Profile - The Utne Reader (1,651 words)
Editor's Note: This article contains information originally reported in the newsletter Who's Mailing What! and the book "Million Dollar Mailings" by Denny Hatch.
In the days of vaudeville, the great performers---Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice----were constantly traveling across the country. Each time they appeared, they would try a new bit of business----maybe a new joke, a new dance step or whatever. If the audience responded positively, it would remain as part of the act. Fifty-two weeks later, when these performers came back to perform your town, it was basically a new act, one that had been gradually changed and perfected over the last year.
Direct mail control packages could be thought of as great vaudeville performers where the material can be constantly tweaked and tested. You try a new letter; test a token on the order card; cash in on a recent news story. If a small change can improve response 5 percent here, 7 percent there, you'll have a control getting stronger, rather than weaker.
This creative process is called "adaptive"—as you adapt what you have. (The opposite kind of creative is known as "innovative"—where you create an entirely new package from scratch.)
The current Utne Reader control exemplifies the adaptive creative process. It is an updated version of the 1985 launch package by the legendary Bill Jayme and his ace designer, Heikki Ratalahti.
How powerful is this package? According to new Utne Reader circulation director Jeanne Gallaher, the Jayme package is the backbone and lifeblood of the magazine.
When the Jayme package began to lag from familiarity, some adaptive tweaks were performed to the original. Former Utne Reader circulation director Jim L' Hereaux said the envelope has been changed about eight times in the past 12 years.
The Jayme/Ratalahti original launch envelope is where the funky message explained in the lift letter first appears. On the outer envelope: Welcome to the Alternative Press Reading & Dining Salon. Your table is ready. Also adorning the envelope is the only spot of color: a bright, red circle with "FREE" in white. This package mailed for about six years. Then it started to fatigue.
After doing some innovative testing with other packages, the Utne Reader came back to the original Jayme control and simply tweaked the envelope.
The new envelope depicted the Utne Reader as a Swiss army knife. The copy on the back of the envelope explained the knife graphic on the front: "The refinement, compression and focus of each issue makes it the Swiss army knife of periodicals." (For more information on this mailing, see Who's Mailing What! , February 1993.)
Another envelope tested was the Free Lunch, Free Love, Free Issue design. On this envelope, a crabby, middle-aged man turns down a free lunch ("No Such Thing") and free love ("No Way") but is interested in a free issue of the Utne Reader.
The latest control envelope is a plain, white #10 that is supposed to look like a personal letter from Eric Utne, with the current John Klingel design of green YES and red NO stickers.
Why a NO sticker? Why encourage hostility and take a financial bath in the process (i.e., Utne includes a Business Reply Envelope which means he's paying postage to receive NOs.)?
Quite simply, it's testable; you might find that the NO option—even with the BRE—more than pays for itself in terms of more YES responses or higher payments from the same number of YES responses. However, test this with caution: Gallaher says that enough NO replies came back to cause some concern.
A promising retest in the works: the Free Love, Free Lunch, Free Issue outer envelope, with three corresponding stickers, rather than the drawing.
The Main Letter
When you compare the main letter—the current control and the original Jayme launch—there are merely a few changes, for example different headlines, while the lead paragraphs are identical.
The "Alternative Press" of the original is changed to "Independent Media" and a box of text is added to the beginning, repeating the question of the outer envelope: "Will you please do us a favor?" The salutation warns that the magazine is a bit unusual----as a favor to yourself and the Utne Reader, won't you send for a free copy?
In the body of the letter, the Jayme prose is tweaked slightly, with the addition of a few paragraphs explaining how the Utne Reader saves you time and money and gives you practical wisdom.
Both the main letter and lift letter are the obvious stars of this package. Why? Jayme's prose makes you feel that this is a personal, one-to-one communication. According to Richard Armstrong, in a letter to Who's Mailing What! :
What makes a letter seem "personal" is not seeing your name printed dozens of times across the page, or even being battered to death with a never-ending attack of "you's." It is, rather, the sense that one gets of being in the presence of the writer...that a real person sat down and wrote you a real letter. The direct mail recipient doesn't need to be reminded that he is a real human being and that he has a real name. To the contrary, he needs to be assured that the letter he is reading comes from a human being----not a computer. And not a committee either.
