Tricks of the Trade: A Direct Marketing Copywriter Tells All

Online marketing is often presented as the hottest thing in marketing, but there’s a dirty little secret out there: the fundamentals of direct marketing drive successful Web-based campaigns. That’s especially true for e-mail marketing. Few understand this reality better than the award-winning copywriter Karen Gedney, president & creative director, Karen Gedney Communications. She helped lead direct mail campaigns in the 1980s and 90s for such big-name brands as Newsweek, American Express and Citibank, among others. In more recent years, she’s been writing email and Web copy for Hasbro, Prudential, Fortune magazine, The Economist, as well as numerous large nonprofits. Specifically in terms of fundraising, Gedney’s contributes prose and direction to the tune of campaign revenues that are often dozens of times larger than the initial investment. How does she do it? Like all crafty direct marketers, she tests like crazy. Gedney recently spoke with writer Christopher Heine about her techniques. Below are some excerpts:

Brandweek: You are constantly testing copy. What’s the most important thing you can tell fellow marketers on that front?

Karen Gedney: You should test what you really want to know. People sometimes get lost in testing and try to test everything. A lot of times people say, ‘Well, we’ve tested a lot, but I am not sure what we learned.’ You want to focus on the elements of highest impact first. So, subject lines are always good with testing because you got to get people to open. And you can quickly see that a short one is better than a long one, or the other way around.

BW: How long should a subject line be?

KG: While everyone should test subject line lengths for their own brand, I think more often than not that shorter is better. I’ve tested subject lines 15 to 20 characters long that outperformed 45 characters. Not just in terms of open rates either, but also clickthroughs and revenue.

BW: Is writing shorter subject lines actually more difficult?

KG: People have a really hard time writing a short subject line. You almost have to be a copywriter to write a good short subject lines. Even if they are longer, though, you have to really devote time and attention to subject lines. I write as many as 10 to 15 different subject lines before I choose one and then write the e-mail copy – because I want to make sure that I know what is going to get people to open before I continue on with the rest of the e-mail.

BW: How should copy look in an email body or on the landing page?

KG: My first sentence – and this is something I got from direct mail and it works well for email – is never more than two lines.

BW: Two lines or two sentences?

KG: Two lines. And for both email and direct mail, I really prefer only one-and-a-half lines. Your paragraphs should never be more than four lines. You can maybe go five lines at most. You need to break the paragraph lengths up. You should have two lines, then three lines and then a half a line for emphasis – it should almost go in a musical rhythm. You do not want people seeing big blocks of copy. It’s eye-glazing. It hurts to look at.

BW: Some marketers are saying that ‘P.S.’ still works. True or False?  

KG: True. The ‘P.S.’ is one of the highest clicks in an e-mail. It’s another tool that has been used in direct mail forever. Nobody wants to do some of these old-fashioned things because they think online is so cool or hip or whatever. You still have to do things that have been proven to work.