Anatomy of a Control: A Tame Control A Simple Tried-and-True Approach Wins Out for the L.A. Zoo
In fall 2002 the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, which each year sees 1.4 million visitors pass through its gates and mails close to a million direct mail appeals, felt the need for a direct mail facelift.
The membership appeal the zoo had been mailing was a two-color effort with a photo on the carrier of a little girl giggling at a chimpanzee looking at her through a window. According to Jessica Harrington, vice president of direct
response at Schultz & Williams Inc., the creative services firm the zoo hired that fall to orchestrate its direct mail surgery, "Their control was not in line with what we had seen with other response rates for zoos across the country. We work with a lot of zoos, in addition to other nonprofits, and it just wasn't hitting the benchmarks that we had established for our other clients."
Schultz & Williams put Creative Director Laura Esposito on the job. In addition to sub-par response rates, the control the zoo was using when Esposito took the reins was "very dated looking. Kind of jumbled, and there were a lot of pieces that were only printed on one side," she says.
Enlisting New Lists
Traditionallyand prior to working with Schultz & Williams--the L.A. Zoo primarily had mailed to donors on conservation lists and lists for animal supporters, nature lovers, California state parks and the like.
Compelled by drooping response to the zoo's mailings and skeptical of the success of trying to convert donors to members, Schultz & Williams enacted a list change, targeting families with children under the age of 12, specifically those who buy things through the mail.
The zoo focused on lists for catalogs for baby and toddler merchandise and maternity wear, and magazines such as Parents, Parenting and Your Big Backyard. Additionally, it exchanged lists with other local attractions such as the California Science Center and the city's aquarium.
Says Becky Zahrly, director of membership and annual giving at the L.A. Zoo, "Boy, as soon as we started homing in on the children's listswhich seemed kind of obviousbut once we really started putting our attentions there, our results really came up."
Testing the Waters
Having zeroed in on the target market, Schultz & Williams developed several different test packagestwo-color, four-color, larger pieces, some with brochures, some with traditional inserts, some with the focus exclusively on big openings and events at the zoo, and some linked to seasonsand tested them through the spring and into the fall of 2003.
The results were surprising, says Zahrly, who thought for sure that a 6" x 9" four-color test mailing with a photo of a tiger on the outer did a great job of capturing the beauty of the L.A. Zoo. But it was a very basic, value-oriented, two-color, #10 mailing with the teaser, "Join the L.A. Zoo Now and SAVE! With this special Limited-time offer," and a simple illustration of a giraffe that beat the prior control and two other tests. This winning effort rolled out in 2003.
Called the "value package," because it emphasizes the value of a family membership and that, for a family of four, it pays for itself on the second visit to the zoo, the #10 giraffe mailing includes: an 81/2" x 133/4" form with a perf-off reply at the top and letter at the bottom; an 81/2" x 11" member benefits insert; a 31/2" x 81/2" four-color buckslip promoting the plush zoo animal premium; a 4" x 71/2" driving directions insert; a 31/2" x 81/2" double-sided lift note listing more members-only benefits; and a BRE with a blue illustration of a koala bear clinging to a tree and, "THANKS for your support!" written below. The control it beat used similar elementsan 81/2" x 14" letter/reply, an 81/2" x 11" benefits insert, a map with driving directions, a smaller insert and a BRE.
In addition to pulling better response, the two-color mailing is cheaper to mail, largely because of its economical use of space and the decision to swap out the pre-paid #9 return envelope it had been using with an unstamped BRE.
Whereas in the past, the zoo realized a loss with its membership appeals, Zahrly says using this mailing for its largest campaign of half a million pieces in March resulted in expenses of $262,000, with revenue at about $320,000.
The response rate on this control, adds Harrington, is holding steady at 1 percent, with an average gift of $60, which both the zoo and Schultz & Williams are pleased with.
"It's weird to me. It's kind of counterintuitive [be]cause I obviously like things that catch the eye," says Zahrly. "And I think that beautiful picture of the tiger was great, but I think the little clip art of the giraffe just really maybe represents the zoo better in that it's a family experienceit's for everyone."
Messaging and Other Changes
Aside from changing the lists it mails to, the messaging was the most dramatic change made to the zoo's direct mail approach. According to Esposito, the previous control had more of a support message that emphasized helping the zoo grow, change and add new exhibits. Schultz & Williams sought to strengthen the message of the mailing, moving from one that focuses on why support of the zoo is needed to one that highlights all of the member benefits and exclusive members-only experiences.
