Beat Your Control
Recently, I received a phone call from a B-to-B marketer in Denver who said he needed help beating his 10-year control mailing.
There’s no bigger, more rewarding and more frightening challenge than being asked to try to beat a control that’s withstood years of testing.
What does it take to overpower a direct mail workhorse that has been in the mail for 10, even 20 years? While I’ll quickly admit I don’t have a perfect track record, I’ve had the chance to learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t. What follows are some tips for you to try as you develop your own control-beating strategies.
Dissect the Control
If you’re a freelancer or someone outside the company, start by making sure you understand all elements of the offer, as well as the audience, competition, and key objections to buying or responding. Every decision you make hinges on this information. Then, dissect the control. You need to understand why and how the control works. Analyze how the offer is presented by format, copy and design. Although you’re analyzing a winner, don’t be intimidated. What you’re looking for is missed opportunities. These are the building blocks for your control-beating test package.
For starters, what are the elements of the control that help it get past the mail screener? Does it look important? Personal? Valuable? If you can get your test mailing into more of the right hands, there’s a good chance you’ll also generate more response.
So, how about using live postage instead of the preprinted indicia? Or adding a person’s name to the return address above the company logo? To the person screening the mail, an envelope with a stamp that’s from an individual may look more important than one from a company.
Once the mailing is in the right hands, what is it about the control that gets it opened and read? The outside of your mailing is key to generating control-beating response. Pay as much attention to the size, shape, color and paper stock as you do to the copy and design. Now, what can you add, subtract or enhance to increase reader involvement starting with the outside of the mailing?
If you’re drawing a blank, look to your offer and testimonials for ideas. For example, how about using a testimonial or a clip from a testimonial as the outside teaser copy on the front or back of the envelope? Would a photo of your offer be more compelling than the teaser copy shown on the current control?
Your next question: What makes the inside components intriguing and compelling? Again, don’t limit yourself to copy or design. Think about four-color versus two-color printing, the size and shape of each component, personalization—what makes one component stand out more than another? What can you do better or differently to drive more “eye traffic” to benefit copy and response options?
If the mailing is a solo piece, keep in mind you can’t control which component (letter, brochure, response device, lift letter, sample, etc.) gets seen and read first. You also don’t know which one gets retained for a delayed response. For this reason, check to see if the control repeats the offer and response options (mail, phone, fax, e-mail, Web site) on each piece. If not, consider adding them.
As you review the format, copy and creative, make a checklist of all the offer elements. Prioritize them. Are the top two or three benefits communicated effectively in teasers, headlines, subheads, photo captions and bullets? Or, has an opportunity been missed?
As a newly hired senior writer at Fingerhut, I was fascinated by the company’s free trial offer. I’d never seen anything like it. A Fingerhut customer didn’t buy a product, he or she tried it, sending money only after a satisfactory free trial. While the free trial was mentioned in the control letter, brochure and on the reply card, it was not the focus of any of the mailing components.
So, when given the assignment to try to beat the control, I wrote a letter to menswear shoppers dedicated to the free 14-day wear test. The letter stood out because it was on yellow paper, not white like the control. Signed by the owner, the letter explained Fingerhut really did want customers to do more than just try on their selections. Customers were encouraged to wear the shirts, slacks, suits, even shoes for two weeks before deciding whether or not to buy them. This simple one-page note significantly outperformed the control and gave me my first taste of what it was like to create a winner. However, it wasn’t rocket science. I simply capitalized on a missed opportunity.
Look at the Competition
In addition to beating the control, you also have to beat the competition. That’s why it’s a good idea to invest time in reviewing competitive mailings. Look for points of product or offer differentiation that the existing control doesn’t address effectively. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Let’s say your widget’s battery life is five times longer than the competitors’, and the current control doesn’t highlight this fact. This is noteworthy. In fact, this may be a major benefit that saves your customer money and time. If so, it may deserve a testimonial lift letter or an insert featuring third-party research. Anything you can add to make your product stand out and make comparison shopping easier for the customer has the potential to dramatically increase response.
More Tips for Generating More Response
Here are some additional suggestions I’ve learned from experience and from great writers such as Bob Stone, Joan Throckmorton, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Denny Hatch.
• Is your assignment to create an entirely new test package or to beat the control? If it’s the latter, a completely new package may not be necessary. Maybe all you need is to change the color or size of the control outer envelope. Or enclose a free product sample. Free samples create lumps that generate intrigue and increase response.
• What about adding an insert to emphasize a valuable benefit? An insurance company had a solo mailing that had outperformed test mailings for over two decades. The offer was one month’s coverage for a quarter. Buried in small type was the added benefit that a spouse could also get one month’s coverage for 25 cents. By adding a simple two-color insert that promoted the spouse’s coverage, the number of lives insured per mail piece increased more than enough to pay for the insert. Plus, the overall number of applications generated per thousand increased by 45 percent.
• Is a new format in order? Sometimes the best idea is to use a totally different format—as in the case of a skin care company using a catalog for prospecting. Not only was the catalog a costly format, it failed to focus the prospect’s attention on the three products proven to be the most popular with first-time buyers. These products were buried in the 28-page catalog. However, in a solo mailing, they became heroes and generated more first-time customers and customers who spent more.
One final note. You may be wondering about the B-to-B marketer in Denver who wanted help beating his 10-year control. The control and two test packages mailed earlier this month. Stay tuned for results!