In Praise of Dry Testing
By Denny Hatch
When Don Jackson and I put together "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success," Internet marketing was in its formative stages. Not much space in the book was given over to e-commerce. At one point, I'd planned to do a book detailing how all the old rules of direct marketing that go back to the year 1196 (the year Chartres cathedral burned to the ground and the first direct mail fund-raising campaign was launched) could be applied to the Web, but I got sidetracked.
What spawned this column was the acquisition of two clients who built extraordinary Internet-based businesses—with fabulous Web sites—and then decided to talk to marketing people to figure out how to make money on them. I'm not talking small bucks here. One guy spent $2 million on a financial services site; the other spent $6 million on a newsletter and database. Neither thought through who would subscribe, what to charge, what the offer should be or what medium to use. Rather they put all their cash and energy into creating the Web sites and assumed that marketing was a field of dreams. "Build it and they will come," said Kevin Costner.
"Build it and they will come is BS," said the late Philadelphia developer Willard Rouse. "Build it, sell the hell out of it, and they will come!"
The FTC has always disallowed dry tests—sending out an offer for a product that does not exist—because you're prohibited from offering a product or service that you cannot fulfill within 30 days. Dry tests are okay if it's clearly spelled out in the mailing that the product does not exist. But that destroys the validity of the test mailing, because it will have to be changed if the test is successful, and the product is created. Even if you make a free offer and don't ask for any payment, the FTC will scream bloody murder. Yet it's far more sensible to send out a test mailing to see if your idea fogs the mirror, than it is to go to the huge expense of creating a product and hoping it will sell.
Wet Test vs. Dry Test
I have another client—a European book club—that decided to launch in the United States by translating its highly successful mail piece and books into American English and offering them to 100,000 prospects on four lists. It was hoping for 2,000 subscribers to fulfill four cycles and then quit, so it could read both front-end and back-end response, and decide whether or not to continue. We got 2,950 subscribers with some lists pulling better than 4 percent. The client is now in the process of analyzing retention and payments, while the U.S. marketing team works on the September continuation (if there is to be one).
Many years ago, a client of mine did a series of market research surveys and came up with nine potentially winning projects—seven books (or series of books), a continuity card series for Civil War buffs, and a needlepoint continuity series (Frederic Remington cowboy paintings on pillows or chair seats, if you can believe it). I was hired to write and design the dry test packages. Eight of the nine did just fine (you can guess which one bombed). We never asked for money or for a credit card number. Delay letters were written to all who ordered, the products were produced, and the company made a ton of money.
However, at one point, the client's corporate lawyers were getting skittish over the idea of dry tests and the
violation of FTC rules. They wanted to say on the mailing, in effect, "This product does not exist," which would have been a deal killer.
My client and his lawyers went round and round on this point, and finally settled on a line of type they felt would satisfy the FTC. In 9-point type under the name and address on the order card was the following line of copy:
This offer is contingent on a sufficient number of orders being received.
What happened? This line of copy raised response 15 percent! Yep. What's more, it was tested again and the increase held. Ultimately it was used on every single mailing that went out of the place—even on products that had been around for years. Response to everything went up 15 percent.
It was a banner year for my client!
Denny Hatch, contributing editor, consultant and freelance copywriter, is the author of the books "Method Marketing" and (with Don Jackson) "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success." Visit him online at www.methodmarketing.com.