A Strong First Impression for the Kennedy Center
A few years ago, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, located in Washington, D.C., wanted to breathe new life into its flagging membership program. The program's consultant called me to create a new donor acquisition package.
The Kennedy Center is, of course, one of the premier arts venues in the nation. The venerable facility, located on the banks of the Potomac River in the area of Washington known as Foggy Bottom, serves as home to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera. In addition, the Kennedy Center hosts a wide variety of theater, music and dancefrom Broadway musicals to the Bolshoi Ballet.
The majority of Kennedy Center members live in the greater Washington area. They hail from the District's diverse neighborhoods, as well as from the prosperous suburbs of northern Virginia and southern Maryland. Many of those suburbs are well known: Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, Fairfax, McLean, and Potomacto name but a few. Demographic studies have, for years, shown their residents to be exceptionally well educated and informed. Given the market, I found the then-control package perplexing. The purple, #10, window envelope package suggested to the recipients that they could become "stars" of the Kennedy Center if they agreed to become members of the Kennedy Center Stars program. It seemed to me that, in an effort to be clever, the package actually talked down to the reader.
Thankfully, the consultant gave me complete creative freedom, and I used that freedom to take a completely different tack with my package.
The Outer Envelope
It was my belief that the new package had to convey, on first impression, a look and character in keeping with such a distinguished institution as the Kennedy Center. I decided to use a baronial-size envelope not unlike one you might receive with an invitation to a wedding or formal dinner. The stock was ivory. The outer was meant to convey an air of exclusivity.
In my discussions with the client, and after reading the background materials given me, I learned that the Center had been offering a $50 membership for $40. In addition, I learned that membership in the Stars program came with the opportunity to purchase tickets ahead of the general public, though after subscribers.
I decided to marry these two powerful benefits and put them in front of the prospect immediatelyon the outer envelope. Rather than attempt to explain the bargain membership rate, I called it, simply, a 20-percent discount.
The teaser copy reads as follows: "You are hereby invited to become a Member of the Kennedy Center at a full 20% discount and gain the special privilege to purchase advance tickets." The copy is set in a graceful, serif type and printed in gold and blue. A second teaser, positioned in the bottom right-hand corner of the envelope reads, "Reply Requested." On the back of the envelope, I chose to use flap copy only. It reads: "The Office of the President, The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC 20566." The simple presentation, and spare copy, was meant to emphasize the exclusive character of the package.
Because I felt the double-benefit offer was an unusually strong one for a nonprofit, membership organization, I elected to make it the focal point of the letter's lead sentence.
I wrote: "I would like to make you a two-part offer which, quite honestly, I hope you'll find too good to resist." You'll notice the copy hints at the fact that a positive reply is almost expected.
The second paragraph brings one of the benefits to the fore immediately. It reads, "For the first part, I am pleased to offer you the special opportunity to purchase advance tickets to see the very finest in theater, music, and dance at the most prominent, and beautiful, venue for the arts in Washingtonthe Kennedy Center."
I chose to promote the option to purchase tickets in advance as the lead benefit, because it gave me the chance to highlight notable upcoming presentations on the first page of the letter, even one of which might catch the reader's eye and interest. I also was careful to make certain the list of presentations included at least one example from the worlds of theater, dance and music.
Further, by writing about each aspect of the two-part offer individually, I hoped to encourage the recipient to read beyond page one. Consequently, it was not until page two that I explained the 20-percent membership discount. By that point, with the two primary benefits put forward, I returned to the ticket-purchase option and explained exactly how this (somewhat complicated) process worked to members' advantage. I devoted the better part of page three to elucidating several important membership benefits. Additionally, because people also will give money to organizations such as the Kennedy Center for charitable reasons, I felt it important to explain that federal dollars do not support Kennedy Center programming. I made clear that, while federal monies are used for operations, maintenance and capital repairs at the Center, it is member dues that play a direct role in bringing great national and international artists to Kennedy Center stages. As a result, the donor could feel good about writing a check, as well as feeling a bit smug about enjoying special benefits and privileges.
