45 ways to improve your ad, brochure or direct mail

This is the classic – exhaustive – compendium of do’s and don’ts for producing better marketing materials.

We all know that successful ads – or any promotional message, for that matter – rarely result from a blinding stroke of genius. More likely, they are the accumulation of many small points of detail, the designer’s experience of what has worked before – and what hasn’t worked.

This is why a designer who is adept at producing beautiful ads, but who has never been compelled to justify each element in the ad in terms of response and subsequent profit, is as criminally dangerous as a surgeon – who has never bothered to ask whether the patient lived.

So what does work in an ad, brochure or direct mail package – and what doesn’t?

The following 45 guidelines derive from repeated market experience…

The headline

1. Do you have a headline?
Amazingly, some ads don’t. Yet it’s where – after the picture – the eye first falls.

2. Have you put a key benefit (your strongest proposition) in the headline?
Otherwise, the reader has no reason to read on.

3. Have you refrained from using your company name as the headline?
It can be an excellent idea to put your name in the headline linked to a benefit. The 80% of readers who read no further will at least take away some meaningful message. But as a headline alone, your name is your weakest message and is wasted in your strongest place. Your name belongs at the ‘call to action’ position or sign off at the bottom. This message was brought to you by the known and trusted brand of xyz.

4. Likewise, have you avoided using your product name as the headline?
Alone, it does not convey a benefit. But linked with a benefit, it can make a powerful direct headline.

5. Does your headline directly state your proposition?
If the reader has to stop and think what it means, usually they won’t bother. Research suggests that direct headlines pull several times more than indirect (or cute, or jokey) headlines.

6. Do you stress ‘you’ not ‘we’?
“You can now enjoy the perfect motor car” is stronger than “we have perfected the motor car.” A lot of corporate ads in particular are ‘We’ rather than ‘You’ orientated. They lose readers.

7. Is your headline long enough?
Long headlines (within reason) work better than very short headlines, because you need adequate space to convey a benefit that stops the reader.

8. Have you appealed to the emotions?
“How could you enjoy 10% more profit?” is stronger than “Cut your inventory by 30%.” The first addresses the right brain (emotions). The second addresses the left brain (logic). Both appeals are needed in a responsive ad, of course, but emotion makes a better headline.

The body copy

9. Are all key features expressed as benefits?
Of course, no one buys light bulbs – they buy light. But many ads today labour the product features, not what the features will do for the reader.

10. Is the word ‘you’ (or its implication) prominent?
‘You’ is the strongest word in the language. An ad which ignores it, lives dangerously. True, a good ad may never use ‘You’. It may be a third-party report or consist of an arresting dialogue between two people, which the reader ‘overhears’. But still the reader’s presence is implicit. A lot of ads talk only to themselves.

11. Have you focused on one main offer?
Should you put several offers in one ad? Yes and no. Offering both a costly, and a less costly but comparable, item in the same ad is risky: readers play safe and go for the cheapie. Of course, this may be what you want: the ad pays for itself on the cheaper products and really makes money from the few customers who buy the luxury version.

One Client always lists one product in his ad at a very high price, alongside the one he really wants to sell, to stress the value of the cheaper option and the fact that he sells quality. If people buy the more costly one, he wins both ways.

Or you may wish existing customers for the low-cost item to upgrade to the costlier product: then you’ve sold them twice. Some product ads may be literally a catalogue of different offers and prices. Yet all these will benefit, if one main offer is highlighted. It flags the reader’s eye.

12. Are all your claims substantiated in specific terms?
Vague statements like “many satisfied customers” only convince if rephrased “6,753 people to date have tested the widget” or even “99.5% of customers to date said the widget satisfactorily solved their problem. (“What about the remaining 0.5%? “They had, it turned out, a completely different problem. We’re working on it! Meanwhile, we returned their money without question.”) Cite numbers, per cents, independent proof – lab tests and Institute reports, named customers and testimonials. Always be specific.

13. Is price omitted or expressed as a benefit?
‘Price’ and its industrial equivalent ‘cost’ are negatives. Show them (if you must) as positives “For a weekly investment of just £32.50, you gain immediately these six benefits…” At least, put the price after the benefits. Often it should not appear at all: the purpose of the ad may be to bring enquiries, so the Sales person can negotiate price later.

