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The Non-Designer’s Guide to Online and Offline Performance Marketing Design.

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This Blog Post's Table of Contents

Here are some of the highlights of this exciting and dynamic subject:

  • How changes in visual design can make a significant differences in response rates and affect the quality (either upscale or downscale) of the customer that responds.
  • Why and how to create a visual illusion of intrinsic value on your landing page, email, magazine ad, direct mail or insert.
  • How to use involvement devices both for online and offline promo pieces to skyrocket your response rates.

The tech geek may be able operate a computer with great skill, but a good performance marketing designer needs many skills other than those purely technical. He or she needs to understand the importance of marrying good design with the copy so that both work together to achieve the desired goal. The designer’s job, at least of the one skilled in performance marketing, is to add substance, clarity and motivation to the works created. He or she can use graphics to place greater or lesser emphasis on key words and illustrations.

An example familiar to most of us is the name FEDEX®. In the hands of an uneducated designer, those words could have been rendered dull and trite, instead of fast and expressive.

In the same manner, graphic design in performance marketing plays a major role in communicating ideas and information about the products and services being offered.

Performance Marketing Design Can Improve Response Rates

Design can make a significant contribution to the success or failure of your landing page, Facebook ad, direct-mail package, outdoor ad, flyer, online banner ad, newspaper or magazine preprint and TV commercial.

Design can set the visual quality desired, be it sophisticated or just ordinary, dull advertising. By placing emphasis where it belongs, performance marketing design can increase response and make a big difference in bottom-line results.

Example: A large insurance company heavily engaged in the selling of health insurance by performance marketing tactics I consulted with used preprinted newspaper inserts as its primary marketing tool supported by online landing pages and retargeting.

It became necessary to redesign their newspaper preprint program and the landing page because response had dropped to the point where inserts were no longer cost effective.

The product was to remain exactly the same. Much of the copy couldn’t be changed because it was mandated by law. The four-page format and size couldn’t be altered because the company insisted on using the same format as the preprint then in use.

The front and back panels were redesigned to more prominently display the daily, weekly and monthly benefits in a typeface resembling the engraved numbers and letters on a dollar bill.

Next, these panels were surrounded with a border like those used on stock certificates. Exploiting greed and fear is important in the sale of hospitalization insurance. Money talks, and so does the appearance of it.

The inside pages were redesigned to make room for a testimonial and a temporary ID card along with a picture of a FREE document holder that applicants received with their policy. The applicants also received a free 800 telephone calling card to use if they had any questions or needed to file a claim.

All of these items were already included in the fulfillment package, but they were not being used as selling tools. The new preprint and landing page produced 300,000 applications during its first year of use, a significant increase over the preceding years. This new look permitted the continued successful use of this campaign for another two years without significant alterations.

A Good Designer With Performance Marketing Skills Reads Copy Like a Musical Score

The good performance marketing designer knows that his or her job is to set the visual tone of the whole promo piece and to provide it with the visual and verbal impact necessary to influence the prospect to act.

The designer also knows how important it is to visually lead the reader through the entire landing page, ad, insert or mailing, then back to the order form. It is his or her job to bring order out of chaos. To bring all of the competing elements together and to produce a harmonious outcome that induces the prospect to buy.

One of the most important tools at the designer’s disposal is typography, yet it remains one of the most neglected aspects of graphic design.

Type constitutes up to 80 percent of most performance marketing landing pages, mailings or ads. With that much of the visual meat on the plate, doesn’t it make good sense to be sure your designer is well-versed in the use of typography and understands the many subtle nuances that can be conveyed by the printed (or displayed) word?

A pro designer understands that the visual tempo cannot be maintained if all of the copy is set to have the same appearance and color value. (As used here, color refers to tonal values such as dark, gray, light, not to red, blue or some other color.)

Visual change of pace in type color and texture help lead the reader through the copy, giving emphasis and stress to make the point visually as well as verbally.

It is necessary to understand the effect typography can have on the message being conveyed.

  • Typography can whisper or shout,
  • of a very sophisticated and expensive offer,
  • of a cheap offer,
  • of elegance,
  • of sleaze, or
  • of urgency.

Whatever emotion you may wish to evoke, type used properly can do it. The designer skilled in performance marketing not only must have the knowledge mentioned earlier but also be socially aware enough to recognize the difference between sleaze and elegance.

He or she also needs to be able to distinguish between shouting and whispering, singing and preaching and many other methods of communicating.

Problems That Can Affect Readability

Use boldfaced type to call attention to important points, especially headlines on landing pages, in native ads / online advertorials, in newspapers and in magazines where you must compete for attention.

