Easy Sell vs. Tough Sell: The Anatomy of Two Direct Mail Controls
When an envelope arrives in the mail, it could be personal correspondence from a friend or relative. Or it could be a piece of direct mail trying to sell you something. In either case, a letter is de rigueur — normal, customary, socially obligatory.
A mailing that keeps coming in month after month says two things to a marketer:
- It is a control mailing — having beaten back all contenders — and is generating revenue.
- A control is worth studying, because it may contain elements and ideas worth stealing.
I recently reviewed two control mailings from Harvard Women's Health Watch and Learning Strategies.
The letter from Harvard Women's Health Watch is textbook correct, whereas the letter from Learning Strategies breaks all the rules.
Harvard Women's Health Watch Letter Excerpt
"I owe my life to a doctor
I never even met!"
You're entitled to 2 FREE "visits" with this same doctor—
and her entire team — plus 2 FREE Gifts! Read on for details...
I'll never forget that Thursday as long as I live.
It was a beautiful fall morning and I was having breakfast with my friend Cindy.
We were halfway through our omelets when I told her the day before my husband had taken me to the ER because I was so exhausted, I was getting winded just running the vacuum.
I told her he was worried I was having a heart attack, but the hospital ran tests and I checked out okay. I laughed and joked that I needed a cleaning lady.
But instead of laughing with me, Cindy paid the check and took me right back to the hospital. And am I ever glad she did.
Because frankly, if anyone else had taken me, I'm not sure I'd be alive today.
You see, as it turns out, the day before I really did have a heart attack — one that wasn't picked up on any tests!
What is right about this letter?
- Easy to read with an easy-to-grasp concept. As Andrew J. Byrne said, "Short words, short sentences. Short paragraphs."
- A powerful offer at the top (two free visits plus two free gifts).
- The letter is personal and tells a compelling story, which follows two rules on letter from the late Harry Walsh — a copywriter who also had taught gunnery to fighter pilots in World War II. According to Walsh:
- The tone of a good direct mail letter is as direct and personal as the writer's skill can make it. Even though it may go to millions of people, it never orates to a crowd, but rather murmurs into a single ear. It's a message from one letter writer to one letter reader.
- Tell a story if possible. Everybody loves a good story, be it about Peter Rabbit or King Lear. And the direct mail letter, with its unique person-to-person format - is the perfect vehicle for a story. And stories get read.
The control mailing from Harvard Women's Health Watch also contains a strong offer on the response card: two free issues plus two free reports, send no money now.
Learning Strategies Letter Excerpt
If you knew how the energy of the universe works,
how would you use it?
What would you create with it? Who would you be?
What would you do differently?
I'm not referring to the Law of Attraction or anything remotely similar, but to what becomes possible when you plant the seeds of continuous conscious awareness
The Seeds of Enlightenment
Qigong Master Chunyi Lin uses the design of the universe to direct energies of the body to help people heal themselves. Feng Shui Master Marie Diamond uses it to direct energies of the environment to cure problem energy and enhance auspicious energy.
How does this letter break the rules?
- This is full of vague generalities. As Byrne said, "Specifics sell. Generalities don't."
- The headline leads with mind-bending concepts and questions that make no sense without further information.
- The letter starts with names the most likely unfamiliar to the reader: "Qigong Master Chunvi Lin" and "Feng Shui Master Marie Diamond."
- The offer at the end: "Just 8 payments of $30!"
Comparing the Controls
The letter from Harvard Women's Health Watch:
- represents a virtual checklist of elements necessary for a control letter-easy-to-read and understand, good offer, etc.
- can go to just about any adult female on any response list, which gives the marketer a vast audience to mail to.
The letter from Learning Strategies:
- is complex and difficult to grasp. As a control, we know it has been responded to. But this is clearly a niche audience.
- will require exhaustive mailing list research. For this to work, it is essential to test: Very smart, educated people who can read dense prose, who are proven direct mail buyers and who do not blanche at a $240 product cost.
"Success in direct mail is 40 percent lists, 40 percent offer and 20 percent everything else, " wrote Ed Mayer. But in the case of Learning Strategies — with its expensive, off-putting offer — my guess is the ration needs to be 70 percent lists, 20 percent offer and 10 percent everything else.
Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His next book will be "Write Everything Right!" Visit him at dennyhatch.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related story: Building a Mail Piece That's Meant to Last