What's your approach to direct response copywriting?

High Converting Copy Starts with a the Right Approach

One of the keys to converting website and landing page visitors into clients and customers is what the visitor sees ‘above the fold’ or specifically what’s on the screen before someone (hopefully) scrolls down. When the copy is strong, the visitor will keep reading. Strong copy starts not with a headline but with the formula or what I prefer to call the approach.

Let’s go through a few approaches, each of which can be extremely effective depending on what you’re selling.

The News Approach

You see this more in newspapers and magazines but the approach is to make an advertisement look like a regular article. The most famous example is the John Caples advertisement:

“They Laughed When I Sat Down to at the Piano…But When I Started to Play!”

If the advertisement looks like an article, which it should, the newspaper or magazine publisher will feel it’s essential to put the word “Advertisement” at the top of the ad. A good problem to have.

(A quick side note: we all know that copy set in reversed type is harder to read. The really intelligent direct marketers set the word “Advertisement” in reverse type on ads in newspapers and magazines. Brilliant.)

The approach is to make the advertisement seem like an article. The headline must simulate a newspaper or magazine headline so it must offer news. Let’s say we’re selling a fishing rod. A tepid headline would read: The Snapper Rod Helps You Catch More Fish! Here’s a more newsworthy headline.

10 Year Old Girl Breaks State Fishing Record at Lake Smails. Her Secret? The New Snapper Fishing Rod.

Stories can be extremely powerful in copy but be careful. A bad story is like a bad joke and will turn people away.

If you want to see great examples of newspaper headlines, forget the serious newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times: instead, look at the tabloids, especially the English and Scottish tabloids like The Sun, The Daily Record, The News of the World, and The Daily Mirror. Headlines equal sales.

It’s harder to use this approach on the web because the visitor knows they’re going to a page that’s advertising something. So use the news approach for banners and buttons on news and information sites.

The Empathy Approach

“I know your job is terrible and difficult! I’m here to help.” When the product or service is targeted at a highly defined audience, this approach is worth trying. And you don’t need a headline so much as a series of sub-heads. For example:

Being a Marketing Executive is a Tough Job…Especially Today...

Just keeping up with Internet technology is a full-time job THEN you have to run all the marketing.

We’re going to make your life a lot easier…

Very soon, your CEO will praise you for being totally up-to-date with everything in today’s eCommerce universe and staying up-to-date will only take you 30 minutes a week—or less.

It’s a good way to state a problem then tease the reader about the solution. You will almost always get someone’s attention when you make them feel you understand their problems and issues.

The Straight Ahead “Here’s the Benefit” Approach

It’s basic, perhaps, but there’s a reason so many successful direct marketers use this ‘default’ approach. If you’re not certain one of the other approaches will work, use the straightforward approach. In most cases, you’ll see a “How to” or “Are you…?” headline.

How to catch more fish with less effort.

Are you ready to avoid traffic jams?

Are you ready to pay 50% less for tires?

“How to” and “Are you” headlines can be used but headlines that state the benefit even more directly are fine.

With The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Wedding and Banquet Business, Your Club Will be Swimming in New Revenue in Just Three Months.

Specificity is mandatory: a set time frame…an increase in distance…a number of extra fish…be specific when detailing the benefit.

The “Successful” and “Unsuccessful”

There’s a famous direct response advertisement for The Wall Street Journal. In the ad, the writer details two students who went to the same university. The one who reads The Wall Street Journal is now a successful top-level executive while the other has not been very successful. Martin Conroy wrote the original letter.

Here’s the first paragraph:

Dear Reader:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.

And later in the piece…

About those two college classmates, I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. They graduated from college together and together got started in the business world. So what made their lives in business different?

Knowledge. Useful knowledge. And its application.

The comparison approach includes significant quantities of empathy…always a powerful ingredient. There’s a book using this approach: Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

The Offer/Bonus/Discount Approach

Perhaps the most direct approach of all…go straight to the offer.

Order before December 15 and you get FREE next day shipping PLUS a FREE pair of goat skin slippers.

Buy THREE tires, get one FREE

Often, with this approach, there’s no need to get into pages and pages of copy, especially with a widget or commodity. With a country club membership asking for a $15,000 initiation fee instead of $30,000 you need more copy.

This approach can be effective in email marketing.

The Guarantee Approach

Absolutely one of my favorites. Maybe it’s just me but I often think the guarantee comes too late in most direct response copy: a solid guarantee can be the clincher, especially when a potential customer is on the fence. I’m not alone in this thought, which is why a number of copywriters use the guarantee approach: detail the guarantee immediately.

“I guarantee my seminar will increase productivity at your lumber yard by 25% in just six months or I will refund your investment, send you a check to cover your travel expenses AND send you a check for $1,000 for wasting your time.”

It’s not enough to leave the reader with just the guarantee. The copy MUST pound away with the guarantee.

The Fear Approach

Fear, as we know, is a powerful motivator, especially when combined with major issues, like death or parenting. For example, you may have a product that will help parents keep teenagers from starting to smoke. The fear approach provides an opportunity to use the WARNING headline.

