Ooooh that smell! Can't you smell that smell!

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 3m 49s)

The difference between direct response and brand marketing has recently been particularly interesting to me.

My wife and I have just moved to Taos, NM, so I'm in that headspace where you don't ignore the stuff you usually ignore [1]. In this case, I didn't ignore the big billboard at the front of the local market where anybody can post a paper advertisment.

Here's one that caught my eye:

This advertisement is classic direct response (DR) marketing, and I want to objectively describe what it's doing and then comment on how these DR techniques relate to selling expertise.

A: Attention-grabbing headline

If there's one thing I've heard more than anything else about DR headlines, it's that their job is to give the reader a reason to keep reading.

In fact, that's often a meta-framework for how every line of DR copy is written: each line's job is to give you a reason to read the next line. Each paragraph's job is to give you a reason to read the next paragraph, until you reach the point in the copy where the sale is made.

DR headlines often try to make use of vivid imagery ("greased lightning" in the example above).

B: Use of curiosity

Curiosity is often a key element in DR marketing. In the example above, you see it used quite heavily. If we could measure this example's use of curiosity on a 5-point scale, I'd say it measures around a 4.

I've seen more intense uses of curiosity, but not by much. Brennan Murphy is pumping up the volume on the curiosity pretty high in our example here.

Generally this curiosity "recipe" has two ingredients:

  1. A description of a result, outcome, or benefit of the thing being sold.
  2. A missing detail/details about how this result, outcome, or benefit is achieved.

So you've got two levers you can pull here. If you pull on them both real hard, you can produce a strong sense of curiosity in your reader.

Or... you can give off a very strong "scent" of DR marketing. You know how some people love cilantro, some are meh about it, and to some people it tastes like soap? DR is kind of like that. With cilantro, it's a genetic variation that makes it taste like soap to some people. With DR, I think it's heavy usage of curiosity that is part of the "scent" of DR that some people can pick up on.

C: Attempts to demonstrate value

DR marketing will often attempt to anchor the value of the thing being sold against large dollar amounts. Sometimes these anchoring attempts withstand scrutiny, sometimes they don't.

D: Attempts to create urgency

DR marketing often attempts to create a feeling of urgency or a sense the reader will miss out if they do not take action immediately.

Common ways of doing this include describing a limited supply of the thing being sold or imposing a deadline for taking action. These limits can be real, as they are with events like an IRL seminar, or they can be artificial, as they often are with uses of DR marketing to sell zero marginal cost digital goods or recorded events like webinars.

DR and selling expertise

I won't have a complete answer to this question: is DR marketing compatible with selling expertise?

The partial, needs-to-be-explored-more answer is: yes and no.

If we strip away the pressure and as much as possible of the scent that generally accompanies DR, then it's a valuable tool for selling expertise.

But it can be a slippery slope! It's easy to take any one of the elements I've described above and start to pull on that lever incrementally harder and harder and before you know it your audience is smelling the distinct scent of overdone DR marketing.

And if that happens, then they're going to question the value of your expertise.

Because if it was truly, self-evidently valuable, why do you need to act like those who are selling something much less valuable?

Important nuance

To be clear, direct response marketing doesn't have to involve pressure. It's merely predicated on the idea that people will be able to directly respond to a specific piece of content, and that you can measure and optimize based on data these responses will collect. And often, the goal is to acquire data, not immediately sell something.

All this too say, the key quality of direct response marketing is that it involves someone being able to respond to a specific piece of content, and you being able to track or measure their response somehow.

I also want to add that--lest you think I'm "against" DR--DR is critical for most of us when bootstrapping our businesses. Most of us would be completely unable to generate leads online without DR.

That said, DR can have a "scent" and it definitely will have that undesirable scent if it's used in tandem with pressure or unrealistic claims.

So the key to using DR effectively in bootstrapping an expertise-based business is to utilize its strengths without over-using them. Overuse of DR's strengths leads inevitably to the stanky scent we see in the poster I shared above.


1: I continue to wonder if this is one of the most simple but important keys to innovation: overcoming our normal hard-wired tendency to conserve cognitive resources through schema bucketing and ignoring that which is familiar.