7 Marketing Lessons the Real Mad Men Taught Me

real mad men - david ogilvy

Direct response marketing is a huge industry that’s raking in nearly $200 billion dollars every year…even during recessions. It’s based on a few principles that the real Mad Men like David Ogilvy, Claude Hopkins and George Lois have used over the last century of advertising.

Knowing these principles can make you a lot of money, especially online, since the Internet is a medium that is perfectly suited for these direct-marketing principles.

When I got started as an entrepreneur, I studied these guys to learn their secrets and applied their tactics to help build my two companies, Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics.

Let me share with you the 7 most important lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: Creating the right list

Direct marketing success lives or dies, depending on whether you have the right list. This list could be your blog subscribers or Twitter followers. No matter which platform you use, you have to grow your email newsletter list.

There are only two ways in which I recommend you grow it:

  1. Organically – Place an email newsletter subscribe box on your site or use a Hellobar to encourage people to sign up.
  2. Guest posting – In the byline of your guest post, entice people to visit your site and sign up.

If you are impatient like me, when starting your list, you are probably going to make some of the mistakes I made when I started my list:

  • Mistake #1 – Buying lists. I totally understand that you’d like to have a list of 50,000 email subscribers by tomorrow, but as tempting as it might be to buy a list, don’t do it. You’ll get blacklisted by your ISP and fired by your email service provider. Further, you’ll look like a spammer because people will mark your email as spam because they didn’t directly sign up to your list.
  • Mistake #2 – Focusing on quantity and not quality. Large lists are not always better. They are difficult to manage, and only about 20% of the people on that list are paying attention. So, focus on things that get your readers active and engaged.
  • Mistake #3 – Breaking expectations. When you start your list, set up expectations of frequency, design and content. Never break those expectations without giving your readers a fair warning.
  • Mistake #4 – Looking at open rates only. Open rates only tell half the story. You also need to look at other metrics like CTR, soft bounces, hard bounces, abuse complaints and, of course, unsubscribes.
  • Mistake #5: Boring or repurposed content. If you want to destroy your email newsletter quickly, then don’t give your readers anything new, special or exciting. Just feed them stuff you can get off your blog or some random thoughts you had over the weekend. Your subscribers deserve your best attention and content…so give it to them.

Lesson #2: The longer your copy, the more you will sell

There is a long history of advertising people proving the claim that long copy will always beat out the shorter version.

Let me point out that this doesn’t mean you should write 8 pages when two will do. The question isn’t, “Is it too long?”

The question is, “Is it interesting?”

As long as you are focused on the needs of the readers and on giving them exactly what they want, they’ll read a 16-page sales letter.

Does long copy work on the web, where attention spans are short? Of course! When someone has a problem they want solved, they will slow down and read.

So, how do you make long copy interesting? One of the best formulas I like to use is called Pain-Agitate-Solve. Here’s how it works:

  • Pain – Identify the number one problem that your prospect has. Are they overweight? About to lose their job? Facing a divorce? Want that promotion so badly?
  • Agitate – Once you’ve identified and explained that problem in such a way that resonates with them…stir it up. Tell them about the terrible consequences if they don’t do something to change. Paint a picture of the pain getting worse and worse.
  • Solve – Once you’ve agitated, now give them the solution…which is your product.

Best of all, long sales copy doesn’t have to look spammy. Look how we do it on Crazy Egg as well as on my Quick Sprout Traffic System. The copy on both of these pages converts very well, and the design is clean.

Lesson #3: Use conversational copy to sell

Whether you are blogging or writing a sales letter, you need to write like you talk. If you find this difficult, imagine yourself sitting down with a friend and then telling him or her about your product.

How would you explain it? You wouldn’t use business talk or jargon. Your business partner might know what you are talking about…but your customer won’t have a clue.

Here are the 3 essential rules that I live by when it comes to writing conversational copy:

  • Keep it simple – Use words that are at about 5th grade reading level. This is a proven method of keeping the reader’s attention that newspapers and direct marketing advertisers have used for years. Programs like Microsoft Word will allow you to test the reading level.
  • Ask questions – Have you ever met a really good conversationalist? Have you noticed how that person always keeps the attention on you by asking you questions? It’s a technique that works equally well in sales copy.
  • Use the word “you” – To help you keep your copy focused on the reader, always write “you” instead of “us”, “them” or “we”. This makes it really personal and conversational.

