Academy for Wayward Authors: What Direct Mail Marketing Can Teach Us in the Digital Age

Much of digital direct marketing comes from decades-old strategies developed by direct mail marketers such as David Ogilvy, Gene Schwartz, Dan Kennedy, and Gary Halpert.

Many of today’s marketers draw on the old masters’ material when applying direct digital marketing, but they don’t tell you everything.

“What is forgotten is what went into a direct mail campaign.”

You had to get everything right because you only got one shot.

Today, the approach is to throw the spaghetti against the wall and hope that something sticks. Make more ads and let the AI A/B test find the right combination of copy, headline, and creatives.

Ad platforms love it when you put in dozens of copy, headlines, and creatives and let them run every iteration to see what works on your dime. They profit from your testing. Few advertisers include wasted ads as a component of the cost to market.

Now, with AI, you can generate text and images in seconds and quickly upload them to your ads account, resulting in thousands of ad iterations in just a few hours.

This was not possible with direct mail pieces or traditional advertisements.

Stack of newspapers

In the past, when Gene Schwartz created ads, he needed to prompt action from a prospect. An advertisement had to motivate the reader to mail in for the “special report.” Then, the sales piece had to take the reader on a journey leading to further action, such as writing a check and mailing it in.

David Ogilvy, another marketing legend, was unique because he was considered a Madison Avenue advertiser, but he admitted that he was hooked on direct-response advertising early in his career.

He loved direct response because it allowed him to measure the results and improve efficacy. Today, your capacity to see results is almost real-time.

In the past, for direct-response advertising, the advertiser would either snail mail a list or place a print ad. It was crucial to get it right, as a list of 1,000 people would require 1,000 mail pieces to be printed, envelopes to be stuffed, and postage to be paid, all before making a single sale.

Those old-timers took the time to research and develop emotive advertisements that resonated with a target audience.

The team spent months understanding the problem their product solved. If they had not done so, the campaign would have flopped, losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They positioned the product. Was this something novel that needed to be explained to an audience, or were they going into a saturated audience where they needed to differentiate a product?

Over the next few articles, these old-school marketers will return from beyond the grave and help you see marketing in new ways from the old masters.

Here is the first lesson…

What if you could only run one ad for the rest of this year?

How serious would you get about the quality of the content?

Having the benefit of easy changes, quick results, and automated creative iterations has left us all sloppy and using quantity rather than quality.

The winning advertisement won’t come from some swipe copy you get in a course or AI-generated headlines but from your creativity. Draw from the same well your books come from.

Blank canvas

Act as if the ad copy, headline, and creative combination will be the only one you can run for the following year. You only get this one, and it has to support achieving the specific goal you set for it.

This may stop you in your tracks, wondering what you want to achieve with your ad, given that you only get one for the year.

Here are some old-school lessons that all legends agree upon. Answer these questions before starting the ad campaign.

What is the unmet desire that your product fulfills?

As a fiction writer who expects to earn a living from your writing, you have a product (that book is a product) that fulfills a need. What kind of need?

Does it meet genre expectations?

Does it align with your brand promise, and does that promise fulfill a desire in the market?

Who is your ideal reader?

You’ll never get good results without a clear concept of the target audience. Don’t try to reach everyone. Go for the smallest best audience and build from there.

Person carrying stack of books

Know the objective. Maybe a direct response isn’t the right choice.

When you’re done with this series, you’ll understand the differences between advertising modalities. Authors tend to focus on direct response “click and buy” type advertising. This modality has a time and place, but there is also awareness and brand-building.

If you run ads, start now. Don’t wait for the right time. Design the advertisement you will run for the rest of the year now. Don’t run any other ad until you go through the rigor of this exercise and evaluate how much better your “once a year” ad performs.

If someone else runs your ads, ask them if they have read this article. Forward it to them and see if they can answer these questions.

Don’t be surprised if they haven’t put that much thought into the work they are doing for you.

You could ignore this but understand that others are already putting this kind of effort into their advertisements and getting extraordinary results.

By bringing all your ads up to the level of quality that I speak of, you’ll see better results from your marketing efforts.

Read: Is Artificial Intelligence a Worthwhile Marketing Tool? It Depends