5 Direct Response Tactics to Get More Clients Online

by Corey Pemberton 9 Minutes

Direct ResponseYou know all that mail you get from people trying to sell you stuff?

You probably throw most of it away…

But there’s a reason why businesses keep paying those mailing and printing costs: it flat out works.

Direct response marketing – sending targeted messages to people to drive a specific action – can work in practically every industry. It’s simple, and, unlike the brand awareness ads that giant corporations run all the time, produces tangible results.

That was a different time, though.

Surely direct response tactics don’t have a place in a profitable online business…

Or do they?

Isn’t Direct Marketing Just a Relic from the Past?

Direct response marketing has been around for decades. Most people think its “old school” tactics don’t mix well with the digital world of email marketing, sales funnels, and landing pages.

That’s a shame. Overlooking direct response tactics – tactics that have been studied and proven time and time again – limits your ability to persuade people online. The two types of marketing aren’t completely separate. PPC ads – like on Google and Facebook – are just the next step in the evolution from the snail mail days.

The tools we use to connect with people are different, but the principles of persuasion are the same. Many of your competitors are so caught up with the latest technologies to promote their business that they overlook the fundamentals. Paying attention to them gives you a nice competitive edge.

Try These 5 Key Direct Marketing Strategies

You don’t have to send out physical mail – though you might be surprised how effective that can be. But if you understand key insights from successful direct marketing campaigns, you can apply them to land more clients online.

5. Make a Valuable Offer (and Sweeten the Deal)

“What’s in it for me?”

That’s the question on everyone’s mind whenever they come across an ad. No matter your target audience or industry, everyone is wondering if it’s in their best interest to pay attention to what you have to say… or move on to something else.

This is why direct response copywriting legend Gary Halbert, proposing a hypothetical situation to his students about opening up a hamburger restaurant, counted a “starving crowd” as the best advantage you could have.

In other words: your advertising is only as effective as the offer beneath it. You could have the most persuasive copy in the world. But if the underlying offer is weak or irrelevant, you won’t land many clients.

On the other hand, you can have horrible web copy and still land a lot of clients if you’re presenting them with an irresistible offer. It it just makes too much sense to act – if it’s a “no brainer” deal – the sky is the limit.

The most successful direct marketers of all time understood this. They didn’t just offer a product or service with some nice copy. They focused on increasing the value of that offer by throwing in premium add ons, related offers, and special bonuses until people couldn’t help but respond.

I still remember when Gillette sent me a free razor on my 18th birthday:


Image credit: Cargo Collective

A free razor – when I was finally growing enough whiskers to need one – was an irresistible offer. It turned me (and millions of others) into long-term Gillette customers.

You can apply this principle too. If you’re offering a one hour consulting session, for instance, you could also offer your notes and a detailed action plan. Find little ways to increase the value of your offer, tipping the scales until it just makes too much sense for someone to pass it up.

Finding creative ways to increase the value of your offer is probably your highest-leverage way to win more clients online.

4. Use a Killer Headline

How many ads have you seen online today?

Dozens? Hundreds?

You probably don’t remember hardly any of them. The competition for your attention is fierce. Most of us are too busy and distracted to pay attention to 99.9% of the ads we see.

So, in this world of cutthroat competition and shrinking attention spans, how can you make your ad stand out?

Besides your offer, your headline is the most important component. Direct response legend David Ogilvy estimated that five times as many people read the headline of an ad than the body copy (the rest of the ad’s content).

You only have an instant to capture someone’s attention. Your headline serves as an important “audition” to convince visitors to engage the rest of your ad. A lot of people try to sell their product or service in the headline itself, but that puts way too much pressure on yourself. Instead, consider what you can say in your headline to get someone to read the next line.

What makes a headline effective?

John Caples, another copywriting icon, broke down effective headlines into three key elements. Good headlines:

  1. Promise valuable benefits for the reader;
  2. Are newsworthy; or
  3. Make the reader curious

In Caples’ opinion, headlines that make you curious are the least powerful of the bunch. Newsworthy headlines are better, but headlines that show customers “what’s in it for them” are the best. And you can always mix and match different elements within a single headline.

Here’s how David Ogilvy put that principle to use in an extremely successful sales letter for anti-aging cream:


Image credit: ReferralCandy

This headline worked so well because it promised a valuable benefit – looking younger – to an audience worried about getting older.

Online, Podio taps into two of Caples’ key headline principles:

podio headlines

Image credit: Podio

The first line of this headline gets readers curious. They start to wonder what this “better way to work” is. And the sub-headline strengthens the appeal by focusing on important benefits: better collaboration and organization.

Don’t be afraid to use headlines to target specific people and scare away the rest. That’s exactly what the Ogilvy headline about anti-aging cream did. A headline that says “Attention: Web Developers…” screens out the right people from everyone else. People read headlines like filters to decide whether they’re worth their attention.