Lesson #4: You have to tell your readers what to do

It may sound pushy, but telling readers what to do is actually a proven technique for generating sales and email subscriptions. In fact, it works for any action you want your readers to take.

In the direct marketing industry, this is called your “call-to-action” or CTA. Every sales letter has to have one. If not, then I don’t care how persuasive your copy is…it will fail.

What are the principles behind good CTAs? Here are four:

  • Only one – If you are trying to get your prospect to sign up for a coaching spot, then your CTA should focus on that…and that alone. Don’t offer other CTAs.
  • Short – Great CTAs tell you what to do in as few words as possible. “Join Us.” “Buy Now.” “Donate Here.”
  • Urgent – Great CTAs also will create urgency by using a deadline. “Limited supply. Order now.” “75% discount ends midnight tonight.”
  • Irresistible – You will probably think that this is obvious, but you won’t believe how many times I’ve analyzed a client’s site to see boring CTAs. If you want to see some really great CTAs, study Groupon’s offers. These are simply irresistible.

Lesson #5: Your headline really counts

When writing blog posts, I spend about ten percent of my time creating good headlines. I have a few books on my shelf that I leaf through to get ideas and several blogs I look at.

Using the “4 U”s, I then write about ten or twenty headlines until I hit one that feels right. I then sit on that one for a while or run it by a friend. Sometimes, I’ll even send myself an email with the title as the subject line and wait to look at it some time later. If I see the subject line and get pulled, even though it’s my headline, I keep it!

Here are the books I recommend for writing great headlines:

  • Testing Advertising Methods – This classic has over 18 chapters devoted to headlines. It is essential for any advertiser’s shelf.
  • Psychological Triggers – Joe Sugarman wrote some really great short headlines. While I don’t think these short ones would work now, they are great for generating other ideas.
  • Breakthrough Advertising – Eugene Schwartz’s book is a must read for any advertiser and is also essential for headline ideas.

The blogs that I look at for headline ideas are these:

  • Gawker – They really know how to be sensational and get people’s attention. In fact, you may have to tone back a headline if you copy one of theirs.
  • Fast Company – They generate a lot of content, so there are fresh ideas every morning. These are often very long and specific.
  • Copyblogger – Of course, this list would be incomplete if I didn’t include this blog.

Lesson #6: Test everything

Direct response marketing wouldn’t be what it is without the component of testing. Testing is what makes it “direct response.” You get to see the response of your marketing campaigns.

In the past, this was measured in several ways.

An advertiser could buy a one-page ad in the Wall Street Journal with a coupon offer, which prospects clipped and mailed in. All the advertiser had to do was count the number of coupons to measure the success of the ad.

The same goes for an advertiser who mails a sales letter to highly-targeted homes. How many reply cards came back? That’s the response rate.

This is what makes direct marketing response so powerful…you can measure return and the tweak to improve conversion.

While it’s pretty simple to test and measure your online campaigns, the growth of the industry has created a lot of confusion and has overwhelmed a lot of people. That is why I wrote a guide to help you understand web analytics. Here are the bullet points:

  • Identify your business objectives before you start creating copy and testing.
  • Specify website goals like “sell more widgets.”
  • Create KPIs like landing page hits, economic value and conversation level.
  • Discover your segments based upon acquisition, behavior and outcomes.

It will take time to truly understand web metrics, but mastering this skill will give you a powerful edge over your competitors!

Lesson #7: Never stop learning and never give up

When you go through steps 1 to 6, things won’t always work out the way you want them to. I know it didn’t always work out for the people like David Ogilvy, and it definitely didn’t always work out for me.

With Crazy Egg, we went through six variations of our homepage before we found a version that worked out…and it happened to be a long sales letter. The previous versions were all created based upon customer feedback and data, and, yet, they didn’t convert well.

With my Quick Sprout Traffic System, I launched a long sales page around three years ago, and it failed. The current version, on the other hand, is doing extremely well, but I had to go through a few iterations before I created something that converted well.

You probably aren’t going to succeed on your first shot. But that’s ok. As long as you are learning through the process and keep pushing forward like the real Mad Men, you’ll do fine.


The Internet is truly the direct response marketer’s best friend. It’s ideally suited for a quick and easy testing, creating conversational content and building a money-making list.

