How to Be Less Creative - Remember What Works!
Do you ever get the feeling that there's too much creativity in our business? The non-stop pressure from clients to come up with something new and different. The endless exhortations at direct marketing conventions to "break the rules." The not-so-subtle influence of awards judges who reserve their biggest trophies for packages that break new ground.
In this relentless drive to be original, we have a tendency to ignore the things that have worked well in the past. But all the evidence suggests that we ourselves become bored with certain techniques and strategies long before our customers do. Here are seven ideas that have been around since J. Peterman was wearing short pants. I didn't come up with them. You didn't come up with them. In some cases, we don't know who came up with them. But we do know this: They work!
#1. The Membership Card
I started out in this business designing and writing membership cards for various state Republican Party organizations. One of my designs for the Colorado Republican Party later showed up on the state's license plate, leading me to believe that someone in the Colorado prison system must've been a Republican! I got so sick of seeing membership cards that I never wanted to see one again. For years afterwards, whenever I was given an assignment to beat a control package with a membership card, my first thought was, "Let's ditch the card." After all, I figured, plastic membership cards cost money. Even if I don't beat the package on raw response, I can win on the bottom line. Makes sense, right? Problem is, it never worked. I never once was able to beat a card package without using a card myself.
Nowadays I've come to believe that the only problem with membership cards is that we don't use them enough. They're not just for non-profit organizations. Any company that has a loyal following should be able to make some use of them. Instead of giving your customer a discount, give her a discount card. If you're selling magazines, come up with a lifetime subscription offer and promote it with a "Lifetime Subscriber Card." The possibilities are endless.
The same goes for opinion surveys. I tried for years to buck them, but I was beaten so often I finally gave in. Like the membership card, it's wrong to relegate this powerful technique to fund raising. When you stop and think about it, offering a free quiz in your headline"Do You Make These Mistakes in English?"is a kind of survey. You might also consider connecting a survey with a generous discount for your loyal customers. Tell them that if they fill out your opinion poll, you'll give them half-price on your wonderful new product. You don't have to tell them you were planning to give them half-price anyway! (Of course, be sure to check with your attorney before you get too... er, creative with these things.)
#3. The Lift Letter
I knew the man who invented the lift letter, and he was one of the true maverick geniuses of direct mail. Paul Michael was working for Greystone Press when one day he started thinking about all the people who did not respond to his mailings. So he folded a slip of paper in half, put it in his typewriter, and wrote, "Open this only if you have decided not to buy." Then he unfolded the paper, put it back in his typewriter, and began to write a short letter with the immortal words, "Dear Friend: Frankly, I'm puzzled."
Why does the line, "Open this only if you've decided not to buy," work so well? It's like "Wet Paint!" Warn someone not to do something and you can be pretty sure he'll do it. But ironically, the classic lift letter is not really aimed at people who have decided not to buy. In direct mail, those people are a lost cause. The letter was really aimed at people who have almost decided to buy, but have one or two questions that are holding them back. Overcoming last-minute objections is the classic use of a lift letter, and it's still the best.
#4. The Invitation
The late, great copywriter Linda Wells was so fond of using an invitation approach in her copy that she scarcely ever wrote a package without it. Her modus operandi was to write "The favor of a reply is requested" on the outer envelope, begin the letter with the word "Congratulations!" (for being selected to receive the invitation), and slap the initials "R.S.V.P." on the reply card. Trite? Overdone? Obvious? You bet. But don't bet against it. In Denny Hatch's book, "Million Dollar Mailing$," he mentions a test conducted by the Harvard Medical School Letter between a Bill Jayme teaser and a simple invitation approach. The Jayme line read, "Yes or no. Food is more fattening when you eat it at night." The invitation approach said, you guessed it, "The favor of a reply is requested." Do I have to tell you which won?
#5. The Johnson Box
Frank Johnson passed away just a few months ago, and he went to his grave denying that he invented the technique of putting the offer surrounded by a box of asterisks above the salutation. But whether he invented it or not, he was mighty fond of using it. I once heard a hotshot creative director from one of the big New York agencies give a speech in which he said that he would fire any copywriter in his employ who fell back on using the "incredibly trite" Johnson Box. I can't remember this guy's name, but I'm sure he was fired a long time ago. Because Johnson Boxes work.
The reason Frank Johnson liked the technique so much was because it gives the copywriter some "cover" when he tries an offbeat, slow-developing or narrative leadthe kind of lead Johnson wrote so well. If you want to start your letter with a story, by all means do so. But make sure you watch your back with a Johnson Box.
#6. The Yes/No/Maybe Offer
Many people credit John Francis Tighe with inventing this little gem. He's the soft-spoken freelancer who used to write a popular column in Direct Marketing magazine called "Beat Your Own Control." Don't try to beat your own control if it has a Yes/No/Maybe offer, though, because it won't be easy. The genius of this offer is that it paints the customer into a corner from which there is no escape other than to buy your product. Interestingly, I don't recall ever seeing this technique used for anything other than comp-issue subscription promotions. Why not, I wonder? This offer should be applicable to any product where "Yes" means the customer agrees to buy the product immediately and "Maybe" means she'll try it without risk for a period of time.
#7. The Merchandise Return Label
The Merchandise Return Label is a guarantee with a turbocharger in its tailpipe! Not only do you give your customer her money back if she returns your product, but you let her send it back at your expense. By making the product seem easy and free to return, you make it much more likely that she will order it in the first place. Once the product is in her hands, however, the usual rules of inertia apply. Label or no label, most people find it easier to hang on to a product and pay the invoice than to send it back. The entire Rodale Press publishing empire (Prevention magazine, Men's Health, etc.) is built upon the Merchandise Return Label. But they don't have a patent on it! Like all of these techniques, the Merchandise Return Label is an idea that's been done before... but not done enough!