You know you're in trouble when the client tells you that they don't like their control creative, but haven't been able to beat it in testing yet. They're looking to you with hope in their eyes. You're looking at their creative, which features a cartoon horse* ostensibly using the product. The product was targeted at a mostly female audience, and the image implied that they too could look as good as the cartoon horse.
The cartoon horse creative is proof that in a contest between direct-response emails, ugly doesn't matter if you are following the rules of demand generation. Here are four rules to help you guide your creative partners, so that you can beat your own horse (or your most annoying winning creative). Keep in mind though, the golden rule: Stay on brand. Great results don't matter if you erode the brand in the process.
1. The offer is your hero. Your product, the beautiful color palette that you crafted for it, and the models or other supporting characters (e.g. horses) are not your heroes. When it comes down to it, what people really need to see is what the product will do for them, and how much value they have to give up to get it. Make sure your offer is easy to understand, and give it prime billing in your email.
2. The "Buy Now" button goes above the fold. And below the fold. And next to the details of your offer. Because you want to make it as easy as possible for your audience to click a button and order your product. Make sure the button clearly indicates what will happen next; "buy now" would indicate an order form, but "contact a sales associate" would indicate a different form. Make sure there are no surprises here to give your audience cause to pause.
3. Place the product next. Cartoon horses notwithstanding, most winning creative actually does showcase the product. It's not usually as important as the offer, but it should help your audience understand what they'll get.
4. Highlight the best part of your offer. Use a callout button, or burst, to highlight the most compelling part of your offer. If you're not familiar with this device, think of a red circle with copy placed over your product shot. It serves as an easily-scanned punch to your offer. And it's not just for selling B2C mass-consumption products. B2B also uses this effectively.
It's worth pointing out what isn't in the list: Beautiful creative. Action shots of models. It's not that these won't work, just that they need to take a backseat to the four points above. Direct response and demand generation are about results. I'll take ugly results over pretty failures any time - so long as ugly is on-brand, of course. Share your ugliest winners in the comments - I'll award bragging rights to the worst of the worst.
PS: I will always wonder who put that creative with the cartoon horse into a test cell to begin with. I confess that I would not have even tested that one.
*Animal type was changed to avoid any details that might be used to identify the product. The actual animal would have made this an even more ludicrous example.