In direct marketing, structure is key: If your copy doesn’t follow the formula for persuasion, it won’t work, no matter how creative you get.
There have been numerous formulas for writing persuasive copy throughout the years. The most famous is probably AIDA, which stands for attention, interest, desire, and action. In copywriting seminars, I’ve taught a variation on AIDA known as the motivating sequence.
The following explores the five steps of the motivating sequence:
Step 1: Get attention
Before your promotion can do anything else, it has to get your prospect’s attention. It must get the prospect to stop, open the envelope, and start reading the materials inside instead of tossing it in the trash. You already know many methods of getting attention and see dozens of them in action every day. In TV and magazine advertising, sex is often used to gain attention for products ranging from soft drinks and cars to diet and exercise programs.
Other options: Make a bold statement, cite a startling statistic, ask a curiosity-arousing question, put a bulky object in the envelope, apply a glossy coating to the envelope and letter, use a pop-up graphic — you get the idea.
Step 2: Identify the problem or need
Most products fill a need or solve a problem. But what are the chances that your prospect is thinking about this problem when they get your promotion? Probably not all that great.
So, the first thing you have to do is focus their attention on the need or problem your product addresses. Only then can you talk to them about the solution.
Step 3: Position your product as the solution to the problem
Once you get the prospect to focus on the problem, the next step is to position your product or service as the solution to that problem. This can be a quick transition. Here’s an example from a fundraising letter from the Red Cross:
Dear Mr. Bly:
Someday, you may need the Red Cross.
But right now, the Red Cross needs you.
It pretty much lays out where the letter will go next, doesn’t it?
Step 4: Offer the reader proof
As marketer Mark Joyner points out in his book The Irresistible Offer (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), one of the prospect’s first questions when they receive your promotion is “Why should I believe you?”
You answer that question by offering proof. That proof comes in two flavors.
The first type speaks to your credibility. It convinces the prospect that you are a reputable firm or individual and can therefore be trusted. A diploma from a prestigious medical school displayed prominently on a doctor’s office wall is an example of credibility. In a direct-mail piece for health offers, response improves if the letter is signed by an MD.
The second type of proof has to do with the product and convinces the buyer that your product can do what you say it can do. Testimonials, case histories, reviews, performance graphs, and test results are examples of proof in this category.
Step 5: Ask for action
The final step is to ask for action. Your goal is usually to generate either an inquiry or an order. To ask for action in direct marketing, we make an offer, or, in other words, what the reader gets when they respond to your promotion and what they have to do to get it.
In a lead-generating direct-mail package, the offer might be as simple as “Mail back the enclosed reply card for our free catalog.” In a mail order online promotion, the offer might be “Click here and enter your credit card information to purchase our product on a 30-day money-back trial basis for $49.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.”
I’m willing to wager that every successful piece of copy you’ve ever mailed or emailed follows to some extent the steps in the motivating sequence — even if you’ve never heard of it before. That’s because you have an instinct for how to sell.
So, if you can sell instinctively, then what good are the motivating sequence and other persuasion formulas?
They’re useful because when you have the steps written out in front of you, you can make sure no step is shortchanged or left out — increasing your odds of writing a direct mail winner.