This may not be a popular view, but I think writing a web site is very similar to writing a piece of direct mail. I'm not talking about smash-and-grab fliers. I'm talking about those large mailings with brochures, a four or eight-page letter and a reply card.
And no, I'm not saying that the experience or the approach is identical. There are numerous differences too. But the similarities are significant, and can guide us in how we write for the web.
Here are some similarities:
1. We can guess that our conversion rate will be pretty low. In the area of one to two percent. More, if we do a good job.
2. We have very little control over the sequence in which people will read the information we provide.
With a direct mail piece, people might start with the letter, or the brochure. And who knows where their attention will settle first within either one. You never really know which part of a direct mail brochure people will read first. And the same goes for a web site. (If you have ever sat in on a web site usability test, you know what I mean. Sometimes it's hard to figure out why people choose particular links or pathways through a site.)
3. We know we are losing readers at every stage of the process and have to write in a way that is clear, engaging and compelling.
This is very true for both direct mail and web sites. Of the hundred people who start reading, we will lose the interest and attention of almost all of them before the 'task' is completed.
4. We can identify significant 'danger points' when it comes to losing a reader.
In a direct mail piece we know we lose readers at the end of pages...at the end of page one of a four-page letter for instance. Or after someone has completed reading a page in a brochure.
Online, we know we are losing readers when they read or skim a page and don't click forward one step closer to completing a task.
5. We know that we lose a significant number of people at the point of completing an application or purchase. They get that far and then back away at the last moment. This is very true for both direct mail and the web.
Now for one very significant difference between direct mail writers and web writers.
Direst mail copywriters KNOW all this and write accordingly.
- A direct marketing copywriter pays very close attention to the end of each page in a letter, writing in a way to pull people forward to the next page.
- A direct marketing copywriter looks through years of test results to write an application or purchase form that will yield the best results. (As does the DM designer.)
- A direct marketing copywriter writes in a way that is deliberately and carefully both compelling and informative.
A complex product takes several pages to sell. Knowing that, a copywriter needs to cover a lot of information for readers with a very fragile level of attention. The writer has to write in a way that is fluid, engaging, informative and persuasive.
- A direct marketing copywriter knows that key benefits and offers need to be repeated throughout the package. When you know that most readers don't read every word, you need to repeat key messages so that everyone gets to read them more than once.
What's my point?
I have two points to make.
First, there is a degree of sophistication in writing good direct mail that is rarely evident online yet. DM writers understand the nature of their medium and their readers in minute detail. At least, the good ones do.
However, online, while the quality of writers may be good, the sophistication with which they apply their craft just can't compete right now.
For instance, it's very rare to find a web page where you can see how carefully the writer and designer have worked together to maximize the number of people who click forward to another page.
In time, all this will change. It's just a factor of the relative immaturity of the online medium.
My second point is that DM copywriters live or die by results. Every single day. And to give themselves the best chance of success, they study the successful work of others, and they obsess over test results. DM marketers test everything and are always learning.
This is the second element that hasn't got up to speed online. It's so easy to test everything and anything online. We should be doing more of that and adding to our knowledge of what works best in given situations.
By way of wrapping this up, online writers can learn a great deal from DM writers. (The same is true for online designers, who can learn a lot from DM designers.)
Both media depend on action, repeated actions ? whether it is paper pages being turned or links being clicked.
Good DM writers are masters at driving action. We should learn more from them.
Nick Usborne is a copywriter, author, speaker and advocat of good writing. You can access all his archived newsletter articles on copywriting and writing for the web at his Excess Voice site. You'll find more articles and resources on how to make money as a freelance writer at his Freelance Writing Success site.