Creating a Celebrity Spokesbird
Late in 1993, I met with Kelly O'Neil, then membership director of The Nature Conservancy, to discuss the possibility of creating a new membership acquisition package for the Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy has built a record of conservation success on the commonsense approach of simply buying wild lands to keep them wild. Conservation trusts are everywhere now, but when The Nature Conservancy pioneered this approach in 1951, most believed that government action was the only way to protect the environment. People have responded warmly to the organization's nonmilitant, practical philosophy, and The Nature Conservancy is now considered one of the top conservation nonprofits. Its 1,340 preserves now constitute the largest private system of nature sanctuaries in the world.
Although I offered Kelly five directions the new membership package could take, I had the most confidence in three of them. One of these three directions was to base the package on a survey. I had used surveys with great success for another national conservation client, and I thought the approach could work as well for the Conservancy. A second idea was to use a regional approach, giving people the opportunity to support conservation efforts near their own homes. But the idea that most excited me -- and seemed "safest" for both me and my clientwas to "redo" the existing package.
The Conservancy had a package that had been its control for twenty years. I figured it might be smart not to reinvent the wheel this time and, instead, improve what had already been proven to work.
The Intimidation Factor
It is always scary for a copywriter to test against a successful control package, but this control had the additional intimidation factor of being a Frank Johnson package. Johnson is widely considered one of the best writers of direct mail the world has ever known. He passed away last March, but he is immortalized in direct mail nomenclature: The copy above the salutation in a direct mail letter is called its "Johnson Box."
The package he had written for The Nature Conservancy was a classic. It used a 6" x 9" window envelope featuring a memorable four-color picture of the endangered Sandhill Crane.
The crane on Johnson's package is looking directly at the viewer with an expression that can only be called resentful. And Johnson played off the bird's resentful expression (as only he could) with a teaser that reads, "RELAX! Both of you." To ensure the teaser's playfulness, he used pointing fingers. This primary teaser is followed by a secondary one below the address window: "A $10 nest egg will do it."
Around the bird's resentful expression, Johnson created one of the most elegantly written direct mail packages I had ever seen. Throughout, it reminds the reader of the reasons for the bird's resentment: For hundreds of years, human beings have been draining and building on the marshes the crane nests in. It's comical to think the bird is in bad humor about the mess we've made of his neighborhood, but in this comedy there is an inescapable truth. If you like living in marshes, you're going to be upset when people move in!
Another reason I was nervous about redoing the control was that Johnson's package used humor. The conventional wisdom of direct mail is that it is extremely difficult to create a successful package with humor. I myself teach this admonition in my copywriting courses!
The overriding quality of Johnson's package, however, is that it tells a story. Sure, it gives you the facts and figures, but through it all, you see how these facts and figures relate to one bird trying to make a life. And the package even finds a way to present the welfare of this bird as a specific benefit. After asking the reader to buy a ten-dollar membership, the letter reads:
Watch those cranes come in to land, just once, and you're paid back. Catches at your throat.
No wonder this package had done so spectacularly for The Nature Conservancy, and no wonder I had moments of panic trying to figure out how I could ever beat it.
First, Find a Photo
When Kelly agreed to the idea of redoing the Johnson package, our first order of business was to find a new animal photo. It was hard to imagine finding one with as much personality as the Sandhill Crane, but Kelly helped me look through the Conservancy's photo files.
We first limited our search to animals that lived in places The Nature Conservancy was trying protect. Looking at the Sandhill Crane photo, I knew one of the most powerful things about it is that it stares right at you. So I further narrowed our search to photos of animals looking at the viewer with both eyes.
I must say that when I saw the photo of the Black-Crowned Night Heron chick, I thought it might be one of the ugliest warm-blooded animals I had ever seen. It was a face only a mother could love, and then I knew I'd found my strongest candidate, for this homely creature was somebody's baby.
With the photo in hand, I had to implement Johnson's approach of creating a personality for the bird and then using it in the letter. I heavily sprinkled details of the bird's natural history in the copy:
But you have concerns of your own. So why should this short-legged, short-necked bird who's usually awake only at night be of any interest to you?
I felt these details created a "spokesbird." But now that I had my spokesbird, I had to figure out what she was selling.
