Playing With Formats
When a Little Tweak Won't Do, Your Offer Continues to Prove its Mettle and Your Copy is King, Go for the Gusto With a Format Change
By Hallie Mummert
From the minute they become controls, winning direct mail packages start their slowor not so slowdescent into diminished response.
The easiest course of action is to make minor tweaks to prolong the effectiveness of the control: change the outer envelope, add a sticker token, or spiff up the offer a tad with a premium or discount.
Short of testing brand new creative, a change in format is a more radical move that could pay big dividends.
And, if you've already found a winning offer and creative concept, it makes sense to see what other formats might work for your audience.
A Natural Progression
Smart direct marketers continually apply what they learn in testing to further refine their direct mail programs, striving for optimum performance, says Pat Friesen, a direct response creative strategist and copywriter.
Friesen remembers from her days working with Fingerhut how the merchandise marketer and cataloger would test out quite a few creative approaches in a 6" x 9" envelope format, since this format tended to pull the best response from customers. If a concept worked, then the firm would move on to a self-mailer format to save production costs and, hopefully, gain a second control. And if the self-mailer worked, Fingerhut could be more confidant about testing any variety of formats it felt could accurately communicate the creative message.
A similar sense of adventure can be seen in the newsletter publishing sector. As detailed in the July issue of Inside Direct Mail ("Personal Finance Looks Beyond the Self-mailer," page 22), freelance copywriter Kim Krause Schwalm's 81/2" x 11" issue-log (also known as a specimen issue) for Personal Finance needed a change in presentation; she and freelance designer Lori Haller put it in a #10 envelope and added a stand-alone order form and insert to promote the premiums offered with payment.
This format change resulted in a pretty significant lift, Schwalm asserts.
And she's not the only freelancer who likes this technique for issue-logs and magalogs. Schwalm points out that renowned copywriter Gary Bencivenga, who is credited with evolving and elevating the magalog format to what it is today, has said that format changes are far more productive than headline changes for newsletter publishers who use specimen issues as marketing tools. Since specimen issues typically are designed to mimic the product they sell, a head-line or a color scheme test doesn't tend to provide enough lift to make a difference in response results.
A format change for an issue-log need not be a radical departure to generate improved return. Schwalm explains that numerous newsletter companies will test an issue-log in the popular 81/2" x 11" size, but then start to trim the dimensions to see if cost savings can be balanced by only a dip in response. For example, she says, publishers can move from a tabloid to an 81/2" x 11" to a slim-jim to a digest-size self-mailer. And you don't necessarily have to cut content. Schwalm took a client's 16-page tabloid issue-log to a 32-page slim-jim, and cut costs even with the larger folio.
In general, says Friesen, when you take your full-dress control package and start stripping it down to lower costs, you pull out some of the special touches that gave the package its longevity. That said, when the refinement is done carefully, she adds, you should end up with a high-performing effort.
This is why it can be very hard to beat a control that has been tweaked and tested to the point of maximum efficiency, Friesen notes. Rarely can you find a new approach that beats the fine-tuned control handily enough to cover the cost differential.
While most direct marketers focus on backing costs out of a new control by tackling the most expensive elements firstsuch as the brochure or the insertsit might be worthwhile to take a look at miniaturizing the package. Both Consumer Reports and Health & Nutrition Letter have taken #10 and #11 envelope control efforts and shrunk them down to #73/4 envelope packages.
Another way to avoid the complicated decision of what to take out of your beloved control is to add, instead. How's that for contrarian?
Marty Edelston, founder of newsletter and book publishing firm Boardroom Inc., has said in the past that he finds his mailings do better when he adds more elements to them, rather than taking something out.
Friesen supports the more is better mentality, encouraging direct marketers to focus on raising response to controls, not just cutting costs.
Format-wise, this philosophy translates into taking, say, a 6" x 11" envelope package and blowing it up to a 9" x 12". Or, into tweaking the mailing size and/or configuration so that you can add a product sample.
Schwalm points out that when she is asked to take a control she created and make it stronger, she tries to keep in mind that in a given mail drop, she might only have two test panels for her test ideas; the marketer often is using the other test panels for its own testing objectives. Thus, her ideas have to count in a big way to stand a shot at bagging better response.
The Inline Option
In the past five years, I have noticed more and more conventionally produced mailings being converted to
inline-produced efforts. Some examples include Omaha Steaks' "Favor of a Reply" certificate mailing by Herschell Gordon Lewis and Easter Seals' address labels control.
Because most printing companies that do inline production offer specific formats, the size of marketers' conventional envelope efforts tend to change with inline production, usually going up a little in size; most of the mailers' copy and creative stays the same as in the control. The real benefits from this production method are strong personalization capabilities as well as the increased options for adding sticker tokens and scratch-offs.
But here's the trade-off: Production experts agree that you should not even think about inline production unless you can commit to printing at least 250,000 pieces at a time; the press set-up is far too involved, and thus costly, to make this production method cost effective without high volume to bring down expense per piece. Keep in mind that the additional bells and whistles you can incorporate throughout your inline-produced effort tend to raise response, helping cover the extra costs of inline production.
Don't Forget Who You Are
Before you go crazy experimenting with different formats like a high school girl trying on prom dresses, remember the golden rule of format selection: Form follows function.
Schwalm advises news-letter publishers and other marketers of information-based products to stay true to their goals as content sellers. This means sticking to meatier formats that instantly get across the message that the product being sold is information. To test out of a tabloid-size magalog into a triple postcard takes a big leap of faith and some solid reasoning, preferably backed by some kind of quantitative evidence.
Don't Go It Alone
When you're not making any major creative changes to a control mailing, it's tempting to think that the original creative team isn't needed to combine two inserts into one or create an outer envelope for a magalog. But, says Friesen, what seems like a tiny change to a control can have significant impact on response if it's an integral part of the creative concept.
You may not need to hire them to do the conversion, but paying your copywriter and/or designer a consulting fee to review your proposed ideas on format changes and resulting content revisions could save you precious testing budget dollars.