There is really no excuse for anyone who is willing to put in the sweat and time to create a profitable online business. You just have to be willing to open your eyes and leverage some of the tactics that are old and boring, but still work… such as direct response marketing.

How are you using direct response techniques?



  1. I like the Pain-Agitate-Solve strategy. I can only imagine how my readers’ facial expressions change as they react to each phase. 🙂 I think it deserves a full post on its own.

  2. Great Post as Always,
    I love the first two points, they really Work well.
    Thumbs Up, Neil.

  3. superb post sir and great lessons learnt.. thank u !

  4. Hi Neil,
    I like your idea of writing great headlines. Earlier I thought spending 10% time on headline is too much but I see it’s important and how it is helpful to make your reader read the rest of the post.


    • I think .. Headlines are the real pullers.. as first thing anyone going to see is your headline, if your headline is not good enough, people arent going to read your stuff.

    • Investing Financial Freedom :

      Yes, Vijay. Great headlines are strong magnet for site visitors to dig deeper, learn what the post has promise and become enlighten with the post. As Advance Marketing Institute (http://www.aminstitute.com/headline/) says, “reaching your customers in an deep and emotional way is a key to successful copywriting, and your headline is unquestionably the most important piece of copy you use to reach prospects.”

      I’m thanking Copyblogger for sharing John Morrows Cheet Sheet of 52 Headline Hacks. I can now easily come up with compelling headline through Advance Marketing Institute Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer. This free tool will analyze my headline to determine the Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) score.

    • Great, I am glad you see the importance of headlines now. They can really make a difference.

      • Software Testing :

        You are right Neil. Headlines are definitely important in this regard. I will definitely try and let you know!!

  5. Nate Pennington :

    Appreciate your ideas Neil.


  6. Walt Goshert :


    Always loved Dan Kennedy’s line:

    “Who read long copy? Buyers do.”

    Thanks for your get insights and tips as always.


  7. Jeramiah Townsend :


    I hate you. You always remind me of me, and you are (almost) always right! (no one is ever always right) You always give me the advice I give to other people… and sometime it HURTS hearing it. It’s like I’m in some strange twilight zone episode where I’m yelling at myself.

    Thanks for your input. It’s sometimes painful, but great to hear that people currently more successful than I are teaching the sample principles I encourage.


  8. andrew broadbent :

    Neil , how big is your team? How many ghost writers do you hire to help with all the content you write across the web?

    • Hey Andrew,

      I write all my own post. Any post on Quick Sprout that are not mine say guest author underneath the title.

  9. Rob Stretch :

    You mentioned Eugene Peterson in the article – his last name is Schwartz right?

  10. Shahzad Hassan :

    Indeed it is a great job you have done to make it understandable. One important thing, does your traffic system can help to run an affiliate site of ticketing? I am in search of a real system.

  11. Sheyi @ Ivblogger.com :

    Neil, this is awesome and it will surely help a lot. As much as i like reading sales copy, i am not a fan of long sales copy, though i prefer using video as means of sales advertising but i guess if there is need to use text I will make it long and interesting too.


    • Thanks you Sheyi,

      I appreciate your feedback and added input. I think videos are great to use as well.

  12. Edward Antonio :

    Great post man learned something new today, take care!

    -Edward A.

  13. Good post. #2 is totally true. I used to think that people were like me – they would skim through articles and emails, and if they saw a wall of text – they would just skip it.

    The truth is, I was right. Most people WILL skim the bulk of your content. But they also recognize that you have lots of content. It adds a bit of depth to your presentation.

  14. Giles Farrow :

    I can see long copy being more effective for direct marketing, where you have a single chance to sell.

    But in a lot of cases, especially B2B you need to move your buyer through one step at a time. And keep your messages crisp.

    • Definitely, I agree. I still believe it is possible though to keep you message crisp and clear as well as a long.

  15. I wish you could came to our marketing class and explain this lessons. Number 7 must be kept in mind and applied in every single case.

  16. Neil .. always a great read from you. Good reminder that list size isn’t the only or primary goal even… Doesn’t matter if you have a 100,000 database if emails aren’t getting to inboxes and nobody is listening.

    Rob Toth

  17. Great marketing lessons, if i was thought this in my marketing lectures at university, it would have been fantastic

  18. On the Stores :

    I am trying to get a pagerank on my new coupon codes website. Hope this will help me.

