Meet the Masters: Brook Holmberg
A native of Minnesota, Brook Holmberg began his direct marketing career at The Christian Science Monitor in 1993 as an assistant in the circulation department. Currently Holmberg is circulation directorat the helm of the Monitor's direct marketing. Paul Goldberg, a consultant and co-founder of Inside Direct Mail has said Holmberg is one of the smartest young men he has met in years. And in 2002, IDM's sister publication Target Marketing magazine named Holmberg Direct Marketer of the Year. We caught up with Holmberg at this year's Direct Marketing Association Annual Conference & Exhibition in Orlando, FL. He reflected on vouchers, the Internet's impact on circulation and presumably the worst possible time to have a package in the mail stream.
Q: What is your most memorable direct marketing moment?
A: Sept.11. Because we just dropped a million pieces on Sept. 10. So we had a few memorable weeks wondering what the effect was going to be on our mail. And then, right as response was coming in from the campaign, the anthrax hit. It was a very, very interesting time. Many [direct marketers] wondered what to do with their mail. A lot of mailers held their mail. We figured that since we're a newspaperespecially with an international news strengthpeople would want to be informed. We didn't change anything; amazingly enough, we got a 25-percent boost in response from the package.
Q: Out of all your direct mail tests, which results have been the most surprising to you?
A: One was a "free sample issue" mailing that we did a couple of years ago. We were looking for ways to increase response from our house lists. So we hatched the plan to send people a free issue. People say that these [offers] really don't work. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak," you hear. But we tried it just for fun, and actually we received a 50-percent increase in response. We were surprised. And three years later, it's still working very well for house lists. It's still our strongest format to win back former subscribers.
Q: What are the biggest prospecting challenges facing newspaper circulators right now?
A: I think the biggest problem is the Internet. I don't think newspapers know how to use it. You're seeing different models. You have the The Wall Street Journal model, which is a paid model, but they could only make that work as an add-on to their print base. It doesn't really work as a Web-only offer. You have the The New York Times model, which is a free model where you have to register. And they seem to be having a lot of success with getting people to sign up, but they're not making money [from circulation] on their site.
The biggest challenge is that you have this Web channel that all 20- and 30-somethings are using for their news. There's a whole generation that is getting their news online. The challenge is: How do we use the Web to capture this generation? And how do we get these people to read a newspaperand pay for it.
Q: Professional discount offers and vouchers are commonplace in direct marketing campaigns for newspapers. Many experts have questioned this format's effectiveness. Do you think it will hold up as a means to acquire new subscribers through the mail?
A: It's already lasted longer than people thought it would. It started out as a format fad, and then everyone started using it. People thought it would wear off like every format does, and it hasn't worn off yet. I think it's an interesting commentary on what you don't need to put in the direct mail package. You can go out just with the offer and win the order. [Vouchers] don't really work for us, but for Time and Newsweekthe big, mass-brand publicationsit could be a great alternative.
Q: One of the greatest direct mail sales letters of all time is Martin Conroy's "Two Young Men" letter for The Wall Street Journal. Do you feel that this type of emotional letter still has a place in newspaper appeals?
A: You wouldn't think so based on the voucher discussion, but it's what we use. The same thing that makes this letter work [for The Wall Street Journal], can work for anyone, because it's stressing how your life will be benefited by taking advantage of this offer. That's a very guttural, emotional appeal. That's the heart and soul of advertising.
Q: What marketing/advertising icon do you admire most?
A: Paul Goldberg. He's always been the person who has influenced me the most in direct marketing. And he's set a really good example for how you can take an industry like this and have a very strong, principled career. He's also very savvy.
The industry can be exciting, mundane and fun, and he's made me realize that there's a lot of different ways to approach it. When I think of great direct marketing, I think of Paul Goldberg's approach.