Is selling a science or an art?

It’s a funny old business.

If you’re a big gun creative director in the world of advertising, your salary depends on the amount of awards you’ve won.

But if you’re a big gun creative director in the direct marketing business, your salary depends on the amount of stuff your work sells.

That’s why real direct marketing copywriters are always looking for new ways to increase the response rates their work generates—always seeking a little copy twist or technique that will add a percentage here, a percentage there, to the ‘pull’ (DM jargon for response) of the campaign.

And they know these techniques work because they test. And test and test. If the new technique adds response, you keep it. If it doesn’t you ditch it. Simple.

It’s what makes direct marketing seem more like a science than an art. Which, in many ways it is. And, as in science, things often happen that are completely counter to many people’s intuition.

Here’s a great example, and a very interesting technique.

A client I was working for made their money out of those Premium Phone Lines that everyone hates.  Not a client I’m particularly proud of, but instructive none the less.

The business model was this: you send a letter telling the punter that they have been selected to receive an award. You give them a list of the awards which will be distributed. They have to ring up to find out which one they can claim. Naturally most get the cheapest one on the list, the voucher, the mp3 player etc.  The phone call they make costs a ludicrous amount like five or six quid, which is how the company makes their money.

So it’s all about getting as many people to call as possible, like any other direct mail exercise.

Now, two of the most powerful sales/response motivators are what social psychologists call Social Proof and Scarcity.

Put crassly, Social Proof works by appealing to one’s herd mentality. “Nine out of ten owners say their cats prefer it”, “87% of women said it improved their appearance of youthfulness”.

If you want to persuade someone to do something, show them that lots of other people are doing it. It’s an unbelievably powerful motivator. It’s one of the reasons testimonials always work so well, for example. (And the reason why suicide rates always increase when one is reported in the news.)

Scarcity, on the other hand, works by planting an idea that something the punter wants/is on the point of buying is quite scarce/rare so you better snap it up quick, madam. “Only two days until Sale ends”, “Last ten pairs available” “Strictly Limited Edition”. (Ebay is a master of manipulating this of course: “Don’t miss out on…”)

What I did for this client is combine these two motivators. I wrote some copy for a test which said “Experience shows us that this offer is certain to be hugely popular. We apologise therefore if the phone lines are particularly busy when you call, but your call will be answered. Please call promptly however as the number of awards are strictly limited to those shown here.”

The client was very reluctant to run the test because he felt that telling the people the lines would be busy would put people off calling.

Quite the reverse.

Inserting these simple sentences into the call to action bit of the letter increased response by enough to make it a valuable addition to the control pack.

And now you know why. “Hugely popular” and “particularly busy” leverage social proof. “Strictly limited” leverages scarcity.

All of which goes to show, if you’re really interested in selling stuff, not just winning awards, you should study human motivation and the psychology of persuasion. You’ll get far more ideas than you ever will from the D&AD annual.


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