14. Does your body copy contain subheads?
Long copy should be broken by subheads, because they provide ‘flags’ guiding the eye and making it easier to read/scan.

15. Do subheads convey benefits?
Because most people read the subheads before the body copy, they are excellent places to repeat benefits.

16. Have you targeted the reader?
“Calling Luton men with chilblains!” may be an extreme example, but it pays to make it clear very quickly whom you are addressing. “Your field engineers can gain up to 100% faster turnaround on parts…” disqualifies all readers who lack field engineers. Fine. They weren’t going to buy from you anyway. But it tells the rest “this offer is designed just for people who have field engineers.”

17. Do you reassure readers that you are a reputable (or credible) supplier?
Proof statements like case studies, endorsements and the like obviously help. But can you also cite your memberships of professional institutions, your long track record, numbers or quality of customers, even a guarantee? This can be vital for the most reputable of advertisers. A building society may have no problems with its reputation, but its credibility will be suspect if, say, it suddenly offers a ‘direct mail’ consultancy service. Unless it can remind us of its long successful experience in the database marketing of financial products… and prove it.

18. Is the copy easy to read?
Even graduates and technicians prefer to read material which is simple and direct, couched in short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. The longer and more convoluted the explanation, the harder an idea is to understand, and the more readers you lose. Obvious, and yet…

19. Does the copy appeal to emotion as well as logic?
“Picture…”, “imagine…”, “enjoy”, “achieve…” and emotive words like them appeal to the emotion-driven right brain, where buying decisions are often made. (The logical left brain then finds reasons to justify them!) A powerful ad will balance emotional appeals with logical statements, even if selling the most technical of items. Buyers are human.

The call to action

20. Is there a strong call to action?
Many ads tail off with no indication what the readers should do. Visit the website? Phone a Hotline number? Call a local dealer? Add you to their tender list? Or choose your brand next time they go shopping? ‘Corporate’ ads are notorious offenders, coyly (and unconvincingly) concealing their intentions. Presumably, they want readers to change their attitudes to the advertiser. But what should readers do now, that they didn’t do before? Specify it and you might get it!

21. Have you motivated the reader to respond now?
What will they gain by acting now (not next month)? A special gift, premium, incentive? What could they lose through delay?

22. Have you built in ‘facilitators’?
They can order by credit card, your telephone lines are open 24-hours (at least, via answering machine), you don’t want a cheque up-front – you’ll invoice them, they can receive the goods on approval and pay later, they can respond without cost by Freephone, Freepost or Internet.

23. Is it clear what will happen when they respond?
“You will receive confirmation of your order by return”… “Your information pack will be sent same day”… “No rep will call”… “Your local dealer will contact you to arrange a no-obligation demonstration”…

24. Can they respond in more than one way?
The more chances you give them to respond, the more responses you’ll get. Try a coupon plus a Freephone telephone number plus a Freepost address plus e-mail address (plus, even, an extra reply card ‘tipped on’ or stuck over the coupon). These extra devices can cost more, but often repay their investment…

25. Does the ‘call to action’ summarise the benefits?
This is your strongest place to sell, after the picture and headline. “Order now…” is not as strong as “Order now, and remember, you get all these benefits at once…” (and the benefits are listed).

26. Is the coupon easy to complete and/or cut?
Not every ad should have a coupon, but if yours does, can readers use it? It can be worse than useless if space limitations squeeze it to a postage stamp, or – resisting scissors – it bleeds into the magazine spine or (incredible but sometimes true) floats in the middle of the ad! Bottom right hand corner is best or, if you don’t know which side the magazine will run it, across the entire bottom of the ad.

27. Is the response device keyed?
How else will you know where the response came from? Or how to change your ad schedule to a more profitable one next time? (Every ad can do this, even those which don’t want an instant response. Otherwise, how can you tell if anyone’s read the ad – or which is the most productive place for it to appear?)

