Anatomy of a Control: All Necessary Components
KCI's Personal Finance looks beyond the self-mailer and wins big
By Paul Barbagallo
Never underestimate the impact of a #10 carrier-envelope format"old faithful" to veteran direct mail practitionerseven if you're an investment-newsletter publisher.
That's precisely what freelance copywriter Kim Krause Schwalm would assert after her component package for KCI Communications' Personal Finance beat the existing controlher own issue-log self-mailer.
While Schwalm and KCI found steady success in the mail stream with the issue-logwhich resembles a cross between a magalog and a specimen-newsletter issuethe #10 format was ever-enticing. In early 2003, Personal Finance decided to test an acquisition package that included a four-color brochure (for featuring the premiums), a lift note (for highlighting one of the premiums), an order form, a BRE and the trusty issue-log as the anchor (now folded up to fit nicely inside a #10 carrier). The outer-teaser copy reads, simply: "Current Issue Enclosed."
The effort has been Personal Finance's control ever since.
"Most consumers, when they get their mail, look for things to throw out first. The mail that they are going to hang on to must have value," says Schwalm, commenting on why she advised KCI to mail an envelope package. "Most [readers] in our marketplace probably lead 99 lives, and subscribe to more than one investment newsletter. [Our] hope is that people get this acquisition effort and think, 'Oh, this is something I subscribe to.' It's not always top of mind that they don't."
By mailing a quasi-advertorial cloaked in a #10 wrapper, Personal Finance is seeking to get its promotion into recipients' piles of mail to be reviewed in more depth, says Schwalm. But regardless of consumers' initial response to the effort, the 34-year-old investment newsletter is careful not to print a false statement on the outer envelope, such as: "Here's The Current Issue You Ordered ..." It also affirms its credibility by employing prominent, boxed-in copy at the top of the issue-log's cover: "SPECIAL ISSUE."
"We're not exactly lying. The [outer envelope] just doesn't immediately give it away that it is advertising," says Schwalm. "Since this #10 became the control, KCI has taken the same idea and tested it with several other of its investment newsletter promotions that are now controls."
The Impact of the Issue-log
Personal Finance first tested Schwalm's issue-log in September 2002, and since then, it has been virtually unbeatableas a self-mailer or as part of a #10 component package.
The 16-page issue-log features sidebars and graphs about the overall state of U.S. investing. The front page leads off with a special article by Personal Finance Editor Neil George (ghostwritten by Schwalm) that weaves through nearly the entire issue-log. His piece pinpoints the industries with big tailwinds and the stocks poised to generate huge dividends for subscribers. Also, a portion of his article informs prospective readers about Personal Finance's premium offering: four free investment reports if they sign on for one year at $39.95, and four more free reports if they sign on for two years at $79. (What's more, a sidebar that begins on the front page further supports the premium offeringsenhancing the value proposition in the eyes of prospects.)
At the very end of the article, Schwalm throws down the gauntlet: subscribe or wallow in financial purgatory. It marks one of the few times in the piece when the focus shifts from editorial to sales.
What makes this effort so effective is that it provides enough free content to give prospects a taste of the publication, but not too much so that it spoils the offer, says freelancer Lori Haller, the designer who converted Personal Finance's self-mailer issue-log to the #10 control.
"For a while, newsletter publishers relied on the big, fat, juicy four-color magalogs for acquisition. That format has since fatigued for some mailers," says Haller, who has been doing design work for KCI since 1991. "With this piece, there's not a whole lot of fancy bells and whistles. Just standard Times typeface in a three-column form with graphs."
When Haller first started working on the issue-log, she asked KCI to send her sample issues of Personal Finance so she could mirror the actual newsletter in her design. The aim here was to give prospects a taste of the depth and breadth of the editorial coverage.
"What you are seeing in this issue-log is what you can expect to see when you subscribe to the newsletter," Haller affirms.
Tweaks and Tests
In May 2003, not long after Schwalm's component mailing proved to be a winner, Stephen Leeb, the long-established editor of Personal Finance, parted ways with KCI. When banking insider Neil George became Leeb's successor, KCI was faced with a quandary. Leeb was the guru it was selling, and its brand was so closely tied to his editorial persona and investment advice. With George at the helmsomeone with a starkly different investment philosophythe KCI marketing team opted for a different copywriter to relaunch the promotion.
Personal Finance was in the mail with an entirely new format and copy approach, but only for a short while. After several tests, KCI brought Schwalm back into the fold to retool her #10 control to feature the George-led editorial team. A revised component package tested in September, and became the control once again.
"The big investment trends featured in the issue-log had to change, because there was an editorial change," Schwalm notes. "The new editors didn't believe inflation was going to be a big issue. At the time, [Stephen] Leeb really did. And beginning in January 2004, George thought it was time to get out of gold, so the focus for one sidebar had to shift to industrial metals."
But the most fitting example of Personal Finance's change in editorial focus is evident on page four of the current issue-log.
Personal Finance features a small article about the editors, with the
accompanying headline: "59 Years of Experience ... The Brain Trust Behind Personal Finance." A photo of the editorsYiannis Mostrous, Roger Conrad, George, Elliot Gue and Ivan Martchevis displayed within a light-yellow screen.
Previously, Personal Finance employed a letter-from-the-editor-style sidebar from Stephen Leeb only, with the accompanying headline: "About the Author, Stephen Leeb, Editor of Personal Finance." When Leeb was at the helm, KCI leveraged his name for all of its direct mail appeals. With George's taking of the reins, KCI thought it best to market the entire editorial staff.
Aside from scaling down the size from 24 pages to 16 pages, and applying various copy tweaks to suit the new editorship, Schwalm's issue-log has remained intact. Even the placement of certain graphs (including the color treatment) are the same as the original effort that mailed in September 2002. However, the one major variable that has changed since the first rollout is the headline of the lead article.
Out of these two headlines, which do think prevailed in recent testing?
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Are Ready to Shake Up the U.S. Economyand Your Portfolio!
The Surprise Winners and Losers in Today's Grim Market Reality
If you selected the first choice, you are correct. "My initial copy
approach was to reach out and shake [prospects'] shoulders and say, 'wake up,'" says Schwalm. "It's one of those headlines that plays on people's fears yet gives them hope at the same time."
Schwalm is quick to point out, though, that the latter headline performed almost as well as the former during previous rollouts; KCI opted for "Four Horsemen."
But since the people at KCI are such smart, aggressive testers, according to Haller, new winners might emerge at any time.