Don't Wait for the Tomato Seeds to Grow
Regularly reviewing creative, brainstorming for new ideas and implementing well-chosen tests is essential for the ongoing success of any direct marketing program.
Creative testing is not something to put off until your existing control starts to flag. The opportunity cost of postponing creative tests can be substantial. Creative breakthroughs, even if they come only once every two or three years, can ratchet your bottom line upward quickly and dramatically. To borrow one of the top ad slogans of all time, when it comes to creative testing, just do it!
Q: Who should be involved in a creative review?
Include people with a broad variety of marketing responsibilitiesa list or database manager, someone from production and, of course, your creative team. To get an outside perspective, invite a freelance designer or copywriter, or another supplier, such as a list broker or marketing consultant. Also include an editor or a product-development leader who can tell you about upcoming content, impending product enhancements and the latest product or customer research. Consider including someone from fulfillment or customer service, or at least be sure to advise the heads of these departments of your plans before you drop any test.
Q: How often should reviews be held?
Creative reviews should be held for each rollout, up to four times per year. If you mail monthly, plan three months' worth of tests at your quarterly review. Hold a creative review well in advance of the production timeline for each mailing. While you may not mail a brand-new creative effort with each mailing, the wise marketer takes advantage of every mail date to at least test varying envelope dimensions or graphics, adding or changing premiums, going up or down in price, or tweaking the lead.
Q: Where should creative reviews be held?
Make your creative review something to look forward to. Getting out of your familiar office environment may help shake loose new ideas. A change of scenery can stimulate the mind and help set your creative session apart from more mundane gatherings, such as production meetings and budget reviews. Rent conference space at a nearby resort during the off season. At least once a year, make your creative session a real escape where you work until early afternoon, then spend the rest of the day on the ski slopes or the golf course.
Q: Which mailings should be analyzed in a creative review?
Review all mailings for which results are still coming in, or for which back-end results have been completed since the last creative meeting. Bring a history of closed results from recent years so that you don't unwittingly re-test unsuccessful ideas, and so that you can perhaps combine two ideas that didn't quite work on their own, but might succeed if incorporated into a single package.
Q: What data need to be gathered?
Ideally, the answer is nonesimply take the data that should already be sitting on your desk. At present, you should have a reporting system that includes gross and net for all test panels compared to the control. You should be looking at these reports nearly every dayweekly, at a bare minimumto get an early indication of potential winners, and to spot any irregularities in outgoing and incoming mail. If you have to gather data to have a creative review, it's time to institute new reporting procedures.
Remember that test data are not merely statistics, but feedback from your customers and prospects about their preferences. Try to see past the numbers and into the minds of your audience. Often you can learn as much about your market from failed tests as from winners.
Q: What topics should be on the agenda?
Start with a discussion of recent results. Use test results as an incentive. Either share good news that your past creative sessions have led to some new successesindicating your group must be doing something right in your creative meetingsor announce that recent tests have fallen short of the mark and it's time to really put your heads together to come up with some compelling ideas for the next mailing.
Try brainstorming for new offer tests as the first action item on your agenda; the easiest way to improve response is to improve your offer. Offer tests, which include price and premium tests, should comprise at least half of your test cells. Another reason to start your brainstorming with offer test ideas is that they often are easier to come up with than other types of new creative concepts. This warms up the meeting by getting everyone participating right off the bat. Challenge yourself to put 10 offer tests on the board, and you'll prime your meeting participants for bigger ideas as the session goes on.
Set a specific period during the meeting to brainstorm those outside-the-box breakthrough ideas. Time this segment of the agenda to hit once everyone is feeling loose, but well before they start checking their watches. Make it clear that all ideas are welcome and worthy, at least for the moment. Do not permit any criticism of ideas while brainstorming. Instead, encourage a free-flowing discussion where one idea leads to another and another and another. Keep it positive and fast paced. Try to push the brainstorming session several minutes beyond the point where the flow of ideas seems to diminish to a trickle; the best ideas often come at this time.
Wrap up your session by narrowing your list of test ideas down to those that seem most promising. Assign your best ideas specific mail dates. Also make a "B" list of ideas that may not make it into the next round of tests, but are worthy of further consideration by your creative team or at your next meeting. Be sure to capture all ideas for future reference.
End the meeting on a positive note, so that the next session will be looked forward to by all concerned.
Q: Is there any one area where many creative reviews fail, such as follow up/implementing changes based on results, or pre-review planning, etc.?
The devil is in the details; Murphy's Law and direct mail testing seem to be made for one another. It may sound obvious, but don't test anything you can't roll out. A gardening magazine once tested a packet of
tomato seeds as a freemium (free gift in the mailing). Results indicated this publisher had a powerful new controlat least until someone called the seed company and learned there would be a one-year lead time to grow enough seeds for the rollout.
Also triple-check for production gremlins, which seem to have a real appetite for test panels; look out for misaligned window positions and order devices that don't fit in the reply envelope. Pay very close attention to proper list selection and coding.
Finally, beware of creative designed by a committee. Let the copy and design team do the job you hired them to do. If editors or product managers want to make stylistic changes to test copy, tell them you'll be delighted to test their changes after the new creative becomes control. Editors can make valuable contributions to marketing, but I've seen their "copy fixes" depress response up to 15 percent in head-to-head tests.
Intelligent and aggressive creative testing based on an ongoing schedule of creative reviews can keep your direct marketing program healthy and strong, even in an uncertain economy. Just do it!
Mark Everett Johnson is a freelance copywriter in Hollis, NH. He is a former creative director and copy chief for a major publisher. He can be reached at (603) 465-3888.