"We just really shifted the copy more toward, 'Here's the great value in it for you, of spending family time, of spending less than you would spend at other entertainment attractions in Los Angeles, and just really focusing more on what's in it for the prospective member rather than why you should support the zoo,'" says Esposito.
The letter is rife with copy extolling the many membership benefits, which include free, unlimited admission for a year; exclusive members-only viewing of Sea Lion cliffs; free guest passes for friends and extended family; a free subscription to Zoo View magazine; and free or discounted admission to more than 130 zoos and aquariums nationwide. These benefits are mentioned again at the top of the benefits insert.
Focusing on these exclusive experiences and the insider's view members enjoy is pretty basic, says Zahrly, but people really seem to respond to it.
Schultz & Williams also wanted to make more use of the space on each element in the mailing. The reply displays the ask on one side and an option to order a gift membership on the back. The letter is double-sided, and the lift note promotes a members-only, free, after-hours zoo event on one side and holds a message from the zoo director on the other, telling prospects, "how vital your membership support is during this major surge of growth and improvement." This message, says Esposito, was added to give the support message a place in the mailing and boost returns.
Tweaks Along the Way
"A zoo is a living, growing thing," says Esposito. What this means in terms of direct mail, she believes, is an ever-changing, ever-updated direct mail control. "We're continually updating it with the events that are coming up at the season, any new animal births, any new exhibits that open, and then we're also trying new premiums, too."
The zoo has tested its current "Plush Zoo Animal" offer against two free tickets on the zoo's safari shuttle, but the stuffed animal has won out as the premium of choice; it plans to test the zoo animal against a T-shirt in the near future. In addition, inclusion of a four-color premium insert has been tested, and the results show that with the insert beats without.
Similarly, on the reply device, the prices for the levels of membershipCouple, Family, Keepers' Club and otherhave lines through them, replaced by the $10-off discounted price. According to Zahrly, the zoo tested a flat $10-off vs. 10 percent-off offer, but the flat $10 outperformed it, even though, she notes, 10 percent off is a greater value than $10 for some of the higher levels. "I think maybe it's just more tangible to be able to see the $10 off with the strike through. So we make it really clear." She adds that, at Schultz & Williams' suggestion, the zoo is considering testing $15 dollars off.
A Zoo of Challenges
Changing the mailing up and trying new things is important for the zoo, not only because it's "a living, growing thing," but also due to the competition the L.A. Zoo faces.
"We're competing against the San Diego Zoo and also in this market when you think about where people are going to go with their family entertainment dollar, we have Disneyland and Universal Studios, and we have so much here," says Esposito. "There's so much competition for family fun."
Another challenge the zoo faces is the amount of time it takes to construct a new exhibit, which makes it difficult to promote in direct mail. "Right now we're building the exhibits for our elephants and our gorillas and also a species called the golden monkey," says Zahrly. "And so I would love to be able to say this will open in October and the elephants will open next March but I just can't get a firm answer on that, and things really get delayed. It could be two years past when they hope that it's going to open. So we have to be really loose in our language when we promote these things."
With this package, Schultz & Williams took that challenge and capitalized on it, creating a package that, due to its focus on value rather than on one event, new exhibit, new animal or season, is more evergreen than those it was tested against, believes Harrington.
"For the past three years, since we came in and started working with them," adds Esposito, "they have not had any major new attractions or exhibits opening, they have had major construction, and the fact that we've kind of held tight and upheld their response has been, I think, kind of a good achievement on our part."
As the zoo grows and changes, so too is its general marketing mix. "Their look is evolving," says Esposito, noting the zoo's street banners, print advertising and billboards all tie into a new exhibit. Zahrly hopes to work this new, branded look into direct mail efforts. "Our zoo doesn't have a huge budget for advertising, but there is some general market advertising that goes out, and I really would like to be able to tie into that so that folks see those same images in their mailbox."
While tweaks and changes are on the horizon for the L.A. Zoo, everyone, especially Zahrly, is pleased with this mailing and conscious of the vital role it plays in membership development at the zoo. According to Zahrly, the zoo has reached an all-time high of more than 66,000 household memberships.
"It's an important part of our membership program because it's one of our most important ways of getting new members," says Zahrly. "Basically just our on-site marketing captures new members here at the zoo, but for membership, I don't have any kind of advertising budget and we don't really do off-site events and things like that. So direct mail is really my only way of contacting the non-zoo goer to let them know about the zoo, and it's been an important part of our membership base."