One Big Mistake in Direct Response Copywriting (That I keep seeing over, and over…)


Today, I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm a copy hoarder. I save paper sales letters, landing page copy, and weekly sale emails almost on a daily basis. I gather up the very good, the very bad, and occasionally the very ugly.

It doesn't matter whether or not the actual items being sold are related to any client or niche I'm currently working on for a project, either.

The good stuff goes into what's commonly known as a "swipe file" -- basically a directory of real world examples where the content really hits the mark. The bad examples I sometimes toy around with in an effort to make them better, or at least smooth out the rough edges.

And the ugly... well, I keep those as a reminder of how easy it is for messaging to veer off course without proper vetting. (Pepsi and Shea Moisture come to mind off the top of my head.)

By and large, most of the "bad" sales letters aren't really bad in the writing sense. They are often entertaining, well-written, grammatically correct and even visually pleasing. However, none of that matters if the copy doesn't answer two simple questions:

  • How can I trust your product/service to be as good as you say?
  • Why should I buy this from you instead of your competition?

Let me give you an example.

I recently received an offer in the mail for a new home security system. Right away, the letter made some pretty bold assumptions:

The company wrote that "when" I had a break-in in the neighborhood (rather than if) that I'd want to get a home security system.

They go on to say that even though I'd think about installing a home security system, I would dismiss it as too much hassle and too expensive.

Right away, this company has made some pretty strange assumptions about me. If I take this copy at face value, that would mean:

  • I live in a crime-prone area where break-ins happen frequently enough that it's only a matter of time before one of my neighbors is victimized.
  • Despite living in this treacherous landscape, with home burglaries happening on a regular basis, I haven't already gotten a security system to protect my precious gaming habit from interlopers.
  • Even if I were thinking about getting a security system, I've already written it off as too much of a bother. (Ho hum, personal safety, so tiresome and expensive.)

This company seems to believe that I believe my peace of mind isn't worth $99 down and $60 a month. In fact, they double-down and state in the very next line that I'd be right to think that it's too much of a hassle and too expensive, except now they've made it much cheaper!

Already, I have some alarm bells ringing, and they aren't the kind this company is hoping for.


How can I trust a home security company that puts price over security in the opening paragraph? They don't seem to understand that for a homeowner, peace of mind likely is worth a premium. In fact, the high cost may counterintuitively make me feel safer -- i.e. I'm paying so much money for this security, that it must be good.

But for the sake of argument, let's say I was taken in by their soothing blue font and the Risk Free checklist at the top of the letter. Roused from the general apathy about my own safety and well-being by promises of cheap and plentiful security, I read further, to find out more.

Even this is a disappointment. The company spends another two pages (front and back) talking about how much more expensive other services are compared to theirs! They talk about middlemen and salespeople (that they don't have). They talk about expensive contracts (that they don't require). They do get around to talking about their warranty, and never fear, they have a satisfaction guarantee as well. Can you guess what they don't talk about?

The actual security system.

Nowhere are the details about the cameras, sensors, alarms and other items that are supposed to make me feel safe and secure. They mention that the items are wireless, then another paragraph talks about how they "plug in".

Which is it? What happens if the power goes out? Nowhere do I see a reason to buy from them rather than an equally cheap competitor.

Are the cameras capable of night vision? Does the alarm system alert the local authorities? Is there monitoring through their 3rd party platform or am I on my own?

Based on the info the company provides, I don't need to worry my pretty little head about any of that.

What to do When Good Longform Copy Goes Bad

Now, most direct response copy isn't this egregious in its mistakes, but it's easy to get sidetracked in the attempt to make the sale. If you haven't been getting the results you expected and you're worried about how your content comes across to a potential buyer, evaluate your copy using these questions:

Does my copy take into account the pressing needs of a potential buyer?

When people are ready to buy, they have a very specific need that must be addressed right then. The job of your copy is to correctly identify/frame that need, and then position your offering as the best solution. If you don't understand the real problem, your sales letters will fall flat.

Does my copy answer the immediate questions a buyer needs to make a decision?

Confusion is the enemy of conversion. If potential customers can't understand your offer, or if you don't provide answers to important questions that crop up during the buying process, no amount of copy is going to be enough to close the sale.

Is my copy believable? What assurances can I give to a potential buyer?

If this is the first time your potential customer has ever heard of you, it's probably too early to ask them to make a purchase. People buy from companies they trust. Be prepared to do the required nurturing to turn a new prospect into a warm lead, and from there a new customer.

When telling the story about how my product/service helps customers, is it one that an actual customer can relate to?

Customer personas don't do much good if they aren't based in reality. Listen to your current customers to craft believable personas that will help you craft a story that resonates. A little research is often the difference between a story that draws in new customers and one that turns them away.


In the end, writing direct response copy doesn't have to be overly complicated. A little empathy and the ability to tell the story from a perspective that engages your prospects is all you need to be of to a good start. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go extend the contract on my very expensive home monitoring system. Can't be too careful.