The final paragraphs restate the offer and sound a call to action. The P.S. highlighted a new two-for-one matching grant, and urged recipients to make especially generous membership contributions so their gifts could go twice as far.
Because I was never enamored of the Kennedy Center Stars concept, I argued against using it. The client, however, wasn't comfortable giving up the term. We compromised. I down-played the concept in the copy. Eventually, in subsequent mailings, the concept was done away with altogether.
Apart from the letter, the package contained a brochure, two buckslips and a reply form.
The largest insert, an eight-panel brochure that measures 17" x 5", folds into fourths for insertion. Each panel neatly lays out the benefits of each membership category, making it easy for readers to see exactly what they get in return for their membership contributions. Photos of dancers, musicians and actors added visual spice to the panels.
The benefit-oriented headline reads, "You'll enjoy these exclusive benefits and privileges as a Member of the Kennedy Center." The serif-faced type mirrors that used on the outer envelope, with capital letters accented in gold.
The first buckslip for insertion, a 51/2" x 81/2" sheet that folds in half, from the top down, serves in effect as a lift letter. The headline on the outer fold asks, "Skeptical?" The copy at the top of the inside panels (shown on page 23) explains the question. It reads, "If you are skeptical for any reason about the privileges you will receive as a new Kennedy Center Member... Please read these remarks from your fellow Washingtonians."
I feel strongly about including customer/member testimonials in prospect mail, and this buckslip was my vehicle for bringing testimonials to the fore. I made certain the four quotes referenced different membership benefits. For example, one quote talked about how great it is to get tickets before the general public. Another emphasized the comfort of the members-only lounges. Two more sang the praises of cast parties and "Meet the Orchestra" receptionsagain underscoring the exclusivity of membership.
I should mention that all the testimonials were authentic. I chose them from several the Kennedy Center passed along to me. (In the past, in certain instances, I have written testimonials myself. The client would then find an appropriate person to sign them.) The second buckslip, a 31/2" x 61/2" sheet, is printed on one side only and carries a headline reading, "Enjoy our Upcoming Star-studded Line-up." The sheet spotlights notable performancesagain including plays, musical theater, dancer companies and musicians. I believed that if prospects saw a performance they would enjoy, and possibly attend anyway, it could serve as an added impetus to become a member, take advantage of the ticket-priority program to get seats they wanted, and enjoy an array of additional benefits. This buckslip was kept simple intentionally. That way, it could be updated and replaced regularly as the line-up of Kennedy Center performances changed over time.
The Reply Form
Because the letter copy did not ask, but invited the reader to become a member, I entitled the reply form a "Membership Acceptance Form." The form's copy reinforced the tone of the headline and was not a typical yes statement (e.g., "Yes, I want to join...). Rather, I wrote: "I Accept. By completing and returning this form, I hereby accept your invitation to become a Member of the Kennedy Center."
All possible joining categories, and their dollar amounts, were listed on the form. However, I asked the graphic artist to draw a slash through the first category, the $50 Sustainer category, and hand write above it, in red ink, the following: "$40 special discount offer." This further reinforced the 20-percent discount.
What's more, because a certain portion of Kennedy Center members were then known to have a strong affinity for the National Symphony Orchestra, I gave prospects the choice of earmarking their gifts specifically for the symphony, or for all Center performances.
My package mailed as the Kennedy Center's control for the better part of six years. Only recently, it was beaten by a test package similar in look, tone and offer. Its letter, however, nicely emphasizes the red-carpet treatment prospects will enjoy by attending the Kennedy Center as Members, thereby making their night on the town an altogether memorable one.
Fred Vallejo, a Caples and ECHO award-winner, has 21 years of direct response experience. In addition, Vallejo is a frequent speaker at marketing conferences and has taught seminars for the DMA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.