Ad visuals

28. Is there a visual element in the ad?
‘All copy’ ads can work astoundingly well, especially if they imitate an editorial layout. But all but the smallest editorial-style ads will still pull better, if they contain a picture or illustration. Because the main image is where the eye goes first.

Likewise, vary the ad’s texture with graphics – flow charts, tables, panels, ‘callouts’ (an editorial device, these are quotes extracted from your text and set in a panel).

29. Is the main picture large enough?
Having stopped the eye, give it something substantial to see.

30. Is the picture of good quality?
Newspaper ads in particular reproduce photos poorly. These, and line illustrations which are not professionally done, can kill credibility.

31. Does the picture show more than just the product?
‘Pack shots’ may have a place in editorial product reviews, but they are dreadfully boring used as the key element of an ad.

32. Does the picture demonstrate benefits?
A picture which serves merely to ‘stop the eye’ is like a cute headline which screams “Free money! (Now that I have your interest, let’s discuss my product…)” Readers feel cheated. And nowadays, irrelevantly glamorous model girls insult them. Stop the eye by all means, but with a dramatically illustrated benefit.

33. Is the picture a cliché?
Dinosaurs, ostriches with their heads in the sand, businessmen with question marks on their forehead (or wilting besides over-full in-trays or wearing blindfolds), happy hurdlers leaping for the winning line, ‘breakthroughs’ dramatised by collapsing walls (or ‘holes’ bursting through the page)… all are the signs of a tired designer. Find a new way to tell an old story.

34. Are people shown enjoying the benefits?
It helps to show the reader what he/she can expect. To reach mothers, show babies. To impress works managers, show credible employees using your product…

35. Is the picture captioned?
If the picture goes at the top of the ad, the headline itself can serve as a caption. Otherwise, you need a caption. It’s where readers look, after seeing the picture and glancing at the headline.

36. Does the caption convey a benefit?
Don’t waste this valuable space with a mere description. Reinforce the benefit shown in the picture.

37. Is the path for the reader’s eye clearly flagged?
Readers in Western countries learn to read from top to bottom, left to right. Typographic gravity. Don’t confuse them by putting major design elements (picture, headline, tinted panels, coupon, and the like) in an illogical order. The eye gives up. Particularly, don’t play games with the reader by reversing an ad, or running it sideways, or having different elements at right angles. Readers won’t play.

38. Is the layout TOO BALANCED?
Brochure designers often delight in ‘squaring up’ a layout so nicely it has all the dynamic tension of a mortuary slab. A calculated imperfection – a picture or panel, say, at a slant – pulls more response. (It’s one reason why catalogue mailers print the reply card as a hang-down flap. Readers would be less likely to spoil the mailer’s symmetry by cutting a coupon, but they’ll tear off that irritating flap).

39. Has the ‘call to action’ been emphasised with a graphic element?
A panel, second colour or flash, guides the reader to the action point.

40. Is the headline visually strong?
It can be a mistake to run a long headline entirely in capitals. CAPS ARE FAR HARDER TO READ THAN LOWER CASE. And a headline should not be dominated by other design elements to the point where a busy reader might miss it completely.

41. Use italic text to emphasise ONLY.
Do not set body copy in italic text. Research has proven that this is 18% more difficult to read than upright (roman) text. Therefore less effective.

42. Have you used a readable typeface?
Serif type characters have little tails, but sans serif have none. Editors know well that serif type (e.g. Times) is far more readable in body copy than sans serif type (e.g. Helvetica). Some designers persist in using sans serif in 10 points or smaller, which is harder to read.

43. Have you avoided using white out of black for body copy?
This is powerful as a headline, but does not work well in longer body copy. Likewise, avoid laying small text over heavy tints or second colours.

44. Do tints or spot colours (where used) emphasise copy elements?
Or are they just there to make your ad look nice? Avoid the latter! The only beautiful ad is the one that works.

45. Do you really want your company logo that big?
Unless the entire point of your ad is to say “Watch for this sign… it’s a symbol of [quality].” Logos alone rarely convey benefits.

If you can say YES to all these questions, yours is a communication that should pull and pull. Provided, of course, it sells something worth buying. And is read by the right people at the right time…

For more advice or to discuss a specific project, give us a call today on 01256 704070.