Strategy Session: The Control Package: Friend or Enemy?
I didn't need a sociologist or psychologist to tell me that having a "feeling of control" was a good thing. My mother, from the time I left the house at 21 until she passed away 30 years later, injected the question "Is everything under control?" into virtually every conversation. She never realized how much of my business life revolves around the concept of control.
When I was on the client side, just about the most exciting thing in the world was to come into a new position, develop new creative, and have the first or second package mailed become the new control. As a direct marketing manager, the control package was your friend.
If you took care of your friend, it would stand by you. That meant mailing it to core category lists with just the right frequency, and not abusing it with test offers that would twist it out of shape. Oh, you could do some format testing maybetaking your #10 envelope and trading it for a 6" x 9" or even 9" x 12". Or inserting or removing a lift note or buck slip. That wasn't being disloyal.
Your rewards for loyalty to the control: a job, maybe even a raise for making budget, and certainly less agita. And if you were really lucky, a write up in Inside Direct Mail and recognition as an Axel Andersson Grand Control (package mailed three or more years).
If the control package is the direct marketing manager's good friend, it's the copywriter's soul mate. Write what becomes a control package, and you are viewed as a god. Put on your Web site that you've created X number of controls (and no one knows whether that's true, but everyone believes you) and you have work forever.
Is Your Control Package Controlling You?
First, the notion of having a single control package is absolutely absurd for the majority of mailers. Here's what I wrote in a newsletter more than seven years agobefore digital printing was refined and sophisticated:
THIS IS A WAKE-UP CALL. Hey, quantity mailersyou with the sophisticated customer base segmented six ways to Sunday; and you whose list rental orders request every sub-segment availableit's time to get smart.
You spend all this time and money finding out who your best prospects are. You track every response and
purchase of your customers or super-analyze how many leads convert to sales. You know that computer and production technology make versioning easier and less expensive than ever before. You've also heard the talk about "one-to-one marketing." And yet you continue to search for the "one fits all" control package. Hey, give yourself a break.
Let's say you're an automobile insurer and you mail some 20 million pieces a year. Your market is the age 40+ safe driver. You might ask why, since this is already a segmented market, should you be mailing more than a single control? Because people who are 40 and 50 often view their cars and their insurance much differently than those who are 60 and 70 years old; because people in California may react to different creative appeals and packages than people in New Jersey or in Minnesota.
Or suppose you're circulation manager for The Economist. Again, you're mailing in the millions. Maybe corporate managers in Minnesota don't react any differently than managers in Manhattan.
But the corporate world has different needs and uses for information than the academic world has, so why shouldn't there be controls for both groups? And, knowing that it's so tough to get through to the CEOs and presidents any business magazine covets, why shouldn't there be a separate control for this segment of the market?
What I hadn't thought about until a week ago is the reality that the control package is your enemy! Brian Kurtz, executive vice president at Boardroom Inc., has been talking about this for awhile, but I only heard him mention it briefly during a phone seminar. How can the man who mailed "What Never to Eat on an Airplane" for what seemed like decades say this?
Kurtz, of course, started on the list side of the business, so his first point is that the control package is the enemy because it limits your list testing and your list universe.
As soon as you move away from your core audience, the control package is no longer predictable and probably won't work as well.
Example: Health newsletter acquisition packages do best when mailed to actives and expires of other health newsletters. If you mail the control to, for example, subscribers of business magazines, it won't work well. However, what if you say "two friends are better than one," and develop a package specifically for managers and executives, and even venture forth with the tease, "If you've never thought about subscribing to a health newsletter before ..."?
The control package is your enemy because every new test package you commission looks more and more like the control with each revision. When you have a control that's meeting or beating budget, you tend to play it safe on new tests. That can hurt the upside potential of your business.
As a corollary, when you have a control you tend to hire writers who have packages like the control, or who did packages specifically for you that lost narrowly to the control. Really want something out of the box? Go to top-notch writers of previous packages for you that missed by 50 percent. They're more capable of beating the control by 50 percent than the ones who barely missed.
The control package is your enemy because it often leads to complacency. Do not treat it like a friend; treat it for what it isa step in the right direction.