  19. Hi Neil
    Another great post.
    There is however one thing that I was unsure on.
    I have been a fan of yours for a number of years and trust your judgement because I have read perhaps 30 of your blog posts and the vast majority of what you right resonates with me.
    But your point on long copy is perhaps not correct. On your Quick Sprout Traffic System page the first thing I thought when I saw that is “Why is he marketing his product as if it is spam?”
    You use the same technique, layout and style as the guys who sell get rich quick schemes use to cover all possible objections to the sale.
    But for you this is not necessary, you have the trust of people and just by offering the key things (main thing is the 30 minute call with you), they will buy.
    The long copy just made me sad to see as it is a pain in the a$5e to read – I did not need 80% of the stuff on that page – just the details.
    In many cases long copy does work – but only when it is necessary to overcome objections and to build trust where trust does not exist already.

    • Demian Farnworth :

      Hey Joel, Neil’s not just writing a sales letter for you. He’s writing it for a larger audience…some people need to know more about it than you do. And I bet because he is still using the same sales letter with minimal modification means it is working. Neil’s a tester…and he won’t use something if it doesn’t work. 😉

      • Thanks for your response and additional input. I am a tester and will continue to grow and change as I go. 🙂

    • I appreciate you feedback Joel, I am sorry you found the copy to be inconvenient. I have done many test and have found the way I have it now does best.

  20. stainless steel piping :

    this is amazing and it will absolutely help a lot. As much as i like examining revenue duplicate, i am not a fan of lengthy revenue duplicate, though i desire using movie as indicates of revenue promotion but i think if there is need to use textual content I will create it lengthy and exciting too.

  21. Paul@best restaurants in manchester :

    I agree with most of your sales letter points although I have always used a system where I sit down with a friend who knows nothing about what I am selling and explain it to him. I record our conversation and when he completely understands what I am selling – that’s the length of the sales letter.
    On a slightly off topic subject I sell a daily product which is delivered by a daily email. This delivery method is very clearly explained before purchase. I had a customer who cancelled their subscription, demanded their money back and reported me for spamming.
    It’s a great world isn’t it?

    • That is a great system. I may have to try it out sometime. That is rough, some times people can miss things in plain sight, then they want to punish others for their mistakes.

  22. Pain
    Great strategy.. !!
    Again very insightful article Neil and at the right time for us.
    We are about to start direct marketing for our website.. and this would surely help enormously.
    And for Headlines, I have come across headline wizard by Tim.. It does work good sometimes.

  23. Great post Neil.

    Two points though
    1) you didn’t explain why you called them “Mad Men”. I may have missed it but I had to google it to find out.

    2) Breakthrough advertising is by Eugene Schwartz – not Eugene Peterson – one of the best books on marketing that certain needs to be read multiple times to gain the full benefit

  24. Good afternoon Neil,
    Thanks for the thorough breakdown. I’m struggling on #1 – building the right list. My business isn’t the sort of thing you would send out a newsletter about – people either want a holiday, or they don’t. Or maybe I’m being a bit short sighted here….

    • Building a list is difficult for anyone. You just have to test it out and see how people respond.

      Best of luck.

  25. Maria@fxmegaforex :

    Neil Great information, thank you, I will try it and let you know. Best regards,

  26. origami for kids :

    Another great post! I totally agree with you about not buying lists and go for quality instead of quantity. Amazingly good advices! Thanks

  27. Experience does matter and you have plenty of it. Factor that with good skills of learning and change and you are there. Thanks for the awesome post Neil.

  28. Great lessions, thanks a lot Neil.

  29. Dan Smith @ The Blogshop :

    Particularly like #2, Neil and it’s actually probably something that most people don’t spend enough time on.

    For years there has been much debate over the ‘ideal’ length of a press release, that a sales page should be direct and straight to the point in a few paragraphs and blog posts should stick rigidly to between 400 and 600 words.

    The truth is the length of the copy isn’t all that important, as long as it’s of value – a 250 word blog post could very easily be so much more valuable to the reader than a 2,500 word blog post.

    But it could easily work the other way, too.

    Great post.

    • Definitely, it is not about the length but rather the value of the information like you said. If your content is useful then people will want to read it not matter how long or short.

