A Surprise Ending
Christmas seems to creep up a little earlier every year. Normally, one can stave off the telltale jingle of sleigh bells at least until the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers have been digested, yet Oxmoor House has other ideas. Every year, the book-publishing division of Birmingham, Ala.-based company Southern Progress sends out tests for its “Christmas with Southern Living” book promotion package at a time when snow cones, rather than snowmen, are more likely to be on the mind. But according to Oxmoor Senior Promotions Manager Julie Doll, it’s this disconnect that could explain why an effort promoting a book that has been in production for over two decades continues to pull response after all these years.
Although it bucks the Christmas mailing schedule by at least a couple of months, Oxmoor House’s June drop date remains one of the few perennial elements of a direct mail campaign that is tested consistently and often. Doll explains the incongruity as an effort to reach prospects at a time when they fully can entertain the wonder of the holiday to come rather than the stress that is likely to take center stage once the season’s in full swing. “I know a lot of people think of Christmas as a hassle, and maybe a reason why it does well in June is that we put such a positive spin on Christmas when we’re promoting this. … We never talk about Christmas in a negative way.”
Once results from its first round of tests begin to come in, Oxmoor House typically follows the summer drop with a more timely rollout in September, when it tempts prospects once more with whichever June package proved most successful. And like its first appearance in the mailstream, 2006’s winning effort has a few surprising details of its own (Archive code #101-171600-0610).
Arriving in a glossy, 6˝ x 11-1⁄2˝ paper outer, which Doll says seems to work especially well for both Southern Living’s Christmas and cooking packages, this mailing outpulled a control that had been holding strong for the past several years. While it shares many of the characteristics that made the former piece a standout (including offer and format), it has a revamped design that Doll notes is a contributing factor to its success. “It has a totally different look … newer and fresher, with the bolder Christmas colors,” she adds.
True to form, this version appears in a bright red-and-green color scheme that, Doll says, is a lively contrast to the subdued hues and more upscale appearance of the previous control. The outer envelope greets prospects with the copy, “This Year Christmas Comes Early For You!” emblazoned across its address panel, with the mailing’s offerings prominently teased in a one-two-three listing of its giveaways:
FREE fabulous quilted tote…
FREE Christmas recipes to try-out now…
FREE chance to get a CUISINART stainless steel slow cooker!
On the outer’s other side, the word “Free” is featured three more times. Interestingly, this “three-peat” tactic is one the Archive has seen on previous efforts from Southern Living, and while it hasn’t been tested, Doll surmises, “I guess we do try to stick to three ‘Frees.’ When you’ve got just two of something, it’s not as powerful as ‘Free, Free, Free.’”
Inside, the mailing includes a four-page letter from Rebecca Brennan, editor of the holiday publication; a trifold, glossy pamphlet featuring the recipes, home décor, gift ideas and crafts detailed in the book; and another folded insert with information on both premium promotions: a quilted tote bag just for responding and the slow cooker fast fifty offer. A cardstock reply device is perfed to an offer summary, and on its reverse, the Southern Living unconditional guarantee and an ink-jetted personal note with a handwritten look are included. Appearing on a yellow background, the note is designed to make the piece slightly more personal, both drawing the prospect’s eye and reinforcing the discount and special offer, Doll maintains.
The last insert to appear in the package is a stark, black-and-white “Sweepstakes Facts” sheet. Although it lacks the splashy photography and snappy copy that defines its counterparts, this component is equally important in its message. “We know there are other [mailers] out there that do sweepstakes and aren’t as upfront, [or] in your face so to speak, about the rules,” Doll says. To remain in compliance with legal guidelines passed down from Southern Progress’ parent company, Time Inc., the fine print that typically is associated with a sweeps effort is very clearly defined. Oxmoor House ensures not only that the mailing’s rules and regulations are the first things seen when a prospect opens the package, but also that they’re in an easy-to-read typeface, printed on both sides of the page. “Our Southern Living audience that has been with us for years and years—they are getting older. We have requirements regarding the point size … there’s no way you’re going to miss the fact that this is a sweepstakes and these are the rules for it,” Doll affirms.
What was most intriguing about this effort, however, was not necessarily in the design elements that reportedly contributed to increased response, but rather which of the components did not.
Because Doll had tested numerous packages over the years in the search for a new control, she primarily attributed this year’s triumph to the new slow cooker fast fifty, added to support the recent inclusion of a chapter on slow cooking. While it is atypical for Oxmoor House to send an additional test in September along with the rollout of June’s winner (in this case, the new control), Doll wanted to know if her instincts about the slow cooker’s impact were, in fact, correct. As it turns out, they weren’t. Although final results aren’t available yet, the September test sans the slow cooker seems to be pulling even better than the package that originally beat the control. This, unsurprisingly, supports what she knew all along: assume nothing, test everything. “We thought the magic was the slow cooker,” Doll recounts, adding, “It’s just a strong package by itself.”