Clayton,

    Thank you for that great explanation of hyperbole, esp. how it can be a good thing when it comes to copy. Certainly I find myself oscillating between the two approaches and seeing responses to both. As you said, know your audience and watch for the results!

  4. Rezbi says:

    Thanks for that enlightening article.

    I’ve been thinking recently about fonts and how they should be used. Although I’d been telling my clients not to use reverse type – even in headline – there was a niggling doubt in my mind as to whether or not it’s an issue.

    It would have been okay if we’d tested, but my clients don’t seem to think they need to.

  5. Mike says:

    Just letting you know this post needs editing. The words “square bullet” show up a number of times where your square bullet should be. I’m guessing it’s because you’ve changed over to the new platform – and therefore I’m likely to find this in a bunch of posts.

    Just wanted to bring it to your attention in case you wanted to fix it!

  6. Ryan says:

    Only 5 responses? I’m assuming everyone that read this just bookmarked it instead!

    I remember a few years ago trying to get buy-in to go with copy that was softer/heartfelt/personable and I wasn’t able to win my boss over. And I admit, even now that I am the one making the decisions I’m hesitant to take that approach because I’ve seen how well the bombastic copy works.

    To hear from a seasoned pro that an alternative approach works gives me the courage to test it. It’s copy that often “feels better” to write as well since it comes more directly from a perspective of helping your customer with a problem that’s close to their hearts.

    For others having the trouble of getting buy-in for an approach like Clayton recommends, think of this: we (as customers of any product) are busier and more stressed than ever. “Loud” advertising messages add to the noise in our lives and I, while we may pay attention at first, we shy away from them in the end.

    All we want, in many cases, is a friend, and ally, someone we can trust to point us in the right direction. It’s why social promos are so effective. If you can use your copy to BE that friend, you’ll do well (and I’ll be more likely to hire you for a freelancing gig).

    Clayton, thanks also for giving concrete examples of both styles.


  7. robert says:

    Great stuff…as always.

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