Famous Last Words: A Direct Marketing Horror Story
Many years ago, Meredith Book Clubs, headquartered on Long Island, N.Y., lost $250,000—a considerable sum in 1968. I was hired to fix the problem.
The offer was neat—seven mini-cookbooks as a free gift with (as I recall) a four-book commitment and bonus books, just like Book-of-the-Month or Literary Guild.
However, I was stunned to learn many brand new members were canceling before they even received the premiums. It was truly mystifying.
The first thing a new member should have received was the welcome package containing the seven free books; a warm, welcome letter that resold the benefits of the club; and precise instructions on how the negative option system worked.
It turned out that in its zeal to turn members into buying members, the computer department took it upon itself to short-circuit the normal fulfillment process and get the current announcement package into the hands of the new members along with everybody else. This announcement arrived before the welcome kit, and the new member did not have a clue what to do. Since Meredith Book Clubs was a negative option book club, this meant that if the member didn’t return the rejection/do-not-ship slip by a certain date, a book was coming.
The next thing the new member received was an unordered book and an invoice, which created a feeling of being ripped off. The book was returned and the member canceled.
I got into a fight with the old guy who was head of the computer department. He said patronizingly, “Statistically, it doesn’t matter. The money we take in early in the membership more than makes up for the cancellations.”
“It matters to me,” I said. “I will not allow my new members to be treated so shabbily.”
The next step was to find out how long it took for the seven premium books and welcome kit to reach new members, so the negative option process would be understood, and angry customers would stop returning unordered books.