Tale of a 9-Year Control
Billboard Format Still Tops Response Charts for Smithsonian
By Paul Barbagallo
That copywriter Terry Talley and designer Linda Tabatch didn't know when they beat Smithsonian magazine's long-term control in 1995 was just how long their new package would be in the mail stream. No direct mail practitioners really do. But nearly a decade later, the tandem's original 81/2" x 11" billboard acquisition appealfit with an acetate pouch that contains just a double-postcard and a BREis still reaching prospective readers.
"When Smithsonian first tested our package, it initially lifted response by 83 percent over the old control," Talley shares. "Our main goal at the time was to try to beat the control that they had not been able to beat."
For a lengthy period, Smithsonian magazine mailed a 9" x 12", closed-faced outer-envelope package as its flagship acquisition appeal. When response lagged sometime during the mid-'90s, the organization solicited the help of Talley and Tabatch, two direct mail veterans who have worked together on packages for more than 20 years. They also formerly ran their own creative shop, Talley-Tabatch.
According to Tabatch, the marketing brain trust at Smithsonian had taken careful notice of the duo's successful billboard formats for Guideposts, Angels on Earth and Positive Living newsletter, among others. "That was something they wanted to try," says Tabatch, now principle of Tabatch Direct. "Once it was established that we were doing the billboardwhere there's not that many choices of what you could put whereeverything fell into place. In this case, less is actually more."
Less has also been the route many marketers in the publishing arena have taken of late, but not the "less" Tabatch is referring to. "[Mailers] are not testing as many new billboard appeals now as they were for a while," Talley figures, "because everyone has been so cost-conscious in the last few years, mailing so many vouchers."
In a time when an undersized professional discount package can trump even an old-time, #10 closed-faced carrier, Smithsonian magazine's unbeatable billboard is a testament to the effectiveness of sound copy and design.
In order to beat the control Smithsonian was mailing, Talley and Tabatch knew they had to capture the essence of the magazine. "Smithsonian is a very glamourous and appealing magazine," Talley avers. "What we decided to do was highlight the magic of adventure and discovery that really is Smithsonian."
On the back of the billboard, swirling red copy snakes down the page: "Take a magic carpet ride ..." Hovering just above the main headline are four Smithsonian magazine covers with one opened to a center-spread. Each is slightly tilted in a different direction, one overlapping the other. The copy was designed to flow like a flying magic carpet, and graphics of the magazine covers were set above the flowing text to represent the abstract concept of people/the prospects riding on top of the magic carpet. The combination of graphics and text appear almost as if they will glide right off the page and ascend in flight.
"The goal was to try to find a design that gave you a good sense of the magazine, which has a very broad subject range," Tabatch says, "and to have readers really follow the headline."
After Tabatch carefully selected what she deemed to be the most visually appealing Smithsonian covers of the timenow featuring people descending a mountain, Mel Gibson in "The Patriot," an African vase and a colorful flowerit was Talley's task to use the remaining real estate to tell potential readers about the magazine.
The body copy she scribed, which has remained relatively intact since the mailing's launch some nine years ago, reads:
Take off on an adventure to unexpected destinations. Explore the earth, its inhabitants and beyond. Examine the far frontiers of science. Travel back into history and off into the future. Meet fascinating people, amazing animals. Marvel at natureand the heights (and depths) of human endeavor. Come along for the fun ... Smithsonian magazine is superbly written and spectacularly illustrated. For details see inside and see for yourself. FREE.
The front of the current billboard features a Smithsonian magazine cover from September 1999an eye-grabbing pair of Egyptian statues from the age of the pyramids. When the package first rolled out, Tabatch went with a cover that highlighted the tropical toucanan image that proved to be a perennial success for Smithsonian.
"Although Smithsonian has tested different covers since then, 'the toucan' was hard to beat," says Tabatch. "[The organization] went with it for a very long time."
When Talley and Tabatch first embraced the challenge to beat Smithsonian's control, they were required by the organization to use the existing offer to gauge testing accuracy: a free trial membership to the Smithsonian Institution plus a free, no-risk trial issue of the magazine. What's more, the first 50 people to respond would receive a miniature color television set.
"Because [our] package was testing against the old control, we weren't
allowed to change any wording of the fast fifty because [the organization] wanted to get a true reading," says Talley.
In 1995, it worked. Today, the counter-top television set they were using may have lost some of its appeal with all the new technology and products available. Instead, Smithsonian now is offering prospective readers a Fuji FinePix A200 Digital Cameraa gift that more appropriately complements a product filled with world-class photography.
"Over the years, [Smithsonian] has tested numerous offers, but I think this one is going to be a winner," says Talley.
At the bottom, left-hand corner of the billboard, just below the body copy, an image of the premium offer is featured in four-color. Copy reads: "FREE ISSUE! No risk. No obligation. Just return the postage-free card on the other side ..."
That double-postcard might not seem like enough space to make a convincing sale, but Talley hits prospects with the offer from the onset:
Dear Mr. Sample:
You've been selected for FREE membership in the Smithsonian and a FREE issue of SMITHSONIAN Magazine. There is no obligation. If your reply is among the first we receive, you may win a FREE FUJI A200 DIGITAL CAMERA. Just return the reply card below right away!
"When you don't have much real estate, you're forced to get down and find the essence of the magazine, in order to be able to put it forth quickly," says Talley.
To the right of the copy, two peel-off stickers are presented: one for the free issue (that toucan again) and the other for the free digital camera. Prospects must unfold the double-postcard and place each sticker over two dotted boxes (one last little interactive touch).
According to Talley, the goal was to sell more of the magazine throughout the packageusing its tone and feeland designate the back of the double postcard to discuss membership benefits, which include the magazine, special discounts at museums, special tours and invitations to traveling exhibits.
"Smithsonian [Institution] is very unique in that you are not only selling a magazine, but also a membership. It's kind of a dual sale," Talley affirms.