Anatomy of a Control: Nutrition Health Newsletter
From sensationalist television news reports to the explosion of the internet, a lot has changed over the past two decades in the way the public consumes information about health, especially pertaining to food. But through all the clutter and noise, the Nutrition Action Healthletter's acquisition control package has remained remarkably consistent and effective for the past 17 years and counting.
The package, which has evolved slightly over the years, most notably with the outer envelope design and teaser, has used the same number of inserts, a four-page letter and a plethora of direct mail best practices to keep its prospects-primarily women age 65 and older, many of whom have diet-related diseases-abreast of the most relevant and vital nutritional facts. Mailed in a standard #10 envelope, the latest incarnation, titled RSVP, features a tame carrier with nothing but the teaser, "RSVP The favor of a reply is requested" along with Nutrition Action Healthletter's return address and a window. Inside, the package contains a yellow reply envelope with the copy "Your first-class stamp on this envelope enables us to put vital funds to work for better nutrition and food safety!" and "Please rush my order! I want life-saving health information NOW!"; trifold brochure; reply card with a description of the premium, Healthy Foods: Your Guide to the Best Basic Foods, perfed to the bottom; a "My Guarantee To You!" certificate guaranteeing to "FULLY REFUND" the unused portion of a subscription if a customer chooses to cancel it at any time; and the star of the package, an in-depth, informative four-page letter (Archive code #250-172620-0904).
When the control was first mailed nearly two decades ago, it was slightly different than the RSVP version mailed today. Looking to beat the prior control-a #10 that also had four inserts (a "Test Your Nutrition IQ" insert, a four-page letter, reply card and BRE)-Dennis Bass, deputy executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science advocate organization that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter, and Bill Dugan, former marketing director of CSPI, were searching for something that would stand out and resonate with prospects.
The first objective was to get just the right teaser. "When we were testing the teasers, we ultimately came up with ‘10 Foods You Should Never Eat,' but the very first one that we used was ‘10 Foods You Should Never Buy,'" proclaims Bass. "But then the word ‘eat' made a big difference. It's funny how these subtle little things can make such a huge difference."
With the teaser in place and a #10 carrier covered with images of food products, this initial rollout also featured a simple black-and-white letter without illustrations, but through testing, Bass and company found that illustrations of food products in the margins and using the color blue intermittently helped response. And it didn't take long for this package to supplant the old control, garnering more than 3 percent response in 1992.
While response has slowed down with the control over the years, averaging about 1.5 percent to 2 percent since the early years, it's still yet to be beaten. The reason? Nutrition Action Healthletter has continually tweaked the package ever so slightly to adapt with the times. "It's always had the same number of inserts, and they've always been essentially same. The biggest changes have always been with the carrier," notes Bass. "It originally started out with the teaser ‘10 Foods You Should Never Eat,' and that was a very strong teaser. I'd say it probably carried us through the end of the '90s. But then it started showing some weakness, so we started testing other teasers. We also tested entirely new packages, but nothing ever beat the control. So we started tweaking the control starting with primarily the carrier and the teaser on it. We now have kind of a stable of teasers that we're always back-testing," he adds.
The tests that Nutrition Action Healthletter has tried include changing format sizes and a two-page letter opposed to four pages. None of them have seemed to work as well, with the two-page letter particularly hurting response. Bass thinks he knows why. "We don't have an instantly recognizable name like Time magazine, and we're not affiliated with any university which might provide some instant credibility like Tufts' Diet & Nutrition Letter. We have to make the case for why we have credibility," he explains.
That's why the letter is an information-packed four-pager, so Nutrition Action Healthletter can show prospects all it has to offer. Loaded with details on specific products and helpful tips, the "We name names" letter provides an excellent example of what the newsletter has to offer ... and it does so using a variety of classic direct mail tactics-everything from bullet points to underlined words to a postscript, testimonials and engagement questions to pique prospects' interest.
To keep the information up-to-date, Bass and his colleagues meet with the editorial staff from Nutrition Action twice a year, "and they read over the letter and make sure that all of the facts are still the same ... because the composition of foods changes very rapidly, especially packaged foods and restaurant foods," Bass expounds.
The use of testimonials from subscribers and reputable publications is another tactic employed on the letter and brochure "We're competing with other health newsletters and with all the free information that's on the internet, a lot of which is incorrect [Testimonials] give people some confidence that what they're going to be reading is reliable."
For the past 17 years, the combination of all these elements has proven very successful, and virtually nothing was changed through the 1990s, but Bass began to see some fatigue in the control. So he began to test the teaser again, using "We Name Names" and "We Tell Secrets." Those packages fared well, but response rates were still around 1.5 percent. That's when the RSVP package was born.
"The common element of all of those prior teasers is that they were very aggressive teasers, and the envelope was covered with products; we would use pictures of at least four or five products for all of them," declares Bass. "So the RSVP package was a total surprise for us because it is very plain."
Where response has been generally around 1.5 percent for quite some time now, in January (when the new teaser was first rolled out) and February, right in the midst of the recession, Nutrition Action has seen an uptick in acquisitions closer to 2 percent.
The RSVP teaser was first tested in July 2008 and again in October, and at a time when Nutrition Action has been visibly affected by a recession for the first time ever, acquisitions actually have increased with the new teaser. That's an oddity in this day and age, especially with the newsletter's renewals, which Bass claims historically have been predictable within plus or minus 1 percent, being off about 13 percent-typical for many health newsletters in this downturn, according to Bass. "We've theorized that in times of financial turmoil or when things may seem out of control in one area of your life, you may look to control things in another area of your life like your personal health. That's just a theory for the uptick in acquisitions though. The more likely explanation is that it's the teaser," admits Bass.
- Package name: RSVP
- Year first mailed: 1992
- Number of years as a control: 17
- Average drop: 600,000 per month; 1.5 million-2 million per quarter
- Copywriter: Dennis Bass, deputy executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest; Bill Dugan, former marketing director, Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Designer: In-house at Center for Science in the Public Interest and Nutrition Action Healthletter
- Premiums used: Newsletter excerpt report, Healthy Foods: Your Guide to the Best Basic Foods