December 15, 2009

Why I Stopped Throwing Out Junk Mail

Whenever I start to write something online, for myself or for a client, I have to answer one hard question: who cares?

Your company has been in business for thirty years—so what?

Your equipment is state-of-the-art—and your competitors won’t say the same about theirs?

Your copywriting wrings wallets dry and leaves empty pockets flapping in the breeze—poetry doesn’t sell well, and bad poetry sells even worse.

There’s lots of general advice on how to keep readers hooked—tell them a story they can relate to, offer them a benefit they can’t get anywhere else, establish a cadence—but that’s too vague.

I’d rather just copy people who can’t afford to be wrong.

Junk mail practitioners obviously can’t afford to make all the same mistakes I can. When they’re paying for every printing and every delivery (and every phone inquiry, and every return), they have to know to a dollar what works. And what they never stop saying is that Long Copy Works—if it works when you pay more for every page, it must really work when you don’t.

(That’s why I was so shocked to read Richard Armstrong’s excellent autobiography, My First 40 Years in Junk Mail. Armstrong omits all but the first few pages of each sales letter. I guess after a page or two, it’s a matter of establishing a rhythm, and finding fifteen factual bullet points your reader can comfortably skim.)

When I want to know how to write a transactional email, I wait for a magazine renewal letter. When I want to know what the “Pro” Account’s page should say, I wait for a membership drive letter to arrive (my home address has been cheerfully sold to a bunch of political committees, so I get a lot of these). And if I want to sell something and I can’t possibly relate to whoever would want to buy it—I keep an eye out for the envelope marked “You’re pre-approved!”

Study junk mail for a while, and you’ll realize that it’s a great time to be in the business of selling things. You can look at the results of a hundred years of careful analysis, big bets, and bad investments—and you can coast on the results. At the same time, you can run any split-test you want, at a fraction of the cost.

Lots of other people can do that, too. But I’ve noticed that most marketers my age are more interested in a favorable review from Mashable than in a high conversion rate; there’s a lot of interest paid to fairly pointless (but edgy!) strategies that just happen to rely on faddish tools instead of tacky-but-tested tactics.

Sure, someone will make some good money from Twitter, some day. But until then, I’ll be ripping open envelopes and shamelessly repurposing the work of people who have to try harder than I do.

  • Bob Tompkins

    Loved the post, thanks. Quick question: I just downloaded the “free sample” of Armstrong's book, and it seems to be his book in its entirety. Did you have the same experience. Is there a place I can buy the whole book?

  • http://www.byrnehobart.com/blog/ byrneseyeview

    I think it's the whole book. The “free sample” stuff may be his idea of a
    joke.

  • http://twitter.com/bugsbane Ramon Carlos

    Good Post. Got here from Sacha Chua's blog while waiting for one of my unit tests to finish. I do recall having read compelling copy from junk mail. I guess I'll start a folder of good copy. Gonna download Armstrong's book. Thanks

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  • wlbentley

    Its a book of writing samples, not a sample of his book. ;-)

  • http://chrisdrit.posterous.com/ ChrisDrit

    Thanks for the download link, going to have to check that out. If you want some more great reading, getting into the nuts and bolts of this type of stuff, check out Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz:

    http://www.amazon.com/Breakthrough-Advertising-…

    It's out of print but I just go to the public library and check it out for a few weeks at a time – this thing was written by a direct marketer in the 1960's, simply amazing, and still very relevant even in today's online advertising world.

  • rishi100

    Would love to see some examples of good junk mail on your blog.

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  • http://www.3greatestgifts.com/ marian

    You are SO on!

  • http://zixmailencryption.com/ zixmail

    I have always thought of zix mail as a last ditch effort. You have no other means to reach your customer

  • http://www.freeflash.co.in/flashtext flash text

    Nice post about junk mail. Thanks