Anatomy of a Control: Trailer Life Solves a Maddening Control Problem
To inject more life into your direct mail control, sometimes you just have to think big. Not necessarily "big" in the literal sense, but big in terms of offer, creative and overall marketing strategy.
When faced with the challenge of beating Trailer Life Books' long-term control mailing for its "Ten Minute Tech" roadside guide for recreational-vehicle enthusiasts, freelance copywriter Josh Manheimer did just that. Partnering with freelance designer Robert George, Manheimer created a #14 envelope package that indexed at 354 after an initial test in January 2003, and has been the control ever since.
Before the book publisher enlisted Manheimer's services, it had mailed a 6" x 9", two-color envelope package which included an 11" x 17", two-sided letter and a perforated order cardas its control. The mailing had been the control for more than five years, but towards the end of 2002, response started to lag. (The copywriter who created that once-successful mailing has since been commissioned by Trailer Life to try to beat Manheimer's package. At this point, he has been unsuccessful.)
"Our former control just hung on for a long time. It was a pretty down-and-dirty, inexpensive package," says Kim Souza, direct marketing manager of the multimedia division at the Affinity Group, Trailer Life Books' parent company that services the North American outdoor- and recreational-vehicle market. The low-cost, promotion-heavy mailing would be tough to beat, even if it was belching up smoke. The little package almost always paid off.
Blown Away by Outer Envelope Design
With the gauntlet thrown down, Manheimer selected his format: the #14 he championed for such clients as Oxmoor House and Rodale. Then he considered, "For the outer envelope, what if I had an RV stranded on an
interstate highway in Kansas with a tor-nado heading right towards it?" He then applied an attention-grabbing headline and subhead: "500 All New, Ten-Minute Solutions ... to every maddening RV problem imaginable!" A thin red line points to the RV with a question: "HAVING FUN, YET?"
"Envelopes are funny, mystical creatures," Manheimer asserts. "They need to have impact, and you try to do it with one statement of impact. There's a little bit more going on here, but I think you really get it with one visual oomph."
According to George, the outer-envelope creative consists of four different photographs and images that he melded together to achieve an ominous look.
"We wanted something simple, obvious and with a lot of punch," says George. "We thought that presenting a black-and-white shot with a light-blue background made the scene seem more mysterious."
On the back, Manheimer and George featured three beige boxes; each one contains a graphic image of the RV problem in question with adjoining copy:
"EASY ANSWERS ... for big backache scene #2! ... Got a flat in the middle of nowhere? Now you can lift heavy-duty motor home tires without straining your back. The trick on page 47 will allow you to align the lugs with the rim holes when remounting and take the strain off your back."
Selling the Offer
For added effect, the duo applied a second poly window to the face of the outer, where three sticker tokensone for each selling point of the offerare visible. "When the offer is complicated, like this one, you try to make it really clear to the prospect," Manheimer says of the technique he has used often for other #14 efforts.
Trailer Life Books extends an offer that consists of a free preview of "Ten Minute Tech Volume II" for 30 days; a supplementary book, "Fun and Easy RV Road Recipes," as its free gift; and a NightStar "Shake and Shine" flashlight as its fast fifty.
For further enticement, Manheimer added a small block of copy to the order card that afforded prospects the opportunity to receive "Ten Minute Tech Volume I"a strategy he says made the difference.
The copy reads: "If you get enough response and decide to reprint Volume I, please send me both volumes of TEN MINUTE TECH for only $29.95, and just charge me shipping and handling for only one book."
By adding the second book, the Affinity Group was able to justify Manheimer's more extensiveand expensivepackage, which includes a six-page letter, brochure, buckslip and order card.
"If the second volume wasn't added, I don't know if this package would be as successful for us financially," says Souza. "We actually had to reprint Volume I. About 50 percent of our recipients have ordered both books."
Forget the Flash
Another element that Manheimer added to the effort was a four-color, three-panel gatefold brochure. The copy on the front panel takes a cue from the outer envelope theme: "May we send you ... 500 all-new, ten-minute solutions ... to fix every maddening RV problem imaginable!" Inside, a photograph of the book's dust jacket is displayed with the copy: "May we send you a copy to preview for 30 days ABSOLUTELY FREE?" Below, six computer-generated images designed to illustrate RV tips are displayed. One in particular shows a truck wheel with a circular barbecue grill and lid leaning against its base. The copy reads: "Transform an old truck wheel into a portable fire pit."
The brochure is not terribly flashy, as Manheimer and George wanted to stay true to the straight-forward, infor-mation-heavy book they were selling while trying to get people excited about reading it. The design treatment is simple: brown and tan with an emphasis on copy.
"The product we're selling is one of those down-and-dirty little tech books," says Manheimer. "You don't want to come out with some flashy brochure. You want a qualified buyer. This captures the tone of what we're selling."
Weaving a Gripping Tale
Stepping into the mind-set of the average "RVer," Manheimer opted for a longer letter to entice a decidedly male demographic that has ample time to read and get engaged. (In fact, one of the reasons Manheimer selected the flashlight for the fast fiftyaside from the obvious relevance and usabilityis because of the large quantity of males on the file with an affinity for gadgets.) According to Souza, the average Trailer Life customer is older (average age of 64), generally loyal and active in the RV community. The letter begins:
"'Oh, my God!' ... we heard from the camper next door. 'Someone do something! Quick!' ... I poked my head out of our Airstream and ... it was not a pretty sight. ... Our neighbor's sewer hose had jumped off the dump valve outlet and foul, brackish water was spraying ... everywhere! ... While the owner tried to wrestle the hose back into place, his wife ran around screaming for help. ... "
The horrific road story continues on for another seven paragraphs before Manheimer's character recommends the book to the troubled traveler:
" ... there was an amazing little book put out some time back by the folks who publish Trailer Life and MotorHome magazines. If you look around in this camp ground, you'd probably find the book inside the rig of just about any serious RVer ... "
Manheimer admits that he prefers a longer sales letter to a short oneso as to stay with his copywriting strengthsespecially for a demographic like this one that actually has the time to sit down and read it. For Souza, response results revealed that prospects and customers alike prefer a longer letter as well, since they had been used to receiving promotional-heavy solicitations. This seemed to energize readers, Souza says.
"Josh offered our prospects a story," she says. "They were not accustomed to that."
With the letter still intact and hitting targets quarterly, there's no telling how long it will be jolting readers from apathy.