Interspersing bold type with regular text adds color quality to large bodies of type and helps lead the eye through the text.

Too much bold type, however, becomes difficult to read and gives the same unpleasant impression of someone banging loudly on a tin pan. On the other hand, a large body of text type can create a dull, gray appearance and can evoke a dull emotional response in the reader.

A disconcerting practice by many modern designers is the overuse of heavy rules, boxes and various stars, arrows and pictorial subjects. These can be used to great advantage where there is little or no pictorial matter, but, when used too boldly and too often, they can easily detract from the text’s readability.

Another bad practice for your landing page or ad design is to place a small photo or other illustration in a wide body of text type, then have the type run around (or wrap) it on both sides. This is a visual stopper and also makes the text difficult to read.

Yet another convention, not in vogue at the moment, but one that comes around from time to time, is setting a body of text in the shape of an object. While this may be graphically attractive, the text is next to impossible to read. Making type difficult to read is not the purpose of the performance marketing graphic designer.

White space, the margins around typographic and illustrative matter, can also have a significant effect on the readability of the copy. The less margin allowed, the more difficult it is to read the copy.

If you want to deliberately create a piece that looks sleazy, then a good place to start is by leaving practically no margins around the copy.

What Fonts to Use?

Selecting a font is not easy because, as was mentioned earlier, type can be made to express a variety of visual and emotional effects. Therefore, the typeface should be determined by the purpose of the piece upon which it is used.

Here are a few rules that may assist you in the selection and use of a font:

Rule #1. Never set your online or offline marketing piece a typeface such as Comic Sans (this makes your ad look ridiculous) or any “light” (i.e. Calibre Light) or “condensed” ones as they’re barely readable when it comes to any larger (i.e. longer than a headline) block of text.

Rule #2. Avoid using more than two font families for the text for practically any piece. Or, if preferred, use only one font family for both headlines and text. This does not mean you should not use bold, extended or italic versions of the same family.

It does mean that you should avoid mixing Garamond with Bodoni, but instead, choose Avant Garde or Helvetica heads to mix with either Bodoni or Garamond text. Another way of putting it is to use a serif style face such as Bodoni for text and a sans-serif face such as Avant Garde for headlines.

Rule #3. With a few exceptions, never use different styles of the same font or more than one family of type in a headline. In other words, within one headline, don’t use an ultrabold Times New Roman version of the typeface and a light italic version of the same design.

Additionally, don’t set part of the headline in Bodoni bold and the rest of it in Helvetica bold.

Rule #4. In print avoid reversing a serif style font out of a color block or tint of a color. Reverse out means dropping out the color behind the type to produce the appearance of white copy within a color or black background. Reversing serif style type causes printing problems.

The problem is magnified if the reverse is in a color panel of two or more colors screened to produce a special tint. The serifs and thin strokes of the letters will fill in, especially if in a very heavy color area.

When it comes to online, please note: Reversing copy out of black or a color also will significantly lower the readership and comprehension of the copy. This fact has been proven by many readership studies conducted over many years.

Rule #5. Do not set a large body of text in a very bold font, italic, an extended design of a font. (Reader comprehension will drop dramatically.)

Rule #6. Avoid using italic in headlines. Italics are great for subheads, however.

Rule #7. Never run a body of text in a color. The brighter the color the lower the comprehension.

Rule #8. Judicious use of color in headlines is always a good idea. Just because color is available doesn’t mean that it is smart to splash color type and headlines all over the piece.

Rule #9. Never run text type in a tint block of the same color as the type. An example would be red type on a red tint of 10 to 20 percent red.

Rule #10. Allow ample margins around large bodies of text, unless you are deliberately creating a piece that you wish to look cheap and sleazy. The less margin allowed, the more difficult the copy is to read.

Rule #11. Rules are made to be broken.

How About Headline Font?

The length of the headline should be considered in selecting your headline font. A long headline demands a condensed version of a typeface. Otherwise, it will take up too much space (see example below).

Long headlines often require a bold condensed font.

If you’re into print: the type of paper used by the publication or other printed matter are important. A soft paper like newsprint which is also highly absorbent generally needs a larger and darker typeface.

It is a great temptation for the creative team to have headlines and text copy set in color just because it “looks better”.

Be careful! When font is in color, comprehension and read ability may drop dramatically. When you mention this fact to the project manager behind the piece, he or she may request that you set the text in a bold font.

Wrong choice again. When text copy is set in bold and displayed or printed in black, the comprehension usually drops. You compound the error and reduce comprehension and readability even further with color in bold type.

Or he or she may even ask that you set the text in a much larger size in the regular text weight typeface. Strike three!