WARNING: If your teenager starts smoking now, there’s a 70 per cent chance they will be addicted by age 18 and will smoke at least two packs a day until they die from lung cancer…

What keeps your potential clients awake at night? If it’s a powerful motivator, the fear approach might work.

The most popular direct response copywriting strategy is AIDA, which stands for





The approaches listed above have one goal: get your attention and lead the reader to the facts, figures, and benefits they will find interesting.

And test like crazy to see which approach starts to get the best results: one of my clients used to write copy for a company in Japan that sold products through newspaper ads. They kept trying different approaches before they found the one that generated the best leads. Once they had the approach they liked, they continuously tweaked the copy until just one minor change produced an advertisement that brought them a ton of sales.


I'm a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte NC USA. My website is here.

Why don't the big boys use direct response copy?

I get a lot of mail from Fortune 500 companies and I visit big company websites periodically. On the mailing side, hats off to them for their persistence and their data mining. I receive targeted mail regularly. It's expensive to send all that mail plus it's harder to find the data than you'd think.

A website a big company has put together is, to me, something totally amazing. I've been working on the periphery of a big website launch for the last several months and it's bonkers. And I know people who put big websites together (or at least bits of them). Getting all the coding correct and making all the parts work together so you can apply for a loan, book a plane ticket, or whatever else, is a phenomenal achievement. Making it easy and simple is hard.

These companies have the print and they have the digital totally organized. So, when it comes to the copy, why is it dull, dry, boring, dull, unimaginative, colorless, lifeless, uninspiring, flat, bland, stale, lackluster, stodgy, and monochromatic?

As my friend Andrew Wood wrote in The Golf Marketing Bible...the copy wouldn't motivate a drunk to return to the bar for another beer.

Everyone in direct response knows that long form copy almost always beats the short form corporate 'piffle' when it comes to response. Surely the marketing EVPs and their associates have this data. And remember, direct response copy does not have to be obnoxious and it can complement the brand. Yet, I just received a mortgage application letter from Bank of America that was totally lifeless.

I can only think it's a compliance issue...but it's possible to make direct response copy compliant. It can be organized. Maybe you can tell me why big companies rarely use direct response copy...leave a comment...


I'm a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte NC USA. My website is here.

A web copywriting reminder from HGL

I haven't been reading about direct response copywriting as much as I like to...I've been writing direct response copy. Good problem to have.

But last night, I made the effort to dig into On the Art of Writing Copy by Herschell Gordon Lewis. I 'follow' three copywriters. Dan Kennedy, Andrew Wood, and HGL.

  1. Andrew Wood (The Legend) for his enthusiasm and salesmanship.

  2. Dan Kennedy for creativity and technique.

  3. HGL for technique and tight writing.

On the Art came out in 2004...sort of the adolescent years of the Internet. The chapter about web writing is excellent and includes this one gem...
"If you state who and what you are instead of stating, quickly and dynamically, a recognizable benefit that will transform the surfer into a visitor, forget it."

Later, HGL stresses the importance of a great offer, quickly communicated. And hammers branding and image websites.

I once heard an interview with HGL and he spoke at length about continuity programs, especially for plates and similar items. Maybe a lost art today...book of the month club and all...wouldn't it be great to get one of those going.

THANKS to HGL for all his books. Some of the best copywriting books...some of the best books about writing.


I'm a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, N.C. USA. My site is here. WARNING: IT'S NOT AN IMAGE SITE...

Does direct response copywriting have to be obnoxious or tacky?

One of the biggest misconceptions about direct response copywriting...and all of direct response...is that you have be obnoxious and hyperventilate.

As an aside, I once received a rejection letter from a big publisher saying "the prose hyperventilates a bit" which I took as a massive compliment.

Direct response can be obnoxious at times...and it should be. However, the style can be toned down while using all the tactics. Here's a link to a great podcast from Will Swayne about this subject.

I was writing content today with the volume at 11. The conversation in the copy was between a big-time Internet marketer and people he wants to subscribe to a website. His emails are really loud. However, I wrote copy last week for a client who wants direct response copy but very much toned down.

The FAQ page is a must

When I rewrite a web site or start one from scratch, I always include an FAQ page. Here's mine. Here's a new web site I wrote for a client in Australia; their FAQ page is here. Note the 'accordion' design...something I want!

The benefits of an FAQ page.

  • Qualify prospects. Keep cheats and 'Wal Mart ' shoppers well away.

  • Address possible objections. Again, people will not waste your time asking the same questions over and over.

  • Additional salient content. You can never have enough.

  • Buttresses benefits and qualifications.

  • Further highlights additional features your client will find important.

You can also wedge in valuable social proof. Answer a question like..."Is property investment for me?" with "The Wall Street Journal recently wrote..."

I cringe when I hear people say..."nobody ever reads" or a "picture is worth a thousands words."

When someone is really interested in what you have to offer, provide them with plenty of information. A well-crafted and meaty FAQ page packed with facts and direct answers will help you generate more leads and sell more.

Include the question "What will this cost?" because this will keep people who will not pay you away.


I'm a direct response copywriter with repeat clients around the world. My website is here.