Strategy Session: Three Directives for Increasing Response
What makes direct mail work? Some argue that the answers lie entirely with tactics--that one killer word on an envelope will make it pull response, while a variation on that word may cause failure. Perhaps, but after 40 years of working with and learning from an army of smart professionals, I know there are theories that explain direct mail success, too.
1. Understand That It's All About Connecting.
Direct response works when there's an unfettered connection with the prospect. By "unfettered," I mean that no big idea (based on the marketer's conception of the product), or small, hackneyed direct mail tactic, blocks the synapses.
The creative team, and especially the copywriter, must get directly inside the head of the prospect, not the head of the agency's account supervisor or even the head of the client. Guru Denny Hatch calls it method marketing (after method acting, of course). The problem is that most of us think actors get inside the part intuitivelywithout any work. Not true, just watch the TV program "Inside the Actor's Studio."
Whether you're an actor or copywriter, connecting effectively requires a lot of work. Sure, some of it is thinking it through from the prospect's point of view: "What's my motivation for responding or not responding? What do I believe and what can't I believe about what's being said? How much do I need to read before I make up my mind?" But there are times when you can't think it through, because you don't really understand the character.
In direct marketing, age, income, education and other demographics increasingly are becoming poor proxies for understanding the prospect. Behavior (previous responsiveness patterns) is a better proxy; attitudes are even better for understanding character.
Let's get back to those "birds of a fetter" with an example.
Case: A nationally known company markets its own branded credit card to its base of buyers. An agency is brought in to create a package to go against the control.
The agency spots something from the get-go: The control package toutsand, in fact, devotes most of the brochure tothe travel reward component of the card's benefits. The problems are two-fold: One, this reward program is actually inferior to most of the other card programs out there; and, two, by pushing the travel rewards, the true and unique benefits of this card are subjugated. The client urges the agency to put more emphasis on the travel rewards, but the agency wins out.
Result: Despite the fact that most of the agency's original copy about other benefits of the card was rewritten in committee, the package still topples the control because the agency removed the fetters and connected with the prospect. The connection: The prospect's reason for responding was the affinity with the credit card issuer, not the second-rate travel reward program.
2. Get Heads Nodding Immediately.
There's a marvelous, but unheralded volume by Siegfried Vogele called "Handbook of Direct Mail." Published in 1969 and no longer in print, it is based on research with direct mail recipients. The subtitle"The Dialogue Method of Written Sales Communication"sums up the essential message of the book: "You must engage the reader immediately in a dialogue, and at every possible turn, get the prospect to say 'yes' or at least nod approval."
Vogele says: "We came across silent dialogue during our research. This is where someone 'speaks' to the printed paper. Recipients in all target groups conduct silent dialogue with letters, reply cards, inserts and partly, too, with the envelope. Some of these dialogues last only a few seconds, others much longer."
It would seem that you want the dialogue to continue until the prospect has not only made a decision to respond, but actually goes through with it.
All this makes sense, but there's a problem. In a world in which attention spans are measured in nanoseconds, can you trust readers to engage in dialogue on their own? I think not; I think that in many market segments and for many products, customers and prospects need help.
How can you get readers engaged and saying or nodding "yes"? It starts with getting the prospect/customer to say, "Hey, that's me!" or, "I'm in that very situation!" You can do that in a number of different ways in the package.
Lift letters are ideal for this purpose; it's easy to do the outside panel in the prospect's voice. But also consider starting the dialogue on the carrier with handwritten glosses in the prospect's voice. In other words, use a strong teaser in your voice, then have the prospect comment on the teaser. You also can put a sticky note on the letter. The sticky is personalized with the prospect's name, so the handwriting reflects his/her thinking.
Recommendation: Actually voice prospects' questions, concerns and objections. This is not a strategy for the squeamish. It could backfire terribly if you are wrong about the prospect's major concerns, or off-base about how the prospect poses questions or doubts. Focus groups with both buyers and non-buyers can be of immense help, and so can listening in on phone calls from prospects to your client's customer service team. Before you begin the
creative, try to construct a prospect "mind map." This shows what decisions the prospect makes about particular product/service categories, what factors influence those decisions and how the mind jumps from one branch of the decision tree to another.
3. Accentuate the Positive, But Don't Forego the Negative.
There are almost as many direct response marketers against using negative appeals and copy as there are against using humor. It wasn't always that way. In the '70s and '80s, you'd see a pretty fair number of headlines, envelope teasers and Johnson boxes with lines like:
Don't be a victim of _____
Stop paying through the nose for _____
Is your career over at age 45?
Essentially, a negative approach involves posing a problem for the prospect and then solving it via the product/service. A positive approach suppresses the problem and starts with the solution.
What should you do? It's my theory that most of the people who respond to direct marketing efforts are optimiststhey truly believe that whatever they buy holds the potential of making their personal or business lives better. Advertising to them must be upbeat, without negatives.
However, you may be missing part of your market with this approach. First, many optimists are not going to understand that they need your product/service viscerally until they feel the pain. A negative approach can do that. Second, pessimists may respond to direct marketing efforts as well. To get them to respond, you have to show them that you buy into their gloom-and-doom scenarios. They may respond just to validate that nothing can solve their problems.
In print, you have no way of knowing whether the ad is being read by an optimist or pessimist, so you alternate and monitor results. In direct mail, with attitudinal segmentation available, you can mail the positive approach to optimists and the doom-and-gloom approach to pessimists.
What do you think?