  30. Neil — what a great post! It’s scary when you read something that you, yourself, feel is exactly the path you’ve taken and realize that this guy has learned much of what I’m about to learn.

    I can’t stress enough the importance of testing everything. I’ve read and viewed a lot of proven facts and strategies on colors, typography, frames and border that again and again proves to be wrong even though they have some great research and companies behind them. I do however start by using what I’ve learned, who wouldn’t right? But I never limit myself to those facts, instead I make facts and reality on my own. My audience is different depending on the client. So to me its important to keep testing different methods on different campaigns — constantly.

    Top post Niel! Keep sharing!

    • Thank you Anton,

      I agree completely the best way to see if something works is to continuously test it. Like you said each site’s readers will be different and respond differently.

  31. This post really is inspiring.
    and i kinda liked the title u used.

  32. What a great post! I spent 10 years as a client of O&M with a non-profit organization in the 80’s. This was the way it was done. Thanks for bringing back great memories and sharing your insights! Great stuff!!!!!!! Thank you.

  33. Karan Labra :

    Well sometimes tracking conversions on a ppc campaign can get such a pain. I’ve been using prosper202…do you have any other recommendations?

  34. There are quite a few interesting Marketing infographics on my website. I actually learned a few things from them myself!

  35. lesson #2 a long copy sells more,,,indeed
    this post is also really long but has the matter that interests…

  36. hi neil great info thanks ,any tips and tricks to build traffic??

    • Hey Jay,

      If you check out some of my other post on QUick Sprout you should find some helpful post on increasing traffic. Here are a few you may find useful.

      6 Ways to Generate More Traffic Out of Your Images

      Want a 150% Boost in Traffic? Then Use This Idiot-Proof Guide to Google Authorship Markup

      The Secret to Getting Highly Targeted Traffic from StumbleUpon

  37. EntrepreneursKorner :

    Nice Post, I’m always inspired to become more like don draper, the ‘fictional’ mad men.

  38. solicitors Manchester :

    I have recently received my BS and wish to seek the marketing route. What certifications should I go after that will appeal to employers and will be helpful in my career. I am open to all forms of marketing but leaning towards online marketing. Any input will help. Thank you!

  39. Andrew Youderian | eCommerceFuel.com :

    I love your Quicksprout Traffic System sales page design! And you’re right – it doesn’t look spammy at all. For someone who really cares about my presentation but still wants to leverage the power of a traditional long form sales pages, it’s great to know I can do both.

    Also, do you really offer a 30 minute personal phone session with every buyer, for $199? That is an impressive bonus…

    • Thank you Andrew,

      That is correct with the purchase of my Quick Sprout Traffic System you also receive a 30min phone call with me.

  40. Executive Programs :

    Hi Neil,
    You explained the marketing tips very well through these seven lessons giving full description for each lesson. These tips can be very useful to achieve effective market strategies..

  41. I never notice that using you in sales letter is such important while in previous i thought is not a polite way to address our reader but”You” is where capture reader attention and get the reader more involve into the story line.

  42. Correct Neil, Its better to get less and true audience instead of getting banned with large fake tricks 🙂

  43. Lot of people don’t understand potential of marketing on the Internet. Thank you for great explanations Neil.

  44. emobile_developer :

    Hi Neil, you did a great job by sharing your miracle secrets. Each and every point really encourage me to do better and honestly, I did several mistakes and many of them have been covered in this article but now I think this is the right time for me to improve those all. My one mistake that relates with the point #2. Until now i believed that most of the online readers are in hurry and they just want information quickly so I just write shorter copy almost not more than 400 words. Actually, there is no any loss or benefit to me by doing this but point #2 clear my doubt and now I would like follow it and make longer my stuffs. Thanks a lot Neil for this helpful article.

  45. hey neil,
    i really actually enjoyed the whole article. i agree with you that never stop learning and never give up. Truly your headlines counts, and neil you proved it practically i must say.



  46. This is good and it will surely help a lot. As much as i like reading sales copy, i am not a fan of long sales copy, though i prefer using video as means of sales advertising 🙂

  47. toy flushed toilet :

    Wow, this post is fastidious, my sister is analyzing these kinds
    of things, thus I am going to tell her.

  48. decorative concrete patio nh :

    Pretty! This has been an exztremely wonderful article. Thanks for suupplying this information.

Speak Your Mind