Magalogs - Send the Sizzle or the Steak (1,821 words)
by Denny Hatch
A direct mail format that has always baffled me is the magalog—that curious 81⁄2˝ x 11˝ booklet that is a cross between a magazine and a catalog.
The very first magalog was a self-mailer written by freelancer Dick Sanders and designed by freelancer William Fridrich in the mid-1980s for Dick Fabian's Telephone Switch Newsletter. Sanders' sales letters kept getting longer and longer, and he kept wanting to make them longer still. At the same time, the creative team felt the need to break up the information. Clearly a new format was needed, and since Fabian had done a self-mailer, Sanders and Fridrich took the envelope package and turned it into a big self-mailer that contained all the basic elements: premium page, lift letter, charts, sidebars, bind-in business reply envelope, premium page and a letter that was integrated into the piece. Their reasoning: Wherever the reader goes, there will be something of interest.
A year later, freelancer Jim Rutz and designer Ed Elliott (now with Phillips Publishing) created a magalog for Personal Finance under the direction of Vicki Moffitt. She, in turn, showed the format to the great direct mail freelancer Gary Bencivenga whose powerful subscription efforts for newsletters contained long letters—eight-, 12- and 16 pages and sometimes longer. Bencivenga came up with the idea of saddle stitching the letter into a booklet and adding a cover panel to make it look more like a special report than a sales pitch. In subsequent iterations, Bencivenga added charts and photos. It was Bencivenga, too, who coined the term "magalog" in a phone conversation with Vicki Moffitt.
In these early years, magalogs were printed in two colors. The inside back spread contained a series of free bonuses and the order form; a business reply envelope was bound in—often stapled in the center.
The old Bencivenga copy-heavy magalogs in two colors—in either typewriter or Times type on plain-jane offset paper—resembled a newsletter and looked like the actual product you would receive.
In the 1990s, newsletter writers and designers became more adventuresome and began adding color and, in order for the color to pop, started printing the magalogs on glossy paper. Today, the magalogs of, say, Rodale or Boardroom have all the snap, color and pizzazz of a magazine with hot illustrations, powerful cover lines and mini articles that promise salvation. What's odd about them is that they in no way resemble the product that is eventually shipped—a newsletter. Yet, this doesn't seem to matter; between the time they respond and the delivery of the first issue, customers evidently forget the original colorful promotion piece and are perfectly happy with the newsletter.
What's really different about many modern magalogs is the disappearance of the letter—the one thing that makes direct mail unique among all advertising media, that highly personal, intimate, me-to-you communication of any length that allows you to fire your sales message of any length at point blank range in the privacy of home or office.
A slick, high-powered magazine-like experience replaces the letter. Freelancer Lea Pierce said: "All direct mail is opened over the waste basket." And one of the axioms of direct mail is that the writer/designer has four seconds at best to get the reader's attention; if the envelope fails to do this, it is trashed.
Sizzle or Steak?
It was Elmer "Sizzle" Wheeler, super salesman of the 1950s and 1960s and Prentice-Hall superstar author whose motto was: "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." With few exceptions, the business of direct marketing is "selling the sizzle"—making the product or service sound so appealing that it will be ordered. Two exceptions:
1. Card Sets
International Masters Publishers (IMP) sells sets of colorful 4˝ square cards—recipes, animals, gardening information—that the customer (hopefully) will start collecting. The mailing package is always the product—a set of actual cards wrapped in poly or foil with all kinds of bells, whistles and scratch-offs. Promotional material—the letter, order form, brochure, etc.—is sandwiched in between the cards. This means no matter which way you open the package, colorful cards will come tumbling out onto the table or into your lap. Respond to the offer and you will receive a plastic box to hold the cards and sets of cards sent on a till-forbid basis (IMP will keep sending you cards until you forbid them to send any more).
A variation: Heritage House craft and hobby programs where the mailings contain three-hole-punched 81⁄2˝ x 11˝ cards or pages to be collected in a big binder sent to you free when you order the program. Western Publishing had a program for years on crocheting and Newbridge had a series of these on various subjects.
In these cases, the marketers are "sending the steak" rather than selling the sizzle.
Ever since I can remember, a debate has raged in the newsletter promotion world: Do you send an actual newsletter (the steak) or do you promise salvation (the sizzle)?