This sums up why Jayme's main letter and lift letter work.
The Lift Letter
Jayme's classic lift letter has been tinkered with over the years. The original was a masterpiece. Under Eric Utne's letterhead, Jayme writes:
Utne rhymes with chutney. In Norwegian, it means far out. And "far out" is what you'll probably say when I tell you how we publish UTNE READER.
The magazine comes to you six times a year from a converted warehouse here in Minneapolis. We have an editorial staff of four. Myself. Our executive editor, Jay Walljasper. Our task-master, Lynette Lamb. Our resident generalist, Helen Cordes. And, in the best tradition of feisty little journals, our friends and relatives volunteer time to help plan the magazine.
There's Nina, my bemused wife. There's a Buddhist anti-nuclear activist. There's a socially responsible philanthropist. A Jungian dream analyst. An Amish quilt merchandiser. An Anarcho-punk theorist. A hog farmer. Plus a dozen or so other stalwart media junkies who are nice enough to lend a hand.
Jayme has created a scene in the mind's eye—a vision of a group of absolute loonies sitting around a table in a cavernous warehouse in Minneapolis putting together a wacky magazine.
As Jayme pointed out in the book "Million Dollar Mailings" by Denny Hatch:
The package was an attempt to establish a persona for an uncommonly cheerful and readable alternative magazine that would differentiate it from such impenetrable competitors as the Nation and from such relentlessly carping ones as Mother Jones.
At the time Heikki Ratalahti and I created the mailing, a mere handful of people improvised the magazine more or less as described in the copy. Today, with a circulation of over a quarter million—much of it secured with this package—the masthead lists a staff of thirty-something.
Does anybody out there care? Apparently not. They simply suspend belief, then buy from a struggling young editor named Eric Utne. They want to help him out.
The new control lift letter has a few minor changes, namely an editorial staff of five instead of four, and a few different descriptions of the eclectic group of helpers Utne employs.
Another recent, even further revised version of the lift letter demystifies the "salon" and more realistically explains that altogether, the staff numbers 25. It describes more in detail the process of creating an issue of the Utne Reader by reading and cutting out articles and then discussing them.
No matter how strong the control might seem, innovative packages should be tested as well. For example, the Utne Reader has also tested 6˝x9˝ packages. Two designs we've seen: an early '90s version asking, "Are you socially hip?" that goes on to explain that according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a six-second test can determine whether you are hip or not. (For example, do you eat glazed donuts or oat bran muffins for breakfast?) The hip, of course, read the Utne Reader; the unhip read People.
Another 6˝x9˝ effort, sent out in the late '90s asks if you are "Info-Whelmed," with too much to read and keep up with. An image of a kitchen strainer on the back of the envelope blithely explains the editorial philosophy of the Utne Reader. This mailing is a slick, fast-paced effort, geared for the world weary, self-proclaimed intellectual. An example of its slickness is a P.S. at the end of the main letter (from Eric Utne) that reads :
Oh, and don't blame me for the peel-off sticker (referring to the sticker device on the order card). The promotion guru made me do it. Play along, ok?
The top of the letter reads the same: "…I'll send you a free issue of my magazine (admittedly a cheap, unabashed promotional gimmick…)"
Another mailing the Utne Reader has tested is a magalog-style circulation promotion. This package employed the standard offer, but was more image-intensive than the Jayme package, which in-spired with words. The package was expensive to produce and was delayed at the post office because of its size.
None of these efforts were able to beat the control. Should they be considered failures? Not really. The only way to determine the strength of your control is to test it. If another package loses, it confirms your suspicion that the control is working and should be tweaked instead.
The next test is scheduled for June, with a mailing created by an outside firm. According to Gallaher, hope springs eternal, even when you have a package as strong as the Jayme effort.