Writing a Financial Package

We recently sat down with seasoned financial copywriter, Robert Reger, and asked him his approach to writing a financial package. Robert, along with fellow copywriter Bill Hedden, is credited with writing an auto-insurance package that mailed to 90 million names for 11 years straight! Here’s what he told us …

“Well, initially, I would say, it depends on the package. But over the whole of my experience, I’ve been able to come up with the key 20 questions I need to ask somebody at the start of a project to determine: a) if I’m going to accept a project; and b) if they have enough information that I can work with.

“I always ask at the beginning, ‘What is the circulation objective of the mailing?’ I do a lot of things for financial newsletters, and some companies want to convert customers who are already taking other financial services or products, and upsell them on a new financial service or product. Some people say, ‘Well, our customer file is flagging … we need to really boost it up. In order to do that, we’re going to look at trying to command our market a little bit.’ Or, ‘We’re going to try to reach a little different market this time.’

“I’ve come to firmly believe in working closely with the marketing department. Every writer is different. I’ve had a lot of success, though, in making sure that everything I do is properly aligned with all the marketing agendas and goals. Even if you don’t agree with them, they’re the ones paying you, and you are still working under their guidance. So, I think it’s important to establish a good relationship with the marketing department or the project manager you’re working with.

“I always ask what the mission statement is – whether it’s a publication, a product, a system (such as a get-rich system), or a way for them to broaden their investment base. And very often, some people don’t even have them, so you need to have them create one for you, or help them create one. Because a lot times, there are so many products in the financial services industry, and you really need to differentiate. Someone could be getting three different mailings in their mailbox that day. If two are kind of vanilla-sounding, and one sounds like it has a real unique USP, then that’s the one they are going to read through.

“Then, I always ask what distinguishes them from their competitors, and who their competitors are. I also like to know if it’s okay to mention the competitor by name in the piece. (Some people are really against that idea, while some really like it.) What’s really great about the financial services industry is that you can talk about competitors in terms of other financial vehicles. For example, if there is an approach to bond investing, you can downplay stocks or gold and precious metals or real estate. There are all kinds of financial vehicles that you position whatever you’re selling against, and everyone’s got their own story of why theirs is the best. It’s kind of fun to do that because, a lot of times, you’re really restricted from competing products in terms of non-financial services. So, you’re pretty free basically to focus on competition.

“Number four basically is that I need the demographics/psychographics of the audience we’re talking about. I always try to get as much marketing information as possible, and I would say that the one thing I do that a lot of other people don’t do is that I think it’s very important to look at the company’s white mail (the letters that people write in). Sometimes you get some great ideas out of that. Sometimes you get phrases, and sometimes you get testimonials that aren’t in the testimonial bank. So white mail is very important.

“I also always ask about what’s worked in the past, what hasn’t worked, and why they think it hasn’t worked. It’s very important to be educated not only on what packages have and haven’t worked in the past, but also what strategies have and haven’t worked. Not only for the financial services product that you’re going to sell, but for other products within the company.

“One thing that’s great about being a freelance copywriter is that, when you’re not tied into one specific company, you get to see all the other things that are working across the financial services industry. And very often, there are things that are working that some people are just really reluctant to try, because they don’t think that it will work for their product. And then you finally pass it through, and it works really well for them, and you kind of get to say ‘I told you so.’

“It’s important to get results off the actual packages themselves. If you can get those, that’s great. And sometimes you can steal smart. If there are some things that have been working over and over again, that are diehard things that have been tried, it makes sense to put those in your package if you think they’re strong.

“I always ask if the product or service is planned to change in the near future. For instance, they want to do a promotional package, and then it turns out that the actual product doesn’t live up to the promises that you made, because the product changed during the promotion’s life cycle. And then sometimes the people promoting it are the last ones to know about it. And it’s important to know. Don’t over promise on anything, because you could get a great gross response on a package that’s got a free trial. But then if nobody ends up paying for it, then you really didn’t do a good job. So, it’s important to get that information ahead of time.

“Something else that I always ask – and it’s great to hear this not just from the specific marketing person who you’re working with, but also from people who are maybe at the VP level in the marketing department – I always ask them, ‘What is the single statement that best describes the product and why the consumer will use it?’ Sometimes you get very different answers from your day-to-day contact person versus somebody who is higher up. So, this single statement very often boils it down to the nuts and bolts and can help a copywriter a lot. If the statement is different for the circulation manager than it is for the VP of the company, then you want to start asking questions as to why their answers were different, and get to the bottom of it. And you really need to, when you start a package, to get past what are the overall features, and make sure what you’re going to say is aligned with the marketing department and how they see it.

