A stack of letters, overlaid with the title "The 40/40/20 Rule: A Direct Marketer's Secret Weapon"

The 40/40/20 Rule: A Direct Marketer’s Secret Weapon

There’s very little new under the Sun

Even though we live in the most technologically advanced era in human history, and the world around us is changing constantly, faster and faster, in some areas there’s not that much new in the world.

This applies particularly to products, what makes them great, and how companies succeed based on selling them. The same old rules apply that have applied literally for millennia.

The people who really discovered and codified these rules – at least some of the most important ones – are old school direct marketers. We can learn a lot from them.

In this episode I share an important mental model I learned from Brian Kurtz, from his book Overdeliver, about his career in direct marketing, and his advice for anyone doing marketing of any kind.

Direct marketers don’t take prisoners

The nature of mail-based direct marketing – the only kind of direct marketing until ubiquitous personal computers came along – puts a premium on effectiveness. It costs real money to send millions of marketing pieces through the mail. If you don’t track and manage your response to three decimal places, you’re likely to lose your shirt. And if you don’t continually test your best performing packages against new creative, you’ll end up leaving money on the table.

Direct marketers like Kurtz are cutthroat in their competitive instincts, always looking for a new edge. But the fundamentals still apply. A good product, pitched to the right people, accounts for 80% of your success.

The best “creative” – sales page copy, the type of envelope, the artwork on the piece – typically accounts for only 20% of the overall success of the campaign.

That’s the origin of the 40/40/20 rule. 40% of your campaign’s success is “the list” – who you’re marketing to. 40% of its success is due to the offer – the actual product. Copy and creative impacts the remaining 20%.


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  • […] start with a marketing principle that’s stood the test of time: The 40/40/20 Rule. Even though it was developed in the 1960s, the 40/40/20 Marketing Rule is still relevant. It was […]

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