Getting Wise About the Why
In direct marketing, we almost always know WHAT happenswhether the mailing, print ad or e-mail campaign works to meet or exceed objectives. And we almost never know WHY.
Why does a particular list, selected for testing after a number of successes with very similar lists, fail? Why does certain envelope teaser copy work for a company in one state and not in another, when the target demographics in both states are identical?
Many direct marketers will say, "We don't need to ask why. We're pragmatists who go with what works and don't care why it works." They'll get close to the "why" with what I call "diagnostic testing." In other words, try a random series of tweaks to see if any element or technique shines through as the real champion.
Early in my career, when I ran subscriber acquisition mailings for Business Week, my second test against the inherited control was a roaring success. But no one knew why.
Was it the envelope teaser copy ("How to have a silver tongue, golden touch and mind like a steel trap")? Or was it the fact that the four-free issues offer had been merchandised so well (it was merely inserted into the control)? Was it the rub-off device on the response form (an innovation in circulation in those days)? Or the great lift letter, which later on was turned into a four-color brochure? We didn't know. So we tested element after element: two free issues vs. four; a response form without a rub-off device; elimination of the lift letter, etc. Each component test proved the whole was more than the sum of its parts, and yet we still never really knew why the "silver tongue" package did so well.
Discover the Why With Research
Knowing the "why" can cut rounds of expensive, time-consuming testing, and help you achieve quantum leaps in response.
One example comes from the work my firm did for a number of years with Hanover Fire & Casualty Insurance. The first breakthrough developed from reading through reports from focus group sessions that had been conducted six months prior to the hiring of my firm. We saw two themes that hadn't been played up in Hanover's direct mail, and made them the focal point of two packages that both doubled the response of the control.
The bigger breakthrough came from the next round of focus groups a year later. We learned that prospects really didn't understand the language the company was using to sell its product. New packages used the prospect's terminology, and beat our previous controls. We would never have achieved these results without probing for the "why" through marketing research.
An older example arose in work for Chase Manhattan Investment Services. The client and my firm went into focus group sessions with a package we thought was a sure winner. Reception to it was so bad, we tucked it away after the first two groups. Out from our briefcases came a much simpler concept we hadn't thought much of before the research process started. But participants in the groups loved its lack of artifice, and it went on to become a control. This package may never have been tested without marketing research suggesting it was worthy of a shot.
Research Is Great, But ...
Currently, my firm is working with a marketer of an expensive hair treatment device. In this case, the medium is direct response print ads, but it could just as easily be direct mail. The company has taken a slapdash approach to testing to date, and needs to look at creative strategies that will make the phone ring.
We presented to the marketer five different approaches, and a variety of headlines and subheads within each one:
1. Technology/news. This technology has resulted in outstanding user satisfaction.
2. Guarantee. The company offers an extraordinarily long trial period.
3. The pain of hair loss, and how that pain can be stopped.
4. "Are you a candidate?," a self-qualifying quiz.
5. The Victor Khayyam ploy, e.g., the inventor of the
device is suffering from hair loss, etc.
This marketer has been spending $30,000 a month on print media buys. If an ad doesn't work, the phone doesn't ring. Because it lacks the time to do prolonged testing and the ability to track results carefully, we suggested conducting research before running the ads.
The problem is that flesh-and-blood focus groups are terribly expensive to run. For the cost of two groups, you can mail 25,000 pieces of a reasonably priced package or buy remnant space in a few major market newspapers. And research pros often will tell you that you need four groupstwo groups in two different locations. Marketers, as in this case, also complain that focus group results are warped, because they are attended only by the segment of the population that wants to make money from attending focus group sessions.
Now, many direct marketers are finding out the "why" of campaign performance beforehand or after the fact by conducting qualitative research online. There is a cost to this as well. The fee for showing five different test ads and the control to 250 participants in an online survey is around $12,000, including analysis and reporting. However, the marketing research people tell me there's even more chance of getting mammon-motivated participants online than with focus groups.
Let's assume for a moment that the online research approach does have validity. Does it make economic sense to "get wise about the why"? In the case of the hair treatment marketer it does, because of the universe potential and what the company is spending on media. If the research simply serves to help us eliminate sure losers, it will have been worthwhile. (If this client does go ahead with the research, I'll report on what happened in a future column.)
Here are other circumstances under which you should invest in marketing research:
* If you are not sure if direct marketing is the right business model for your product or service. Example: Decades ago I was involved in a mailing for a prepaid legal service for small businesses. The test was a miserable failure, and so we did follow-up phone calls to see why. Had we spent a bit more money up front, we would have learned that small businesses could not conceive of purchasing such a product through the mail.
* When you are committed to direct marketing, but you do a launch and nothing worksor everything works. The results of the campaigns won't tell you what to do next.
* To come up with new approaches when the creative well is dry. I don't mean changing the envelope teaser from "Official Notification" to "Confidential. Secure Documents Enclosed." If, for example, you have to move away from sweepstakes to another message platform, get to understand the other "whys" behind response motivation before you go out into the mail.
Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high-tech, and B-to-B marketing. He works with direct response agencies in addition to having his own clients. Read more of Stein's articles at www.leemarcstein.com.