3. Test Different Versions of Copy to See Which Works Best

Are you testing different versions of your copy to see which ones work best?

That’s what direct response marketers do. Large-scale mailers test all kinds of variables – everything from the headline and the offer itself to even the font on the envelope – to find the highest-converting combination.

A commitment to testing is a major reason why direct response marketing is so profitable. Because you can trace customer response to specific marketing initiatives, it’s easy to compare different tactics. The winning version is tested against a new challenger, starting a loop of continuous optimization.

You might think split-testing is for giant ecommerce retailers or other corporate types. But there are different tools and software out there making this process easy and worthwhile – even if you’re only spending a few dollars on PPC ads or just relying on inbound traffic.

Setting up tests – and running them constantly – is the only way to know for sure which copy works the best. Even the greatest direct response marketers of all time were often wrong in their assumptions. Testing helped them tweak their messaging and make it more cost effective.

Online, you can test different elements simultaneously. It’s easy to set up simple A-B tests, as well as more complicated multivariate tests, and measure conversions because a wide variety of testing tools are available.

Adonis Clothing, a men’s fashion eCommerce store, tested different clothing models and found that the image of the bearded model converted 49.7% better than the clean-cut alternative.

adonis model conversions

Image credit: Visual Website Optimizer blog

Imagine being able to increase your conversions almost 50% – just by changing one element of your messaging! That’s easier to do now than ever before, thanks to tools like Optimizely and Unbounce.

2. Ask for Action

One of the biggest differences between a direct response ad and a brand awareness ad: direct response ads ask readers to act.

Most Coca-Cola ads don’t urge you to run off to the store and pick up a bottle. You’re much more likely to see feel good scenes of polar bears. But you’ll definitely see contact information and call-to-action language from a local carpet cleaner sending you mail.

Freelancers and agencies don’t have the time or budget to spend on vague, brand awareness ads that might or might not generate results. You need a response to justify investing in ads when your valuable money is at stake. Including a call to action in your ads helps drive that response.

A call to action:

  • Gives the audience one specific action to do after seeing the ad, and
  • Makes it as easy as possible for them to follow through with it

Remember: your target audience is in a habit of not acting. A great ad will shake them out of their comfort zone for a second, but you won’t get the clicks you’re looking for without explicitly asking them to act. Putting the burden on your target audience to figure out how to follow up – or how to do it – is a recipe for failure.

A great call to action takes out all the guesswork. It makes it as easy as possible for people to follow up. Take a look how this letter from Newsweek put those principles into action:

newsweek cta

The language is clear. The letter wants the reader to try out the magazine at a special rate, and they urge the reader to return an order form today.

If you’re selling something expensive and targeting first-time visitors, you’re better off asking for a smaller commitment up front and nurturing the relationship over time. Instead of asking for someone to buy your consulting services, you could ask them to sign up for a one-hour business audit – or even a free webinar where you’ll educate them and build the relationship.

It’s similar to writing an effective proposal. The last thing you want to do is get someone super interested in doing business with you, but not give them an easy way to move the relationship forward..

1. Take Away the Risk

If you’ve done a good job with your ads so far, you’ve presented a valuable offer in a compelling way. You might have done such a good job that your target audience starts to wonder if things are too good to be true.

This is definitely something to pay attention to online. Most of us have been scammed or burned in the past. You already know how important credibility is, and you can build yours on your website by using testimonials, a project portfolio, and other trust elements.

But you don’t get that kind of real estate on a Facebook or Google ad.

How can you reassure someone that your offer is legitimate in such a limited space?

By doing what you can to ease their sense of risk.

Practically all of us are worried about wasting our money on something that’s ineffective. We have real problems, and we’re only willing to invest money in solutions that actually work, But money isn’t the only thing we’re worried about. We’re also worried about wasting our time and getting caught up in commitments we can’t get out of.

Addressing these concerns in your messaging gives “on the fence” people a little extra nudge to become buyers. Often, it can make the difference between an ad that works and an unsuccessful one.

Take a look how Men’s Health magazine does this in their sales copy:

mens health risk

Image credit: Men’s Health

They do a nice job of eliminating risk by offering a 100% satisfaction guarantee. Unhappy subscribers can cancel in their first month and get all of their money back… and still keep a free book.

How can you give potential clients the assurance they need to take you up on your offer? You might not be able to guarantee specific results, but you could find other ways if you get creative.

Apply These Time-Tested Strategies in Your Business

Want to land more clients online?

Applying direct response strategies can help. Combined with the reach of digital marketing, they offer a powerful way to connect with the right people in a cost-effective manner.

Don’t do what your competitors do and get so caught up in shiny new gadgets you forget the principles of what it takes to sell. Try these time-tested tips, and pair them with the latest tracking and analytics tools to make every penny you spend on advertising count.

Have you tried to incorporate direct response tactics into your marketing online? If so, what effect has it had on your business? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.