Direct Mail Spotlight: The Economist
Writing about the economic downturn in a direct mail package can be a sensitive subject. To date, only a handful of direct marketers have attempted to do so and gotten it right. You don't want to remind consumers of how bad things are and get them in a penny-pinching state of mind when you are trying to promote your product or service. But if your product or service provides added value to protect consumers during a downturn, then the faltering economy can, in effect, become a selling point.
For The Economist, a weekly magazine reporting on world news, it's almost impossible to write a direct mail package without addressing the economy, especially when the current financial crisis is in every headline and on the tip of consumers' tongues. In its recent acquisition test package, dropped in late December to more than 100,000 prospects, The Economist opens its package with an image of the magazine rising above economic turmoil and carries the theme inside the package as well.
"We haven't shied away from talking about the economy because it's a narrative in the magazine. This is what our magazine is all about, and therefore, we don't feel we have to shy away from it ... but we just have to do it carefully. We are not out there to depress people, nor are we out there to be alarmists. We're out there to tell them this is clearly what you're thinking about and want to know more about, and we have it," explains Alan Press, the magazine's SVP of marketing for the Americas.
The 5" x 7" self-mailer features an image by The Economist illustrator, Kevin Kallaugher, of a boat, carried by a hot air balloon, rising above a sea full of churning waves and near capsized boats. The hot air balloon reads, "The Economist," and the copy below the image says, "Weathering storms since 1843." "It is really just trying to get across the fact that since 1843, The Economist has helped people address the world and make sense of complicated times," Press says.
The mailing opens up to a six-page brochure with a BRE enclosed. The first page is a letter, detailing the discounted subscription offer, money-back guarantee and benefits of subscribing. The center spread, and focal point of the package, features five thumbnails of past issues, and each cover has a story about the impending economic crisis. For example, one cover from September 2006 shows a story about the dark side of debt and features a pull quote, "Public markets for raising and investing capital are plunging into the shadows" (Archive code #205-172583-0903).
A couple of sentences at the top of the spread explain how The Economist enables readers to be better prepared for changes with ahead-of-the curve reporting and insight in its monthly magazine. "One of the reasons we're a success is because we talk about things far in advance of anybody necessarily even paying attention to them. We were talking about America's housing crisis a few years ago ... and we had a correspondent talk about AIG back in 2002," Press comments.
The package is a test against a more businesslike #10 control package with a letter and reply. "This is an entirely new package, and it was so new and so different from our current control ... It's risky in a sense that it's not Direct Marketing 101 where you just change one thing and you're able to read the test, but it's kind of a breakthrough from things we've done before," Press shares. So far, the test is behind the control, but Press plans to look further at certain segments for which the new test format may have pulled a higher response.
Press says The Economist includes a landing page and offer code in most of its direct mail, and the URLs tend to pull about 20 percent of total response. In this test package, he's included a BRE to accept cash with order but says so far there hasn't been a lot of cash with replies.
Sent to national magazine lists, for all types of publications from Scientific American to Mother Jones, Press says it's hard to nail down his readership via typical demographics. "One of the challenges as a direct marketer is that you can't just buy a list and find The Economist customer, because the customer who's going to read us and the customer who's never going to pick us up may have the identical demographic profile. What makes a reader a reader is this need to be intellectually stimulated because they're curious about the world, and some people just aren't like that," he says. To better understand its audience, Press says The Economist invests in a lot of modeling.
Press is not certain he will send this package out again next year. "If the results don't pan out then we'll probably do something different than this package," he states. One thing is certain, Press has no plans to pull back on his direct mail efforts during the downturn. "Perhaps this gives us an opportunity, because if everyone else is cutting their marketing spend and we're not, we'll have a bigger footprint in the marketplace," he notes.