Direct Response Advertising

How to Do It, and Why It Works

Mr. T and the Turbo Oven

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There are many different approaches under the advertising umbrella. There are campaigns that are produced purely to raise awareness of the product or service. These “image” spots usually come in the form of outdoor ads, like billboards and bus shelter posters, glamorous TV spots, magazine adverts, and slick radio commercials with high production values.

The problem with image advertising is that it’s expensive—sometimes, very expensive. A spot put out during a prime-time TV show can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for just 30 seconds of airtime. During the Super Bowl, that increases to several million dollars. This means that for the most part, image advertising (also known as “above the line” advertising) is left to the biggest players, like Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, BMW, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and so on.

For smaller companies, image advertising is a luxury they cannot afford. To be fair, it’s one they don’t need. Direct response marketing, if done right, will give these companies an excellent return on a much smaller investment.

Direct Response Advertising

Unlike image advertising, direct response elicits an immediate reaction from the consumer. It literally is calling for a “direct response.” Call now. Click here. Send back this application. This is about a directive, not awareness. Not only that, but direct response advertising is far more of a science than its more costly alternatives.

For a start, direct response campaigns are much easier to track. Unique phone numbers, URLs, and mailing addresses make it easy to see how many people have responded to the ad in question. This also means you can measure the financial success of the campaign, and capture an accurate return on investment (ROI).

What’s more, direct response campaigns take full advantage of modern data mining and audience segmentation. You can target niche audiences, certain parts of the country, or make sure only people of a certain age see the ads. For example, if your product or service is aimed at the elderly, you can create a campaign that will target that group. This is much more difficult to do on broadcast TV.

Overall, direct mail is so successful because it is more personal, it conveys more information about the product or service, and it's direct. It asks the consumer to do something; sometimes, it almost demands that they take action, and people follow the advice.

Direct Response Channels

Direct response is a marketing technique that can be applied to almost any kind of media. However, most of the time, direct response stays away from billboard advertising as it is just impossible to get across a direct selling message in the few seconds consumers have to interact with the medium.

Traditionally, direct response has worked best through the following channels:

Direct Mail

Sometimes called “junk mail” (although this is derogatory to high-quality direct marketing that engages customers creatively), direct mail comes in the form of envelopes, letters, and packages mailed to the consumer. Most of the time it takes the form of an envelope with a selling message, with a letter and brochure inside asking for the consumer to call a number or visit a website.


Often called “spam,” direct response emails have become the most popular way to market to consumers. Emails are fast, cheap, and have clickable links to take the consumer right to the sign-up page. However, it has a low success rate. The average open rate is around 24 percent, and the click-through and conversion rates hover around 1 percent. Sending out millions of emails can result in less than 100 sales.


You’ll know these commercials well, as they are spoken quickly, are very salesy, and have a phone number or website repeated three to five times within the spot. Although radio can be a creative outlet, it’s usually driven by the hard sell.


If the product is right, the long-form infomercial spot is a great direct response vehicle. A classic example is the Showtime Rotisserie from Ron Popeil. Popeil is considered one of the masters of direct response TV, and his commercials have sold many millions of dollars in products.


This was another popular way to get to consumers directly, with companies employing telephone marketers to call people and try and sell them over the phone. However, the Do Not Call registry, created in 2003, put an end to most of those calls. Charities and political campaigns still find it an effective way to get money.

Examples of Great Direct Response Advertising

Perhaps the most famous direct response ad ever written was by the great John Caples in 1926 (who now has an advertising award named after him). It was for the U.S. School of Music, and the headline read, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!—" It was a long copy ad and is considered to have one of the greatest headlines ever written. A very persuasive and effective ad.

Another classic is the direct mail piece written and designed by Bill Jayme for the magazine Psychology Today. The envelope featured a striking design and asked the question “Do you close the bathroom door even when you’re the only one home?” The piece had an extremely high conversion rate, and Bill Jayme’s letters and mailing pieces were always in high demand. In fact, he was paid tens of thousands of dollars to write a letter for a client, and this was during the fifties and sixties. He died in 2001 aged 75 and was considered one of the greatest direct marketing writers who ever lived.