A Real Estate Investment
Johnson's strategy in the original letter was to encourage the reader to think of a contribution to The Nature Conservancy as a real estate transaction. For example:
Bargains in diverse real estate are what we look for and find. But not just any real estate. We've been working for years to create a huge, up-to-date inventory of the rarest animals, plants, and natural places in each of the United States and in many Latin American and Caribbean countries.
This is a wonderful approach, because it is so businesslike. Think about The Nature Conservancy's strategy for a moment, and you realize it is all business. The organization never leads demonstrations or letter-writing campaigns. Its lobbying activities range from small-scale to nonexistent. In simple terms, it just raises money and buys wild land, fences it off and keeps it wild.
It was too wonderful an approach to lose, so I kept the business motif:
Put up $10 and The Nature Conservancy will buy a delightful swamp the night heron can call home!
Actually, even if you opt out, we are still going to buy up the land our baby needs, but we would sure like you in on the deal.
I tied the fate of the reader to that of our spokesbird:
Some of our protected wildlife are noble. Some are cute. Many, like the night heron chick, have a face only a mother could love.
We don't save species because they're cute or appealing. We save them because, given the interdependence of life on this planet, a threat to any of them is a threat to us all.
I used the facts and figures of The Nature Conservancy's conservation success to develop the idea of preserving the natural world to ensure the reader's own future. And then I wrapped it up with a list of more tangible membership benefits: a year's subscription to Nature Conservancy magazine, information from the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy on local conservation efforts, invitations to special social events and field trips, an official membership card and a special premium.
The Nature Conservancy tests different items for the special premium, and over the years it has tried a plastic sports bottle, a set of ceramic mugs, a canvas tote bag, a pair of gardening gloves, a windbreaker, a tee-shirt and an umbrella. The premium always bears the image of the spokesbird, and the Conservancy reports that the umbrella and the tee-shirt are the top performers. I suspect this is because they allow the new member to display the image of the spokesbird most prominently and publicly. The bird has her fans!
Response Form and Carrier
The response form, which features a detachable portion that bears the photo of the premium and a list of the benefits of joining, repeats the theme of tying the reader's fate to that of the bird:
You bet I'm in for $10. Buy some more land -- for the sake of endangered species, the future, and me.
Having recreated Johnson's whimsical and businesslike approach, it remained to come up with a carrier teaser as strong as his inspired lines: "RELAX! Both of you."
The brilliance of Johnson's teaser is that it is the equivalent of a cartoon caption for the bug-eyed bird photo. It makes you laugh. But it does not make you laugh at the bird. It is as if you and the bird share in his resentment and frustration. The people who are draining his marshes for shopping malls are the ones that come off looking silly. And by presenting itself as a message to both of you, the teaser starts you thinking right away that your fate is tied to the bird'sand it piques your curiosity to learn how.
So I needed a teaser that would capitalize on the comedy of my spokesbird's appearance but at the same time would suggest that the reader and the bird were in this thing we call life together.
Frankly, it remains a mystery to me how I was inspired to write a teaser that incorporated such a sophisticated pun. I am not ordinarily a punster, and I have rarely used humor in direct mail. But an idea reached out to me from my subconscious, and next to the photo of this pitiful looking little bird, I wrote, "You don't have to be human to know the pain of a broken home... only to fix one." Then, having started with a pun, I found myself willy-nilly following through with another, less sophisticated one: "Ten dollars will fill the bill."
When the new package outpulled the control by upwards of 15 percent, it gained the distinction of being written up in The Wall Street Journal in an article on new approaches to fund-raising. The Nature Conservancy has since given the package three make-overs (generally aimed at increasing the emphasis on the spokesbird) and dozens of tweaks. In seven years of using the package, the Conservancy credits it with bringing 5,000 to 10,000 new members per month!
The Conservancy frequently receives mail about the package, mostly from people who love the spokesbird. But my favorite is the e-mail message from the woman who said, "this mailing cannot possibly succeed." I like that message, because it reminds me that we did well by defying conventional wisdom, and it's one of the most important things I learned by modeling my efforts on those of Frank Johnson. If the night heron package has been a success, it's at least partly because it was based on such an excellent model.
Donna Stein is president of Baier Stein Direct, a small agency that focuses on copywriting services. She can be reached at (908) 781-7849 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional samples of her work, visit the Baier Stein Direct web site: www.directcopy.com.