I’ve worked on hundreds – maybe thousands – of direct-mail campaigns. I’ve written dozens of direct-mail sales letters myself, and I’ve worked with other copywriters on their letters. And I’ve never stopped trying to find new and better ways to make marketing copy stronger.

For the past few months, for example, I’ve been working on a book about the peer review process we use at ETR to evaluate sales copy. This book will be available early next year. Meanwhile, I want to share with you a method I’ve used for years. It incorporates the essence of the peer review process, as well as several other copy-strengthening techniques.

What follows is a simple but extremely effective and reliable way to make ordinary copy extraordinary. Some of the best copywriters and marketers I know have adopted individual parts of it for their own use. You may want to do the same.

Step 1: Power-charge the headline and lead.

Eighty percent of the impact (and the success) of a direct-mail promotion is derived from less than 20 percent of the copy. That 20 percent is the headline and lead (the first paragraph or two of the sales letter). If you think about how people read a sales letter, and how much attention they give to the beginning of it, that makes sense.

So Step 1 for me is all about focusing a good deal of time and talent on this portion of the promotion. Here’s what you do:

Give your copywriter (or yourself, if you’re the one doing the writing) two deadlines. The first deadline is for the headline and lead of the sales letter. The second deadline is for the rest of the promotion. Tell him to submit only one version – his best.

When you have the headline and lead, call together the copywriter (if he can take criticism) and three or four critics. I like to include people who have a variety of skills and backgrounds: a marketing executive, a product specialist, a creative person, and sometimes a typical buyer. As a group, you are going to assign numerical grades – from 1.0 to 4.0 – to the copy.

Start by rating the headline on the two jobs it absolutely must accomplish:

1. How well does it get itself noticed – i.e., how catchy is it?

2. Does it make you want to read further – i.e., how sticky is it?

If it fails to score an average of at least a 3.0, ask your panel for ideas on how to improve it. Do not entertain negative statements. Restrict their contributions to positive suggestions, and then rate those as either “helpful” or “not helpful.”

Once you’ve got your headline up to snuff, have your panel read the lead. Ask them if it succeeds in selling them to the point where they have a “Yes, this is just what I need” kind of feeling.

If the lead fails to merit a 3.0 or better, ask your panel for suggestions on how to make it better in terms of:

  • Language. (Does the language convey enthusiasm and excitement?)
  • Benefit. (Is the benefit big and sticky enough?)
  • Believability. (Do you believe it’s for real?)

In four cases out of five, a single half-hour of this kind of work will produce a headline and lead that is strong to very strong.

Step 2: Sit down with your copywriter and review the main copy.

When the rest of the promotion is submitted by the copywriter, go through it carefully – highlighting every claim and promise made. Then sit down with him and determine if each is adequately supported. If it’s not, work with him to figure out how it could be done better.

At the same time, make sure it is balanced. A well-balanced promotion provides four things – what we call the Four-Legged Stool.

  1. A benefit. (It makes a desirable promise.)
  2. An idea. (It suggests something that distinguishes the product from its competitors.)
  3. Credibility. (It establishes that the writer of the sales letter, the product, and the manufacturer of the product are reliable and trustworthy.)
  4. A track record. (It proves that all the claims are true.)

At the end of this session, your copywriter should know exactly what he has to do in order to come back with a very strong revision.

Step 3: Subject the revised promotion to a “live test.”

Get four people who have bought products that are similar to the one this promotion is selling to agree to evaluate the promotion. (They could be people you know personally or previous customers. In either case, be prepared to offer them something – perhaps a sample of the product – to thank them for their time.)

Ask them to read the promotion and to mark next to each head, subhead, and paragraph whether they find it to be good, bad, or indifferent.

When their comments are returned, sit down with the copywriter again and go through the marks one by one. Where you have universal or nearly universal “goods,” leave the copy as is. Where you have four “bads,” the copy will have to be changed. Where you have mixed reviews, use your best judgment.

(By the way, as I said, the headline and lead are responsible for 80 percent of the success of any promotion – so if the copywriter still doesn’t get that part up to your satisfaction after a third go at it, pay him a “kill” fee and find someone else.)

Add up the total amount of time spent doing this, and you are talking about an investment of between 90 minutes and six hours. What you can get from that investment is almost amazing.

I’ve seen packages that were originally capable of pulling, say, one-half of 1 percent brought up to where they pulled 2 percent. If you figure that out in terms of dollar impact, it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands – and quite possibly in the millions.

Even more important, your batting average as a marketer will improve dramatically with this system. If you were making, say, one package out of three work beforehand, you could very well raise your success rate to one out of two.

What can that mean to your overall career? Simply the difference between being a dime-a-dozen direct-mail hack and becoming a legend.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.