direct response offerYou’re about ready to kick off a new direct mail campaign and you are hoping for the best response ever.  Look at your offer. 

You’ve been running search ads on Google Adwords.  You get plenty of clicks (sometimes expensive clicks), but your conversion of clicks-to-leads is very disappointing.  Look at your offer.

You have an ongoing drip email campaign targeting your most recent opt-ins, but you can’t get them to take the next step.  Look at your offer.

Every day – whether I am working on a direct mail piece, a banner ad, an email, a landing page or a print ad – I think about the direct response offer.

No, “thinking” about it isn’t correct.  I obsess about it.

I study it inside and out.  I break it down.  I repackage it.  I look at it from every angle.  I tweak it over and over again.

I worry about it for one simple reason:  the direct response offer will have the greatest impact on the response.

Not by a little, but by a lot.

I understand that most people want to focus on the format, the design, the headlines, the copy, the use of personalization, the postage rate.

These are all important to be sure, but not like the offer.

The offer is the centerpiece of your direct mail or advertising message.  And it is the key to conversions on your landing pages.  It is the reason people respond.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Give them an offer with high appeal and low commitment – and you’ve got a winner that you can mail over and over again with good success.
  • Give them an offer with low appeal and high commitment – and you better start calling it a branding campaign.

The direct response offer is too often an afterthought

If you sit in on almost any meeting where an upcoming marketing campaign is being discussed, you are bound to hear ideas and opinions about almost everything related to the campaign – the lists or media, the format, the message, the creative, the budget, the schedule.

Almost everything but the offer.

If discussed at all, it is an afterthought – which is a big mistake.

That meeting could and should have been all about the offer. You could easily spend an hour or two laying out the many layers and variations of potential offers and how each might affect your response.

From 1990-99, I taught a six-session course on direct response copywriting at Bentley College in (Waltham, MA).  In that course, I would spend two of those sessions (six hours) on the offer and its affect on response.

I have written many pages on my website dedicated to the offer as well as an ebook called, “Direct Mail Offers: The Secret Sauce of Direct Response.”

What do we mean by the offer?

For some reason, the direct response offer is often a misunderstood concept.  Many people think the offer is the benefit of the product or service (what does the product offer people?).  It’s not.

Others think the offer is the price and related discounts for a particular product or service.  This only true when you are selling your product or service directly through the particular promotion.

In most cases, your direct mail and advertising is being used to generate leads – not sell – and so the price and discounts play no role in the offer.

I often portray the offer as a deal or contract between the seller and the buyer (the future buyer).  When you think of it as a deal or contract, there are two sides to consider:

The seller – offers the appeal
The buyer – accepts the conditions

Here are a few examples:

Appeal – offered by seller Conditions – accepted by buyer
A free white paper, guide or report Email address or other contact info
Free consultation, strategy session or audit Contact info and relevant data
Free coffee card Complete a survey
Get 15% off on all merchandise Bring this coupon to our store
Get a free dessert Bring 4 people to our restaurant
Get a free t-shirt and bumper sticker Donate $25 or more to our cause
No cost and no credit card for 60 days Try out our email service yourself


Let’s drill down a bit

You might be wondering “what’s the big deal?”  You offer a free whitepaper in return for email address.  That’s seems pretty straightforward. There is nothing complex about that.

That’s true, it’s not complex at all.  But you do have options that could impact your response.

Let’s start with the whitepaper itself.  What topic does the white paper cover?  What problems does the whitepaper solve?  What questions does it answer?  The fact that it’s a white paper isn’t important.  What is important is the content and its relevance to your target audience.  Have you addressed issues or answered questions that are important to your target audience?

What’s even may even more important than the content though is the title.  You want to have good content, but your prospects won’t see that content unless they respond.  And their decision to respond will be based largely on the title of your whitepaper.

The same whitepaper with two very different titles could produce very different response rates.  No one knows in advance which title will be most effective, but testing could answer that question.

So you can see how the content and title could have different appeals and different impacts on your response.

Now look at the conditions of your offer.  You have decided you are willing to share the whitepaper if the prospect provides an email address.  That’s it.  That’s the only commitment needed.

But you might be asking, “why can’t we require the person’s name, or job title, or company name, or mailing address?”  You can. Just keep in mind the more information you ask for (or require), the more you will depress response. This is particularly true when you ask for a phone number and best time to call.

How much information you ask for in your form will depend on your plans for follow-up.  If you have an email follow-up campaign in place, then an email-only form may be sufficient.  But if your only follow-up strategy is to make a phone call, then you’ll need to ask for a phone number (and, as a result, your response or conversion will be lower).

Don’t forget the unspoken appeal

In the examples shown above, I provided several explicit appeals and conditions.  But sometimes your offer also has an implicit appeal.

For example, the appeal to fill out a survey may be, in part, the free gift, but it is also the desire for people to share their opinions, or to respond favorably to a request, or to participate in market research.

A fundraising appeal may generate donations, in part, because of the premium (the free gift) being offered as an incentive, but it is also due to the affinity the person has to the cause.  The appeal, therefore, is good will to the cause, or self-worth for contributing to a charity or, in some cases, recognition from others.

Stay on track with the 40-40-20 Rule

In marketing, it’s so easy to get sidetracked by all of the elements that go into creating a campaign. But if your goal is to generate response, you need to focus on what’s important.

One way to do that is the remember the 40-40-20 Rule – which says

  • 40% of your success will come from reaching the right people (the right mailing list or media)
  • 40% will come from the right offer
  • 20% will come from everything else

This is not my rule.  It was established long before I started in this business.

It is a basic rule of direct marketing. And it applies today as much as ever.

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."