“I always ask about format, whether or not people are allowed to do certain formats. A lot of times it comes down to cost. Although nowadays … it used to be that a magalog was a lot more expensive than a direct-mail package. It still is expensive, but it’s not completely out of the ballpark the way it used to be. I like to see people who are open to a variety of formats. The best thing anybody can say is, ‘You determine the format for me.’ Because, a lot of time, people have been trying the same thing over and over again. They may have been mailing a 6 x 9 format for 15 years, and they haven’t tried something new, and very often a new format could help them achieve a little bit of a bump.

“I always ask what the standard offer is. And I always ask permission if I can present it in a different way. For example, there are a lot of free trial offers or premium offers that people have, and I think it’s important to ask them if you have the freedom to present it in a different way, because sometimes you look at an offer and you think, ‘Wow, here’s a way that this offer can be strengthened.’ As a copywriter, it’s your job to write the strongest copy possible, and I think that includes the offer. Sometimes you have marketing people who don’t want to do an A/B split test on changing the offer. But if you stay close enough to the original offer, usually they’re okay with that.

“I always ask if there’s a money-back guarantee. If not, why not? I always try to get them to do one if they don’t have one. I usually ask them if they have any reluctance to make the guarantee performance based. It’s a little more difficult in the financial services industry, but we do it all the time, where you basically guarantee somebody, if they use this product, they will increase their savings over the course of the year by x amount. (Or you could put a percentage in. Something like that.) I think it’s very important to tie the guarantee to the performance of the product, because if you just say ‘money-back guarantee,’ you’re not promising anything more than if they don’t like it, they can send it back. If you add performance onto it (if it’s a health package, for example), you can say that their health will improve and name some specifics. If it’s a stock, you can tell them that their net worth will improve by x amount over one year or x amount over five years. That sort of thing. It basically gets people confident in the credibility of the product.

“I always ask about premiums, whether or not the presentation can be modified. A lot of people are stuck with the same premiums that they’ve been using for a long period of time. I’ve had a lot of success with presenting premiums differently than they’ve been presented in the past. Sometimes someone will offer a book as a premium, and very often it’s just a little pamphlet. I’ll say, you know, ‘This pamphlet is only 20 pages long, and it doesn’t look much in appearance. So can we split it up into five different chapters and promote it as five separate booklets,’ or something like that. There are so many things that can be done to make the premium look a little bit more attractive.

“I always ask who is going to sign the letter. This is very important. I think that it’s better not to have too many voices in a package, especially with a financial services product where usually you’re trying to sell a system to somebody. You want to make sure that one person used this system, developed it, and rolled it out to a bunch of people, and back it up with a lot of testimonials. But I think it’s important to have a letter, especially if there are any well-known personalities who have helped you with the product (which is also a question I ask). It’s important to read through all the testimonials, because very often you can get some great copy and great ideas, too.

“I always ask for list information. A lot of copywriters don’t do this, I know, but I always get a book of lists from the circulation manager just to see what types of lists they’ve used in the past for these sorts of mailings. It really helps you narrow down who your audience is. Ask as many questions as you can about this.

“I always make – at the very beginning of the project – a list of the product’s benefits features, and another list of what the product will do versus what the prospect wants. And then I have a good idea of who my audience is, especially with financial services products. People want to increase their net worth; they want to make more money. Sometimes people want to do it quickly. Sometimes they don’t want to do it quickly. Sometimes people won’t believe you if you tell them how to do it quickly. These are all things you need to be very aware of, and I write these lists down and hang them up in my office while I’m writing the package, just to make sure that every time I’m putting a concept together, I have a clear picture in my mind of who the people are that I’m writing to, and then whether or not the product can deliver on the promise that I’m making.

“And also, sometimes there are things that people want. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but writing a package is very much a psychological game, and you need to keep that in mind, and be aware, and really try to match the benefits of the product to the desires and needs of the consumer who’s going to be receiving the package.

“I always ask about the timeline at the beginning of the project. I think it’s very important, if you want to provide superior customer service, which now is basically the only thing that will differentiate you from a lot of other copywriters. You really want to make sure you do everything you can to set a timeline that is what the client wants, but is also something you can deliver. If you set that stuff at the beginning of a project, you can eliminate a lot of confusion and misunderstanding later on.

“What I do is I map out a timeline from the beginning to concept review, to first draft of the copy, to revisions, to final copy, to final art if we’re providing the artwork as well. Then they’ll know exactly what they’ll receive from me and when. Sometimes it doesn’t all go according to plan, but at least there is some kind of road map. Marketing directors sometimes complain that copywriters are slow, that they don’t deliver on time, and that all the best people are never on time. So I think it’s important to have some sort of timeline established. The way we work is to establish the structure right at the beginning of the project. More often than not we get that out of the way immediately so we don’t hit any barriers later on.”

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Published: May 23, 2007

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