Anatomy of a Control: AFA's Control Still Soaring on Personalized Wings
For direct mail copywriting and creative team Paul E. Barry and Rosalie G. Barry, the objective set forth by the Air Force Association (AFA) in 1997 was a simple one: Craft a membership appeal to sell accident insurance to a decidedly military audience.
The Barrys knew from prior experience in mailing to this demographic that a straightforward solicitation
devoid of bells and whistles would win out over more elaborate package concepts. And, since the husband-wife tandem maintains a penchant for personalization, they opted to intersperse the recipient's name, military title, address, official membership number and response deadline date throughout the mailinga decision that would earn them a seven-year control. The package mails twice a year to organization members who care about aerospace power and a strong national defense: 100,000 in September and 20,000 in January.
About the Package
"To address this membership, those packages that are successful tend to be plain and simple," affirms Rosalie Barry, one-half of Marlton, N.J.-based direct marketing specialist firm Chelsea Court. "We had seen direct mail kits with flashy, expensive, colorful brochures that just didn't work. This audience tends to respond best to bland, official-looking mailings. Our outer [envelope] really smacks of that."
The #10 carrier-envelope effort includes a two-page letter, reply form, two buckslips that outline the benefits of the insurance package and a BRE that makes response easy. For the outer, the Barrys featured two lines of teaser copy in blue typeface and one in red type-face: "Membership Benefit Notification"; "Non-transferable Dated Material ... Please Respond By Closing Date Inside"; and "Eligible for New Higher Benefits," with a red arrow pointing downward to the addressee information seen through the poly window. Displayed just above the first line of copy is a small blue AFA crest, the only graphic image on the white outer.
When the package first launched in '97, the outer envelope looked remarkably similar to the one AFA currently is mailing, save for black typeface and a fourth line of copy. For AFA's initial drop, the Barrys tagged on an official-sounding blurb:
Communication Inside For Addressee Only. No Other Individual Permitted To Open Or Take Possession Of These Contents!
The letter is another package element that hardly has changed since '97. Earlier versions of the letter featured a longer lead:
Good news for John Sample and the Sample family. Enrollment is now open in the AFA Multi-Benefit Accident Plan. This means that if you are a current AFA Member in good standing, your Application will be approved ... regardless of your age or your health history!
The current letter's pared-down lead gets right to business:
It is a pleasure to announce that our popular Multi-Benefit Accident Plan now pays higher benefits than ever before!
Below this, the Barrys present a block of personalized copy in bold typeface to grab the prospect's attention:
It pays the beneficiary of Maj Gen John Sample up to $250,000 in the event of your accidental death!
Plus, it pays directly to Maj Gen John Sample up to $500 for emergency medical care IN or OUT OF THE HOSPITAL if you are accidentally injured.
Despite other minor tweaks to the letter, which included updating accident statistics and insurance plan information, AFA has changed very little. Even the Johnson Box copy has remained virtually intact over the years. In the upper right-hand corner, this copy reads like an official military briefing, listing subject ($250,000 in benefits); approved member (addressee); also approved (addressee's family); and respond by (deadline date).
Personalizing the package was relatively painless to facilitate, says Rosalie, due to the nature of the product.
"If we were selling a life insurance plan, the materials would read something like: 'Dear Captain Sample, at your present age of 45, you are eligible for $100,000 of insurance at a rate of $55 a month,'" she says. "For this package, AFA is extending a much simpler insurance product, where the rate doesn't change based on a member's age."
Personalization Pays Dividends
According to Paul Barry, the cost to produce the package was quite low because the letter, order form and buckslips were lasered on the same continuous form, thereby justifying the use of personalization. The individual elements were spliced apart and inserted into the envelopes.
The first 33/4" x 81/2" buckslip details the prospect's schedule of benefit payments for three possible insurance plans. Presented horizontally, the copy is boilerplate in natureas required for insurance direct mail effortssave for a designated field at the top of the piece for the recipient's name, military title, member number and response-deadline date.
The second buckslip features a summary of features and premiums, and is presented vertically, with two light-blue boxes at the top that contain the personal information.
"As you know with insurance, you always have a fair amount of exclusions and technical information to communicate," Paul says. "And the extra two pieces were helpful in doing that without incurring the costs of an expensive brochure that we already knew wouldn't fly with this audience."
The Barrys employed a unique, four-digit response code on the lower left-hand corner of the reply form to help the organization sort returns. With each response, AFA easily can discern what type of member replied: age, year joined, second solicitation received this year, etc.
With so many personalized variables to account for throughout the piece, the Barrys went to great lengths to assure database integrity. When the package first launched, for example, AFA did not have a salutation field in the database.
"Compared to some mailings that we are doing now, this was pretty simple," Paul says, "but a big challenge at the time was converting abbreviations in titles that have to appear in the address and salutation field."
The complexity of some compound military titles could potentially have created gaffes if the data lacked accuracy. For the purposes of this effort, titles appear as "Lt Col" and "Maj Gen," for example. But as Paul cautions, "You better not address a Lieutenant Colonel as 'Lt' or a Major General as 'Maj.' That is a real sensitivity of this audience."
A New Control on the Horizon?
In September, Paul and Rosalie Barry completed a new test package for AFA, designed to target individuals who have shown interest in the organization but never joined.
Although the Barrys could not provide specific details, as the package currently is hitting recipients' mailboxes, they said the goal is to use AFA's insurance offering to bolster membership growth.