The larger the size of the text type, the more it slows down the reader. Comprehension likewise is reduced. Also, as the type size gets larger it becomes necessary to lengthen the lines; otherwise, you end up having many hyphenated words or misaligned text.

This makes it more difficult for the eye to stay on track for the complete sentence. Brightly colored text is difficult for people to read, so they don’t read it.

As color tint backgrounds increase in intensity, the reader’s ability to read and comprehend drops. Light color tints of warm yellows, gray-blues and greens reduce comprehension slightly. The darker the tint, the lower the comprehension and readability.

Full-color type on a tint of the same color drops comprehension significantly for any percentage of tint, with blue on blue being the most difficult to read. It may be more pleasing to the eye, but that doesn’t mean that it will receive the same degree of comprehension.

Try to remember that limited use of bold type text is advised because readability and comprehension drop (see below).

Too much bold type reduces readership.

Bold blocks of type disrupt the orderly flow of the copy and build visual roadblocks. Also don’t forget that readership and comprehension scores drop dramatically in reverse color blocks of copy. (That’s white copy on a black or colored background.)

When it comes to print: although no significant drop in the level of comprehension occurs when black text is printed on a high-gloss enamel paper as opposed to a soft newsprint or antique text style paper, experience dictates the use of the softer papers for readability. Of course, when merchandise is best shown in color on an enamel paper, use it.

Involvement Devices

An involvement device is anything that can cause the user on a landing page or the recipient of a mailing to become involved and to focus attention on your promo piece instead of closing the page or tossing the mailing piece or insert to the trash.

In online media these are usually:

  • quizzes,
  • “wheels of fortune” letting you win (bonus products, special offers, 50% off etc.) something every time,
  • pseudointeractive  banners (the static ones letting you “choose” for example “what is your body type?” and then driving you to the one and only landing page; or so-called IQ tests on banners)
  • interactive banners (in HTML5),
  • interactive but extremely simple games on a landing page.

Example: One of my clients, International Masters Publishers, liked to use games on its landing pages selling family entertainment subscriptions. These were virtual scratch cards, card games or simple quizzes which enabled the user to gain access to a special offer if only he or she could accomplish some simple task, e.g. pointing a capital city on a map of Europe or completing a puzzle game.

In offline media involvement devices are even more fun. Not only they’re about focusing the attention on the promo piece. They’re main job is to transfer prospect’s attention from the sales letter or catalog to the order form.

Typically, these devices have the prospect punch out a token, tear off a stub, lick a stamp, scratch off a coating printed over a winning number (my favorite!), tear off a tipped-on card (to tip on means to attach to another piece, usually by gluing), stamp or token, fill out a temporary ID card or keep a plastic or paper ID card (see below).

Temporary membership cards work very well on insurance and other types of mailings. They are usually tipped on (glued on the enrollment form or sales letter by a machine). The card may be paper or plastic. The fill-in data may be embossed or imprinted.

Do they work? YES! Some work better than others and, somewhat like fads in fashion and music, these things seem to go in cycles. What worked very well last year may not work as well this year. Part of this may be attributed to market saturation, but don’t assume that any one of these novel involvement devices is dead. If one isn’t working as well as it used to, test several devices until you find one that is hot again.

Some of these devices require special printing and inserting and different lengths of time to produce. Plastic ID cards with the recipient’s name embossed require more production time than any of the others.

Plastic ID cards are the most expensive to produce, tip on and insert. They usually also produce the largest response (they work for B2B as well, by the way).

This raises the question posed in some of other blog posts, “How much can you afford to spend to get a customer?” A heavy paper ID card using laser printer a faster and a less-expensive substitute for the plastic card. These can be printed on an easily inserted card with perforations around the card so that the recipient can remove it easily.

“YES” stamps or stamps showing a choice of merchandise offers such as DVDs, book and magazine offers are perennial favorites in the music and publishing industries (see below).

Stamps tipped on to the sales letter requesting that recipient remove and paste on response device work.

They work for other offers as well. So do winning numbers on lottery tickets that use a special coating printed over the number that must be scratched off to see what has been won.

One of the simplest, least expensive and most effective involvement devices is the tear-off coupon on a letter or a tear-off stub on a postcard (see below).

Tear-off stubs on reply cards make an excellent, low-cost involvement device. Use stub for a guarantee, receipt or temporary membership card.

These are great to place on the response device. Use them for such things as your money-back guarantee, receipt or temporary ID card. These devices involve the recipient physically and mentally in the buying decision you wish them to make.

Pull tabs on envelopes help get them open, which is an important first step to success (see below).

