Anatomy of a Control: The Nation's Incumbent Effort
For seven years of Democratic party rule and slightly more than two years with a Republican in the White House, newsweekly magazine The Nation has been mailing the same control effort. While the publication achieves its best results when it's in opposition to the political environment (as it is now), says Circulation Director Michelle O'Keefe, the fact that its long-term control was born in a less conservative political and cultural time shows that its copy platform has the flexibility to adapt to its surroundings.
Written by The Nation's esteemed Publisher and Editorial Director Victor Navasky, this 6" x 9" envelope mailing's adaptability is based on a simple concept: defining what The Nation stands for by telling prospects what kind of publication it's not. A straightforward offer supported by a framework of nine or more reasons why prospects might not want to subscribe allows for this defining content to be continually updated, while everything around it stays relatively the same. By not getting into a show-and-tell of the individual sections of the publication, Navasky has limited the need for constant fixes over time to match the structure of the magazine. The real beauty of this control is that it allows The Nation to be relevant with each mail drop, without having to alter the fundamentals of the effort.
The Letter is the Linchpin
The longest running controls in direct mail are successful for a variety of reasons, but what they all have in common is a strong letter. In fact, some of these blockbusters offer prospects nothing more than a letter and a reply form. These days, that may not be enough to help a visually oriented consumer make a decision, but it doesn't seem to be a problem for The Nation. For this publication, the graphics are not the main draw; it's the world perspective that hooks readers.
To put the emphasis on this selling point, the letter is merely a series of examples of the kinds of investigative and creative writing found in the magazine. The list has grown from about nine of these examples to the current roundup of 12 points, expertly culled from the pages of recent issues and boiled down to their powerful essence by Brooklyn, NY, copywriter Paul Stiga.
It's Stiga's job to find the most compelling, controversial and pithy pieces of journalism and literature in The Nation and not only break them down into soundbites, but give them context for readers. And, this must be done in the same challenging, questioning tone as befits the magazine. The same goes for the outer envelope, on which the only copy that changes is the list of fascinations that follow the subhead, "Inside." This list is a summary of the most powerful statements in the letter, and it easily can be tested with one plate change.
Sticking with one copywriter for the revamping job certainly helps in keeping the voice consistent. O'Keefe explains that it's important for the editorial team to support Stiga by reviewing the copy updates to be sure everything matches the mission of the publication.
Considering that The Nation mails three times a yeargenerally, in spring, summer and fallthat's more work than most marketers have to invest in their control. The saving grace is that no new messaging has to be interwoven with the sales copy that surrounds the list, and several of the dozen points are evergreen and can be reused for a few campaigns before needing replacements.
The portion of the letter that stays the same is the Johnson Box, which alludes to the free part of the offer and sets up the challenge of finding out why you wouldn't want to receive The Nation. It's classic reverse psychology at play, and it works because it catches the consumer off guard and makes him ask, "Why?"
Occasionally, The Nation strives for greater impact in the Johnson Box by tailoring the copy to reference an election year, a time when many people reevaluate their beliefs of how well the current government is running the country.
Following the list of reasons prospects may not like The Nation is a shorter list of characteristics that explains what makes the magazine different from other newsweeklies and details some features of the publication that can't be introduced with a quote from a recent article.
The final bit of psychological sell comes in the call to actionwhich gets no big wind-up, simply an invitation to prospects to make up their own mind by accepting a four-week trial of the magazine. Save for some price testing, O'Keefe notes that the offer structure (four trial issues upfront followed by 20 additional copies, for a six-month subscription) has remained a constant through the duration of the control's reign.
A Strong Letter Needs a Strong Guarantee
Since the type of person who reads The Nation might also be the kind who questions getting anything for free, the postscript is used to back up the trial offer. It reads:
If you think our short-term subscription is just a gimmick, you're dead wrong. We know there are a lot more people who believe in what The Nation believes in and will pay to read what The Nation fights to publish. And we're willing to risk a few free issues to find them. When we're wrong, we absorb the loss and thank you for giving us a chance.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Not one boilerplate word in this guarantee, and all the risk is assumed by the publisher. For a guarantee that was written 10 years ago, this one fits right with the times.
A Little Name Dropping
While the letter delivers up the names of top writers, poets and social commentators who contribute to The Nation, the lift letter is where this control uses prominent readers' names to add weight to the argument that prospects want to be in this same circle of people.
The reverse psychology continues in this piece with a quote from the wildly controversial Rush Limbaugh, who spits: "I wouldn't recommend The Nation ... that would just make you mad." People love a good fight, so this comment stirs the pot to get prospects to read on and learn of not who else hates The Nation, but who loves itlike Gore Vidal, Mike Wallace and John Kenneth Galbraith.
The feeling of a personal note is established by having President Teresa Stack sign her name and scribble a line of thanks for considering the offer.
The control has been tested with and without the lift letter, says O'Keefe, but it performs better with this extra message.
The only element with four color printing, the order card not only is easily identifiable, but also allows The Nation to demonstrate the product a little with two-color magazine samples. While the content is king for this effort, it never hurts to show people what to expect in their mailbox if they respond.
The overall size of the order card is 5-1/2" x 8-1/2", with a smaller perf-out reply card that is postage-paid. The Nation also includes a BRE produced on yellow or white stock, which allows it to take payment upfront since the full price of the offer is already laid out in the mailing.
While some order cards leave the back blank, The Nation uses this space to feature more quotes from
famous people, such as Theodore Roosevelt (who opposed The Nation) and Gloria Steinem (who gave it two thumbs up). Since the magazine is already printing the return mail information on this panel, there's no additional cost in printing the extra promo copy.
Running Neck and Neck
This winning idea of Navasky's has produced a direct mail control that, like incumbent Sen. Ted Kennedy, is hard to beat. And O'Keefe says plenty of attempts to knock it off have been tried. But it takes extraordinary times to create the right environment for an upset: O'Keefe thinks that time may be now; The Nation has two test mailings against the control that are winning at the moment.
One example is an envelope package that features the teaser: "Bush is a liar." This effort, she says, is indexing at 126. The other test effort is winning by an even slimmer margin; this envelope mailing takes a swing at the mainstream media with the challenge: "If you trust the big boys, don't open this envelope." Photos of the FOX News anchors accompany this copy.
O'Keefe cannot say how long these results will last; obviously the Bush-targeted mailing could ebb and flow according to public opinion about the job he's doing. But the volatility that opens the door for new ideas also can slam it shut on a direct marketer's fingers. Lucky for The Nation, there's a veteran waiting in the wings to reassert control.