The Worst Copywriting Mistake I Ever Made

Image courtesy of Mark Anderson. Cartoon by Frank Robbins.

My first copywriting project bombed.

Not just bombed, it got literally zero responses. Not one.

I did almost nothing right.

It was only a 1,000 piece mailing and luckily it was for my own business so the only person I hurt was myself.¬†The business died a quick and merciful death. The lessons learned will linger for many years. And that’s exactly as it should be.

I (rightly) had the bright idea that direct mail would be a good way to promote the business. That’s one of the few smart decisions I made among a sea of very bad ones.

This was for an offline start-up and I had no customer list, so I rented a mailing list from a big list broker. I don’t remember now what the list cost me but I want to say it was around $250 for 1,000 names. (Yeah, they saw me coming.)

I paid to get my own bulk mail permit (another $100 or so) and did everything myself. Everything. The list scrubbing, writing the copy, mail piece design, all the formatting, printing, envelope stuffing… the whole works.

It was actually the second time I had gone through the process of getting a bulk mail permit (the first time being for an employer) so I guess now I know more about the process than most. Even more than most people who work in direct mail.

Image courtesy of Mark Anderson. Cartoon by Mel Calman.

After postage and other incidental expenses, I think my total cost for the mailing was something just north of $1,500. In hindsight, I look at that as tuition in the School of Hard Knocks.

The only other thing I can specifically point to and say I did right was that I knew enough to write two different sales letters and do an A/B split test. Of course I did the test all wrong, but the fact that I did a test at all was a small point in my favor.

At the time, I thought I had copywriting skills. I did not.

I had been a subscriber¬†to a number of copywriting newsletters for a while. That gave me enough understanding of the industry to be very, very dangerous (mainly to myself.) But I hadn’t actually taken a single copywriting course, nor had I ever worked as a copywriter. Or even in any form of advertising.

The little bit of knowledge I had was highly generalized. The most useful skill I actually had was a natural aptitude for writing.

Of course on some level I actually knew all of this. Or most of it anyway.

I also knew that typical response to a mail drop was in the range of 1%-2%. I thought that if I could get a 1% response — 10 customers — from my 1,000 piece mailing, at expected revenues of $165 per customer, I’d be on my way.

It didn’t work out that way.

In the 10 or so years since that sobering incident, I actually did study copywriting and a host of other useful business building topics. In hindsight, I can see all the things I did wrong.

It was a cheap education.