Advantages of sending an actual newsletter:
a) While the cost of the mailing may be higher, the prospect sees the product; there are no surprises.
b) Direct mail is interruptive. When you send a sample, up-front response to the offer may be lower, because the prospect starts reading the publication which interrupts the selling process—in effect, an interruption of the interruption. However, if the prospect likes what's in the sample, you may well get a committed subscriber, one who likes the product and will renew.
Disadvantages of sending an actual newsletter:
a) The interruption of the interruption (described above).
b) It goes without saying that some issues of magazines and newsletters are better than others—more relevant, more powerful. Send a "live" sample—the current issue—and it may not contain the very best editorial material and you are asking the prospect to judge your work on a weak issue.
c) This is key: Test, say, the September issue in late August and you have to wait until late September to early October to read the early results and decide whether or not to roll out. Even if you can turn around on a dime, the roll-out in late October will include the November issue. The November issue, however, is not the same as the September issue. Send out something different on a roll-out from a test, and the test is no longer valid.
The Sample or Specimen Issue
The solution to this problem is to create a special issue using the strongest "evergreen" material from past issues. Mail this with a letter promising more of the same and you should have an acquisition effort worth testing—a combination of sizzle and steak.
What's more, since this specimen issue will not vary from mailing to mailing, you can rely on test results (assuming, of course, the issue doesn't tell you how rich you will get in the stock market, only to have the stock market tank the day after you mail).
The Rukeyser Variation
What triggered this piece was a long-term control for Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street—the cover of which you see on page 33—which harks back to the old magalogs of the 1980s. This 16-page, 8 1⁄2˝ x 11˝ booklet, written by in-house copywriter Dan Moser, is printed in three colors on offset paper with no charts, graphs or illustrations except for two photos of Rukeyser and a design element that looks like a Rolodex card.
While it looks like a specimen issue, it isn't. Rather, it contains a promotional letter from Louis Rukeyser, two promotional letters from publisher Brian Smith, a Q&A interview with Louis Rukeyser and a short article by Rukeyser—"The Smartest Way to Get Rich in Wall Street."
The type throughout is a Times Roman serif face (with a few Helvetica headlines and subheads), so it is difficult to differentiate between the letters and the articles. This follows William Fridrich's rule that the letter should be seamlessly integrated into the piece rather than standing out on its own.
What's more, unlike many consumer newsletters, this one has a very soft offer—three months free with a bill-me option: If I decide that Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street is not for me—and I am the sole judge of that—I will write "cancel" on the invoice and send it back. That will end the matter—with no cost or obligation to me.
A feature I have never seen before: the various mailings are identical in every way, with the exception that the date in the upper left-hand corner is changed; we received the same mailings several months running, but with different dates: September 1997, October 1997, January 1998. This gives the impression of a current issue, when, in fact, it is the same specimen issue each time.
Why Magalogs Work
My own guess is that magalogs—with all their glitz and glamour—are often plucked from the day's mail, laid aside and stacked for later reading, along with Time, Newsweek, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Forbes and Fortune and various favorite catalogs. The result: When it comes time to read a magalog, the mindset is in a different place than it would be when looking for the highly intimate correspondence of a letter. Vicki Moffitt agreed with this theory, pointing out that the ordering cycle for magalogs is longer than for traditional envelope mailings.
Magalogs are time consuming to create. Bill Bonner likens writing and designing a magalog to creating an entire issue of Time magazine. And they are expensive to produce; a 16-pager can run as high as $1,000/M in the mail (including postage, production and list rental) for a small test to $600/M in larger quantities—more than a traditional envelope mailing.
For that reason, magazines—with their relatively low subscription rates—can't afford to use them. (The exception: The Economist which is a fairly expensive weekly.)
I have seen the magalog used for kitchen gadgets—the long-term Herschell Gordon Lewis control for the Vita-Mix food processor and Drew Alan Kaplan's DAK Industries wonderful bread maker (which I ordered many years ago and still use). Alas, Kaplan's Japanese banker went belly-up and called in his loans, whereupon DAK collapsed.
If you test a magalog, make sure your product selling price is high enough to support it. And take consultant Paul Goldberg's advice: more than 16 pages will kill you in terms of expense; if you start with a 16-pager and it's successful, then try to cut it down to 12 pages and you'll save yourself a bundle.
Finally, for an interesting tour of the magalog, visit William Fridrich's Web site at www.fridrichdesign.com.
DENNY HATCH is the former editor-in-chief of Target Marketing and the newsletter Who's Mailing What!. Now consulting editor to Target Marketing, he operates Denny Hatch Associates, a direct mail copywriting and consulting business. Hatch can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (215) 627-9103.