How I Beat the Control: A Devilish Idea Turns Into One Hell of a Control
Free Inquiry is not your run-of-the-mill, small-circulation magazine. Published by the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y., its readers probably spend considerably more time thinking about ethics and morality than the average American. Even so, they're not exactly the kind of people you'd expect to meet on their way to church.
I'll come right out and say it: The magazine is for people who don't believe in God. Or at the very least, are undecided.
A glossy bimonthly, Free Inquiry features a mix of hard-hitting exposés on the foibles of clergy and organized religion and thoughtful essays relating to the impact of religion and secular humanism on current events, and vice versa.
The editor, Tom Flynn, found me in the Who's Charging What! directory and called: His control acquisition package wasn't pulling the way it used to. Could I help beat his weary control?
In the Beginning
The control consisted of a #10 envelope, a four-page letter, a lift note with an endorsement from Sir Arthur Clarke and a reply form. It was a two-color job on cheap paper. The offer was a price break for first-time subscribers and a free copy of a book called Imagine There's No Heaven, containing some of the best articles previously printed in Free Inquiry.
My assessment was that the offer wasn't bad, the premium wasn't bad, and even the cheesy two-color print job wasn't bad. It was the content that needed an overhaul.
Here's where my own mail prejudices came into play. I believe that in nearly all magazine subscription advertising, content rules supreme. People will subscribe if they like to read about the kinds of things your package promises them they'll find in the publication and not because the paper looks nice. But for this to work, the copy has to feel impassioned and carry a truckload of attitude.
I'm also a great believer in starting to sell at length right on the outside of the envelope. No one-line teasers for me. I like fragrant, thick-and-rich copy that makes the recipient hungry to read more of what's inside.
Inspiration for a compelling package ought to come straight from the publication you're selling. So I read about two years' worth of Free Inquiry, and got worked up into a lather over what I had read. I used the copy-writing equivalent of "method" actingdigging deep into your own psyche for emotional ammunition. It almost always works.
I wrote three packages. The first two were almost physical duplicates of the control: #10 envelope, two-color printing, four-page letters, etc. I also kept the offer. My rationale was that if you change too many elements you'll never learn what it was about any package that worked or didn't work. Only the content was different.
One outer envelope teaser began:
Who's winning in the battle to run your life, censor your thoughts, control your body, and shape the views and judgment of your kids?
A list of bullet-points and a sum-up paragraph followed. The Johnson box also piled on the righteous fury:
Even when it's over it isn't over: Not the war over Darwin. Not the fight to outlaw abortion. Not even the effort to indoctrinate your children with somebody else's religious beliefs. One magazine dares focus on issues like these. ...
A second package teased with a list of people who'd never endorse Free Inquiry:
Rev. Jerry Falwell, President George Walker Bush, Mullah Omar, Rev. Pat Robertson, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr. Eric Rudolph, The Taliban, Rev. Franklin Graham, Mr. Osama Bin Ladin, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican strategist Ralph Reed ... and many others.
The Johnson box read:
There is no limit to shame. There is no limit to contemptibility. There is no limit to how far some people will go, in violation of truth, taste and common decency when they try to control what you think and how you behave. Fortunately our readers enjoy a counterbalance of truth and opinion. So let me tell you about Free Inquiry.
Flynn and his board initially decided to test the first letter, even though he admitted that some of them liked package #3 better. Package #3?
The Devil Inside
Package #3 was, I warned Flynn, creatively a bit over the top. (Actually what I said was, "The devil made me do it.")
It was more expensive than the control. To make it work I had to use a 6" x 9" envelope and four-color printing, which in turn called for coated stock. I wrote only a two-page letter, but accompanied it with a four-page, four-color brochure. With the larger envelope, I also was able to use both the front and back to full advantage.
More importantly, it broke a rule that had been drummed into me by direct response gurus ever since I sat in one of David Ogilvy's training classes back in the year ... well, never mind the year. The package dared use a bit of humor, tweaking the noses of the religious right, rather than just railing at them.
The envelope front (see opposite) reproduced a medieval painting of hell and featured a 44-word teaser that warned:
For many centuries the world's most opinionated fuddy-duddies have known exactly where independent thinkers who write, edit, publish, read or discuss magazines like FREE INQUIRY will end up.
And that was even before we decided to tempt you with one Hell of an offer.
The back of the envelope left room for even more copy, and I used every inch:
Atheists and fundamentalists ... population and pop culture ... iconoclasts and ayatollahs ... Darwin and Dawkins ... Hitler and Hitchens ... LaHaye and Hell ... monotheism and microchips ... Jesus and Islam and Britney Spears and Mother Teresa and motherhood aborted and much, much more.
It takes one hell of a magazine to dare be controversial about all these subjects and write from a distinctively humanistic point-of-view. Find out how you can subscribe with a saving of $15.05 or more. Open this envelope now!
Although official direct mail wisdom says that the letter is more important than the brochure, in this case it was the brochure on which I lavished the most attention. The cover warned:
If you wish to avoid spending eternity roasting in Hell, do not open and read this brochure.
I figured this strategy would tempt at least some readers to look inside. Those who did were rewarded with a surprising bit of flattery:
Well, good for you! Since you're the type who can't be cowed by ancient beliefs meant to terrify you into submission, we think you're also the type who'd enjoy FREE INQUIRY magazine. ...
The brochure itself read like a little magazine, with pictures and text summarizing some of the articles that had appeared in the magazine, before getting back to the offer on the third page.
The theme was carried through on the reply form. Instead of the traditional acceptance, "Yes, I'll ...," this one began, "Hell YES!" Since I had unallocated space on the back of the reply form, I used it to poke fun at Satan himself, with the text encouraging readers to call a toll-free number or turn over and fill out the reply card so they could stay abreast of the latest in the war between the devil and religion.
Of course, no direct mail package would be complete without a letter. The Johnson box on this one began:
If you're more concerned about living a valuable life than assuring yourself an afterlife, I'd like to make you one HELL of an offer. I think you'll like it.
Free Inquiry's own talented art director, Lisa Hutter, took all of my rough homemade Quark comps and turned them into a striking design that surely helped the package.
The #10 package dropped first. A month later I knew I hadn't beaten the control with that one. "Don't worry," said Flynn. "I'm still pushing for the package we really like."
It took almost a year, but last summer he persuaded the doubters to try the third package. Soon after it mailed in November 2004, orders began swarming in. I am forbidden to reveal the exact response rate, but he did tell me, "You can say that your piece lifted response 35 percent." So that's what I'm saying.
Clearly, a bit of playfulness can trump unmitigated righteous rage when it comes to building response. The new control demonstrates that people who read magazines for entertainment as well as information and ideas may respond better when the package is entertaining, too. And to that I say hallelujah!
Peter Hochstein, a former creative vice president at Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy Direct and Rapp Collins, has been running his own creative one-man band since 1995. His specialties include magazine and newsletter acquisition, B-to-C financial, DR radio and "a huge and rapidly expanding category known as 'miscellaneous.'" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.