Pull tabs work on envelopes.

Punch-out or peel-off tokens that are placed on the order form by the prospect helps increase response and sales (see below). Some companies have tokens offering three options. These are yes, no and maybe later.

Tokens are an excellent involvement device. They work especially well on subscription and continuity type offers.

The point of all of these devices, used both online and offline, is not just to get the reader involved, but also to say YES and send money! There is a direct correlation between the degree of involvement and the response rate.

Creating an Illusion of Intrinsic Value

Have you ever received a piece of mail, an email, a PDF file or “special, limited access” to a website that created the illusion that it was very valuable, and you were reluctant to ignore, delete it or throw it away?

Most of us have. By inducing you to keep it around for more careful examination, the designer and copywriter have won a significant victory in their efforts to persuade you to purchase whatever is being offered.

Several different devices create such an illusion, online and offline.

In print one is the use of very fine stationery. Such a package usually comes with a closed face ivory laid (laid is a term describing paper having horizontal lines in its finish) paper envelope, a live stamp (the term live stamp means an actual postage stamp), a typed address (no label), fake engraved stationery or an embossed logo on the stationery in a matching ivory laid stock.

In both print and online often, these types of packages will contain an invitation, sometimes personalized. It may ask the recipient to participate in some exclusive activity limited to a very select group.

The select group is usually all the available names meeting the known customer profile. The call to action usually ask for RSVP (offline it’s most often an RSVP card and an attractive business-reply envelope). The purpose, of course, is to flatter you into participating.

Money and the Appearance of Money Gets Attention

Another popular approach is to create (in print) a package that looks like a check, real money, a government document like tax refund or a credit card. Certificates and “official” documents are the way to go online.

As devious as they may seem, one must admit such gimmicks get attention and they also work. Remember, avarice is a great motivator. Money and the appearance of money get people’s attention quickly and involve them intensely.

Another device is the valuable stock certificate or bond appearance achieved by using borders around the response device or application and occasionally on other ancillary pieces.

The use of fake parchment, money green, colored serial numbers and signatures just like on the real thing add to the intrinsic-value look and excite the greed factor in the recipient.

A less frequently used but very effective method in print is the careful use of metallic gold and silver, especially on the response device.

Color in Performance Marketing

Careful and subtle use of color seems to work best regardless of the colors chosen. Flamboyant use of color just to make your landing page or mailing package colorful is not recommended.

Tests of several hundred different pieces selling everything from insurance to business trainings have found that the packages that seemed to always come out on top were those where color was used very conservatively. A less conservative use of color worked better on consumer offers, sold especially via direct response space advertising in magazines.

Try always to select colors appropriate to the offer being presented and to the audience being addressed. The next question is going to be, “How do you know what is appropriate for the offer and the audience?”

Again, no simple answer will suffice except to say training, experience, intelligence and knowledge gained from studying and observing are necessary.

But then, don’t spend much time split testing different colors. Actually don’t test them, ever. That’s a waste of time, despite the advice of the so-called gurus.

Testing colors of call-to-action buttons or landing page’s background? That’s the last thing you should focus on. While such changes on your promo pieces are easy to implement, they’re hardly testable due to extremely huge test samples required, unless you have a ton of traffic that is.

And now some more thoughts on print and performance marketing:

The Paper You Choose Is Part of the Design Solution

The paper for your direct mail package, package insert, brochure or leaflet shouldn’t always be the cheapest thing available.

Paper, like typography, can have a substantial effect on the appearance and overall impression created by a mailing. Paper can contribute to a feeling of elegance, quality and dignity, or it can make something look like a bargain, cheap, gaudy, sleazy or whatever impression you wish to convey.

Just think of paper as being the clothes in which you dress your message. Often mailers fail to realize these effects and unintentionally create the opposite impression of what they had intended.

The change of texture and/or its color adds interest to the package. The more interesting the package, the more apt the recipient is to respond.

During the last 40 years or so there has been a concerted effort in the paper industry to keep producing brighter, whiter, slicker finishes on their papers.

This works fine for printing four-color catalogs of colorful merchandise, but for a direct mail package that depends heavily on the written word, use of those slick, superwhite papers is a mistake.

Soft white book and antique-finish papers are more desirable. They are warmer in color and texture and exude a sense of intimacy necessary to retain the personal feel that direct mail can and should have.

Newsprint provides a much more intimate and readable feel than does a bright, white-coated enamel. Some companies like to use at least one piece printed on newsprint, usually testimonials, to give that piece a newsy appearance and a textural contrast to a four-color brochure on a coated sheet or to an offset sheet used for the letter.

