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Direct response sales: Selling vs. storytelling

As a marketer or business owner, you know that having an effective marketing strategy is vital to the success of your company. Without proper advertising, your company will lack brand awareness and your target audience won’t know you exist.

There are two distinct types of marketing strategies. The first is direct response marketing, or direct response sales, where the goal is to drive an immediate response. The second is content marketing, or storytelling, which uses content and narrative to build more slowly towards a sale.

So which side are you on? Direct response selling or storytelling? In this article, we’ll break it down for you: the good and the bad of direct response advertising.

Table of contents


Goals and benefits of direct response selling

The goal of direct response sales is to encourage the prospect to take action. Direct response marketing copywriters are persuasive and relentless about digging deep into the psychological triggers that will induce the customer to take action.

The general flow of the copy has three steps.

  • Problem

  • Agitate

  • Solution

How direct response sales work

Digital marketers use psychological triggers in their sales copy to invoke a specific action. Emotions such as fear, anger and sorrow can create a sense of urgency, while positive feelings such as freedom, happiness, confidence and success can make specific audiences feel hopeful about a potential purpose. These are all examples of direct response sales and marketing techniques, used to encourage a potential customer towards profitable action.

The focus of direct response is on buying behavior, specifically, what it would take for someone to make a purchase, or move further into the sales funnel by taking clear action, such as calling a company’s phone number.

“The person writing the copy needs to have a deep understanding of writing psychology, marketing, sales and being creative, while writing copy that also resonates with logic, to ensure prospects respond using whatever tactics possible. Copywriting is the bad cop.” — James of Crush Campaigns

Negative perceptions of direct response sales

In practice, “using whatever tactics possible” to optimize measurable results usually involves making someone feel fear. We humans are driven by fear more than anything else (at least in the short term) and it’s deeply embedded in our DNA, dating back to the caveman era and the instinct to survive. Fortunately, we no longer live in an era where we need to fight for food and flee from animals, but our human conditioning still makes us react that way.

Therein lies the reason copywriters focus on agitation to induce immediate action. This is also where this method too easily crosses the line in terms of direct response sales ethics.

If you’re part of a sales team, you may have struggled against the tactic of making some feel “less than” in order to persuade them to purchase a service. Certainly advertising and social media are known for using conscious and subconscious messages to make us buy stuff that we don’t need.

On the flip side, one of the benefits of direct response selling, when done with integrity, is that it can help the customer to realize the root of their problem and take appropriate action.


Goals and benefits of storytelling

Storytelling is intended to move your audience along a journey they want to experience. It’s indirect, using metaphors and imagery that involve your audience’s senses. They’re moved to action based on higher functioning emotions, such as empathy and compassion.

Again, there are three steps:

  • Struggle

  • Resolution

  • Lesson

The best stories are just as effective in terms of return on investment as direct response copy. The difference is how the customer feels after they make the purchase. While copywriting is the bad cop, storytelling (also known as content marketing) is the good cop.

“Think of it as the good cop. Content marketing is nice, worded in a way [that doesn’t] offend or provoke (usually), used to help brand a small business or inform prospects in a non-sales kind of way.” — James of Crush Campaigns

Difficulties of storytelling

When it comes to compelling copy, it can be difficult to come up with stories. You’ve got to think in terms of story, see how you can connect this to something relevant and interesting for your customer and make it powerful enough to provoke action, with a clear CTA.

Then there is the truth and vulnerability aspect of storytelling. With this type of marketing, it helps to share a human flaw about yourself and show them how you overcame it. This is the hardest part for most of us.

Many lead generation marketers use infomercials as a storytelling sale tactic. The visual and auditory components of an infomercial give marketers the opportunity to tell a human story that connects with their target audience, something different to email marketing or Facebook ads, for example.


The brain science of direct response sales vs. storytelling

In direct response, we’re triggering the reptilian brain: the fight or flight response. This part of the brain protects us from danger, like the scary animals that preyed upon caveman. However, today we still use it even when we’re not in danger (for example, to keep us safe when walking down a strange street).

In storytelling, the use of metaphors activates the neocortex, the part of the brain that creates an effect called “neural coupling”. This means that the storyteller and listener experience the same emotions because the story affects both the sensory and motor cortex of both people. The story influences the whole brain: the limbic system where we store emotions and memories as well as the neocortex from which our higher thought processes and creative thinking come.


Where marketers go wrong

Many people who attempt direct response copywriting aren’t direct enough. There’s too much narrative. On the storytelling side, many stories aren’t effective because they try to make too many points and don’t stick to one theme. If it’s not focused enough, people will walk away having missed the lesson and point of the story.

Often in direct response selling, the writer isn’t well versed enough in the audience’s own experiences. You’ve got to know what gets them excited, what problems they face, what keeps them up in the middle of the night, what paralyzes them with misery and fear and what specific offer they are looking for. Instead, writers often focus too much on their own businesses in the direct response ad.

The same goes for storytelling. If we don’t put the customer center stage, we risk making ourselves the hero and turning off any potential readers.The best solution in both instances is to get a better understanding of what the customer is going through.

The key difference is in the tone: Direct response is to the point, no fluff, while storytelling sets the stage, creates access through the plot and climaxes at the pivotal point. The objective of storytelling is not to be direct but to encourage readers to arrive at their own conclusions. The ideas planted throughout the story become seeded into the mind of the customer as if they were their own.


Which is more effective: selling or storytelling?

It depends. There are many different factors, including the target audience, the marketing channels you’re using and the timing. The type of audience is certainly a factor. For example, if you’re targeting a more sophisticated, evolved consumer, scare tactics most likely won’t work. In these cases, demonstrating the benefits of your products or services to your target audience and then including a clear call to action will likely optimize your conversion rates.

If you’re marketing to a mainstream audience and you don’t care too much about the long-term relationship, direct response works by keeping things simple. It helps the reader to see and understand their problems and take action.

Timing is another consideration. If you have a limited time and the prospect still hasn’t made a decision, a direct response style of writing would make more sense. If you’re brand building and introducing yourself to someone, you probably don’t want to hit them with an aggressive sales page. Instead, you want to establish an emotional connection with them through a heartfelt story.

Here’s a chart to break it down:

Sales (Direct Response) Storytelling (Content Marketing)
Action-orientedExperience-oriented
DirectIndirect
Short-term salesLong-term brand/relationship building
Externally driven (triggered)Internally driven (customer comes to a conclusion)


Final thoughts

In the end, there is a time and a place for both direct response sales and storytelling. Both can have a place in your marketing strategy. Many businesses use storytelling to introduce themselves to customers and start to build a relationship before using direct response marketing campaigns as a conversion tool at crucial moments.

The real lesson is to understand the difference between each marketing strategy, when to use them and how to get the best results.

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