A Highly Profitable, Laughably Simple Lesson From the Great Depression

I have a daughter in Montclair, New Jersey — hometown of the inimitable Yogi Berra.

As a result, I have made a bit of a study of his remarks, and one of my favorites is, “You can observe a lot just by looking.”

Well, one thing I have observed a lot is the disinclination of most marketers to look at the past — and see what they can learn from it. They just don’t study enough.

Coincidentally, a client recently asked if I had any good examples of direct marketing during a recession.

I was stumped for a moment, because wise marketers do the same things in any economy:

They avoid trying to be “creative” like the plague; don’t settle for the first idea they have; test everything — and, for God’s sake, do everything they possibly can to get that response.

That last point is so important — and so often ignored. When I look at copy — which I do every day — I am struck by how weak the calls to action are, especially when I consider how much difference even tiny changes can make. For instance:

  • When I worked briefly with the astonishing Gene Schwartz, I learned that writing “tear out this coupon” instead of “cut out this coupon” made a significant difference to response.
  • When I learned about catalogue marketing, I discovered that if you put ordering details on every page, sales went up.
  • When I wrote my first insurance mailings, tests showed that doubling the size of the order form boosted sales 25 percent.
  • And one of the first things I learned about TV direct response was that the longer the phone number is on the screen, the higher the response.

I just looked in my files and found the following — the end of a leaflet. It dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Now that final paragraph really is a call to action. You can tell that whoever wrote it really wanted people to reply.

The business promoted by that leaflet was successful for many years. And if you read the copy, you can see that it is in a field that’s very popular now on the Internet — making money by selling stuff.

Lessons From Salesmanship

Somebody once asked me what qualities I look for in a copywriter.

Besides an ability to write, a deep interest in people, and insatiable curiosity, I said that I look for “a burning desire to take money off people.”

In 1970, I sent a salesman up to Birmingham in England to sell a product worth £5,000. (That would be $150,000 today.) He was incredibly disorganized.

But he got the sale because he was never afraid to ask for the order.

The great advertising man Fairfax Cone — one of the founders of Foote, Cone & Belding — once observed, “Advertising is what you do when you can’t be there in person.”

It is easy to forget, when you write copy, that you are merely acting as a substitute for a live salesperson. If you could afford it, you would send the finest salesperson you have to do the job for you. So you must constantly ask yourself, when reviewing copy, “Is this how a great salesperson would do it?”

How to Go for the Sale

If you want to make a sale, you must:

  • Remind people what they get when you ask for the order.
  • Put a value on what they get. (“You could pay more for a lunch for two.”)
  • Remind them what they will miss if they don’t reply.
  • Emphasize the deadline or the limited numbers. (I’ve seen that boost response 50 percent.)
  • Use a P.S. on the sales letter, as that is the part that most people will remember.

Here are some of the ways I like to end my copy:

  • “Why not make this the very next thing you do?”
  • “Why not reply the minute you finish reading this?”
  • “It’s so easy to put things off, isn’t it? Why not reply now?”
  • “Why not order now, while this is fresh in your mind?”

I always try to ask for the sale at least three times at the end. And if I’m working with long copy, I ask early on too. (That gets people who are keen to buy right away.) And then I keep asking at intervals.

How Many Ways Can You Sell People on Replying?

Now, here is an instructive little exercise for you. Read through the last section of copy in the leaflet example I gave above. Here it is:

“Let nothing, absolutely nothing, interfere with immediate action. A change for the better justifies no delay. Don’t watch others make money which you can make. Be up and doing now. Some other time may be too late. Place your order and application this very minute. Take the action now that means more money next week, independence next year.”

Now count the number of reasons it gives for acting.

I got eight. Did you?

That gives you some idea how hard you have to fight for business in tough times. (Remember, that leaflet was written during the Great Depression.)

The moment of truth comes when you ask for the order.

Believe me, few things cost less or make more difference than doing that as though your life depends on it — because it may.

[Ed. Note: Veteran copywriter and direct-marketing strategist Drayton Bird has worked with American Express, Ford, Microsoft, Visa, Procter & Gamble, and scores of other clients during his five-decade career, which included a stint as international vice-chairman and creative director with Ogilvy & Mather.  In 2003, he was named by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

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