To some degree, the use of different colors of paper can influence the results of a mailing in much the same way that the use of different colors of ink can. The finish of the paper may have more effect than the color, however.

Remember that color, finish and weight of the paper all contribute to the impression created by your mailing package. Extremely lightweight paper can create an impression of flimsiness and cheapness, just as heavy vellum can appear elegant and expensive.

For direct mail packages, natural and antique finishes work best. Natural and antique-finish papers are warmer to the eye, softer to the touch and less harsh visually than hard-finished coated papers.

Direct mail is a personal medium. Thus, you want your paper to present a warm personal impression. Have you ever received a personal letter using superwhite or enamel paper? Also the finish of a paper affects the perception of its color. The slicker the finish, the more color is reflected; the softer the finish, the more color is absorbed.

All of these considerations, subtle as they may seem, do contribute to the impression created by a mailing package. Of course, the viewer may not be conscious of these subtleties, but each contributes to the overall impression created by the mailing package. Use of different paper finishes and colors within a package adds visual mobility and tactile interest.

Being Too Conservative Can Be Costly

When a company is spending thousands, even millions, of dollars on performance marketing campaigns in all possible online and offline media, management usually doesn’t get very adventurous.

As a company and its marketing programs get much larger, invariably their approach to design and copy become institutionalized and more conservative.

Managers forget that much of their success was a result of trying different marketing concepts and taking chances. There is a real danger of stagnation, and the result is dull and indifferent advertising. A progressive company must dare to be different but have the good sense not to be different at the expense of success.

Most industries have evolved over a number of years and have become fixed in people’s minds as appearing a certain way. For example, the banking and insurance industries traditionally are blue and gray, conservative-looking organizations. Such looks are no accident.

Most people would prefer to trust their earnings to a conservative organization rather than to a flamboyant, hot pink and chartreuse, funky-looking group. Neither would many care to invest millions in Artificial Intelligence systems with an organization having such an appearance.

It is usually prudent not to vary color too radically when a long-standing appearance has been established in the public’s mind.

If you are selling products or services long associated with certain visual stereotypes, such as the blue-gray appearance of the banking and insurance industry, it would be prudent to conform to that vision with at least one test package.

This is especially true for a new business with no significant experience. Don’t limit your choices to the stereotypical point of view for design in your company or industry.

Test promo pieces that are completely different visually as well. You may discover that the preconceived visual appearance is not relevant in your case.

Knowing one’s audience is the key to selling. You must realize that not all people respond to the same visual stimuli in the same manner. As an example, men who read magazines or web portals targeted to the blue-collar or “Joe Six-Pack” market are much more likely to respond to big black, benefit-laden headlines than would a typical white-collar professional.

The professional is more likely to respond to a very conservative-looking ad in web portals or publications targeted at the financial market. The latter ad would have a headline in a serif-style typeface, more copy and less hard-sell emphasis than ads selling to a bargain hunter. It all depends on the target audience.

The Swipe File of Design Ideas

Build a swipe file of performance marketing design ideas. Collect landing pages, banners, inserts, direct mail pieces or leaflets that are “performance-based” and have them at hand whenever you start or evaluate a new project.

This will not only have your creative juices flowing in no time. If you show what you mean it will help all those involved in the project to understand your vision or expectations.


Even though many persons engaged in performance marketing may not consider design to be an important part of producing successful promo pieces, please be assured that it is very important. Here are a few facts that you should try to remember in order to do a better job:

  1. Graphic design can make a significant difference in the response rates of a landing page or a mailing. It can also help you choose the quality of customer you may be seeking. A quality buyer or a bargain hunter, to whom do you wish to sell?
  2. Typography constitutes up to 80 percent of the typical online or offline performance marketing promo piece. It can make your company look cheap, expensive, sleazy, exclusive or even snobbish. What impression do you wish to create?
  3. Color can add lots of sizzle to your performance marketing campaigns, or it can subdue it. Judicious use is advised.
  4. Involvement devices can help total response and bottomline performance.

If you like this blog post and want more expert advice on performance marketing, direct marketing, direct response advertising, please share it. Thank you!

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The expert's thoughts on direct response - growth hacking - performance-based marketing activities - DIRECT MARKETING

About Me, Rafal Lipnicki.

the direct / performance marketing consultant with a strange sounding name


Not your usual "guru" but a real-world performance marketing & innovation consultant based in Europe and an experienced senior executive at leading multinational companies.

What and Where.

I am a consultant for hire, working remotely and on-site all over the world (but Europe is always preferred). See my consulting services page for details.


Contrarian advice most of the time. Document-based audits, workshops, one-off projects, mentoring programs, and more.