List v copy: what’s more important?

by | Nov 1, 2017 | Email Marketing

list v copy - Which one is more important?It doesn’t matter how good your copy is, if you put it in front of the wrong audience it will fail.

In other words, list is more important than copy. Right?

If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I’d have agreed. But now I’m more firmly in the copy camp. Bear with me and I’ll explain why.

The list v copy debate has been raging as long as I can remember at Agora. But, unlike the “long v short” copy debate, which anyone new to this world often initiates, it seems to have an equal number of people on both sides.

As long as I can remember, Mark Ford was always on the copy side. That’s not surprising, given his writing background. But lately, when I’ve heard him talk it seems he’s come around to the idea that even average copy can work pretty well to a great list, whereas good copy will more likely tank to a terrible list.

To a degree, I agree. And that’s probably not surprising given my background was heavily involved in the ad platforms like AdWords and FB. After all, they’re essentially just great big list building machines.

But lately I’ve been seeing things a little differently.

But before I go on, let’s be clear. And I’m pretty sure Mark agrees with this too. They’re both critically important. If you want a killer promotion, you need great copy and a list that’s most likely to respond. And a list that’s big enough to offer you the scale you want.

As with most things in life (and certainly digital marketing) the list v copy argument is not black and white. It’s never one or the other. You can’t have Laurel without Hardy, French without Saunders or Jerry without George. It’s a perfect example of synergy at work. Like the birds and the bees, you need them both working together towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

And there are other elements beyond list and copy too. A great offer is critical and too often an afterthought.

Even a bit of luck with your timing can be a factor. But, let’s talk list and copy and stoke the fires of the debate a little more.

In the pre-internet age when direct mail ruled, creating a list was arguably a simpler – or at least more limited – task. You worked with a list broker and selected people you wanted to mail to based on certain criteria like purchase history or affinity with a relevant product. I’m sure those marketers involved in that process felt they contributed more than that. But ultimately, they were the ones pulling the levers and turning the knobs…just waiting to add the right copy.

Meanwhile, the copywriters were doing the lion’s share of the creative work. They had to find a great idea… with an emotional hook and right voice to best deliver that message and persuade that list to respond.

I am still in awe of the work they do. The unseen research. Agonising over the best headline and lead and every single word they craft. Then finally sharing their creation and living – or dying – based on the response.

If it’s a win everyone pats themselves on the back. If it tanks the copywriters blame the list …while the marketers focus on the copy as the scapegoat.

Not all that much has changed for the copywriter. Sure, they moved from print to digital. The delivery of their copy shifted from sales letters in the physical mailbox to online promotions served via email. More recently the “talking promo,” or video sales letter (VSL), has emerged as a popular way to deliver that message. But that’s simply a new vehicle for people to consume copy. It allows the copywriter to control how their painstakingly crafted sales letter is received and prevents readers from skipping right to the end to see the offer.

Lists have changed

More has changed in the list world. And, I’m clearly getting off the fence now…

Paradoxically, that’s made list less important that copy.

You see, list-building has gotten much more complicated. But at the same time it’s gotten easier.

We talk about the right message, to the right person, at the right time.

The message is copy.

The right person is the list, and when you choose to use that list, it’s hopefully the right time.

And the types of lists have increased exponentially. It’s no longer a list of people you can reach via the postal service in the mailbox…

You can now reach virtually all of your prospects via email – to your own house list or via third party relationships…and multiple segments of them.

Your own website visitors are a list. And even they have various segments; lists within a list. You can divide them up in many ways… based on their source (via organic or paid search, from social media sharing)… the types of content they’ve visited… the actions they’ve taken (how many articles they’ve read, if they’ve signed up to your e-letter)…the device they’re on….and how recently they were there.

How you reach that “digital house list” list is complicated too.

You can place ads in front of those people on your website itself. (As Colm pointed out recently that’s the most powerful digital asset you own – the holy grail where you can control the message). But you can also reach that list via remarketing on ad platforms like FB…the Google display network (GDN) and many others.

All the ad platforms offer you the chance to “rent” their lists too.

Google has a near monopoly on the list of people searching on the internet plus a huge chunk of those browsing the web too. Facebook has a captive list of people connecting to their social networks, many of them bored, waiting to be disrupted in their newsfeed. Native networks allow you to reach another list of people consuming content online.

And these ad platforms allow you an almost endless opportunity to further slice and dice those lists too. You can segment by geography, age, gender, interests, political affiliation, income levels, online and offline activity. You can even serve them different messages depending on the day of the week, time of the day or what device they’re on.

It can be overwhelming.

There are so many ways to try to find your ideal list of people. On the one hand it’s great, because you can get so targeted to a niche or persona. On the other hand, it’s terrible because….well, for the same reason…you can refine your audience too granularly and end up slicing your audiences too thinly with too small a list.

The early days of Google and FB was a list makers paradise. You had the keys to the candy shop and could find all manner of hacks and creative ways to build a list. Back then, the interest targeting was fantastic. It can still be effective but over time that person has thousands of other data points mixed in, diluting the effectiveness.

The big list game-changer

Then something happened early 2013. Something big…

Lookalike audiences.

That was a game changer. FB started doing all the heavy-lifting to find lists most like your best customers and let you put ads in front of them. AdWords followed suit with similar audiences and many other ad platforms have also jumped on that bandwagon.

Suddenly, everyone and their grandmother could create lists to run to. All you had to do was water with copy and wait for the leads to grow.

And for the most part, they’ve worked like gangbusters. In fact, they’ve worked too well.

Now that everyone can easily reach their desired list, competition has increased dramatically. FB and AdWords love this, of course. Both platforms are auctions. The more people in an auction, the more money they stand to make.

So, if it’s a fairly even playing field on the list side, but how do you compete?

You guessed it… with copy.

More accurately, with your creative. Your images, copy, and offer.

But too many marketers still look at the copy as an afterthought. Even the workflow of the ad platforms is set up in that way.

The FB Adset or AdWords Adgroup is created first. That’s where you create your audience (or list). You can really go to work and manipulate based on all those factors discussed earlier – filtering by demographics and devices….by ad types and placements.

The final step is to add creative. At this point many marketers are so keen to launch a campaign, they add any old copy they can cobble together… choose a free stock image …and they’re off.

Savvy marketers know better.

They know how important the creative is. Problem is, unless they’re an ex or wannabe copywriter, it’s hard work getting good copy. Most copywriters aren’t that interested in writing ad copy, especially if it’s for lead gen. They’re more interested in writing the next big promotion.

But the best copywriters know that will be the difference between their campaigns generating average results or sometimes not even having a chance to get off the ground.

We’re in an age of banner blindness. The typical person online is saturated from multichannel marketing. They’re followed around the web relentlessly. You need great copy to stand out, to be seen, and to get results.

Creating your lists is still absolutely a critical component for success. And building your own house lists (email and web based) is more important than ever.

But for me, the key to success is copy. Great copy with a big idea that taps into the emotions of your prospects.

How about you? Where do you stand on the list v copy debate?

Weigh in on our FB group here.

Grant signature
Grant Perry
List Hacker turned Copy Convert

P.S. We plan to ask Mark Ford himself, where he stands on the list v copy debate. We’re delighted to have him as the guest of our next webinar this Thursday. Agora Marketing Masters’ members can hear his answer and ask their questions too.