The Curse of the Vouchers
OK. Last time I gave you a rather meandering rundown of the things I wanted to cover in this new column. I said my aim was to blow the dust off long-held ideas about direct mail, spark debate, rattle a few cages, point out hidden truths, and provide a forum for an exchange of ideas.
First upvouchers. Last month I said they were killing the industry. They still are. (Sorry to whoever came up with this one.)
Look, I've heard it all. They're inexpensive. They get high response. And the cash with order is pheeenomminal!
Well, DUH! Vouchers get lots of cash with order because they fool people into thinking they're bills. I know. I've almost taken the bait myself.
But isn't that sad? Have we as an industry sunk so low that we've got to trick customers into buying our product? Circulation people tell me, "But Ken, you don't understandtraditional direct mail approaches don't work anymore. We're desperate for numbers, any way we can get them. So leave our vouchers alone!"
Sure, I'll leave vouchers alone. But let me ask this: Does the word "sweepstakes" ring a bell with anyone? For those of you who've just arrived from Neptune, sweepstakes are taboo in today's world because they were deemed by the judge to be i-l-l-e-g-a-l. Or was it deceptive? Well, maybe it was just misleading. Whatever the courts ruled (and gosh knows, I'm no lawyer), sweepstakes ain't happenin' anymore. See, you can't trick people into subscribing to magazines by implying that by doing so they'll up their chances of winning THE BIG PRIZE.
Are vouchers headed down the same path? Is there a court date somewhere down the road for Mr. V? Is it really OK to trick people into subscribing to your magazine by implying that they (or someone in their family) already has?
Here's how it works. Because the voucher package comes into Mr. and Mrs. Mid-America's home disguised as a bill, Mr. or Mrs. Mid-America dutifully puts it in the bills to be paid stack, not to be touched again until bill payin' time. Soon that day arrives, and Mr. or Mrs. Mid-America starts going through the pile, writing the checks, and licking envelopes.
Show of hands: How many think Mr. or Mrs. M-A will stop to scrutinize the oh-so-cleverly camouflaged copy that some say makes it quite clear the voucher is a solicitation and not a bill? See, you admit it! Neither Mr. OR Mrs. M-A will likely EVER catch on to what's really happening right in front of their face, andviola!not only has a new sub just been sold, but the money's coming in with the order! It's a circulation director's dream!
But wait! What about honesty? Integrity? The "quality of the subscriber" in terms of propensity to renew? You might be tempted to say, "Hey, who gives a rat's back end? We got the sub. And we got the money. Renewing Mr. and Mrs. M-A is the renewal department's job, anywaywe're New Business. So bug off, Kenny boy."
Problem is, once you start down the voucher path, how do you get off? It's easy, I guess, to get addicted to cheap subs and high cash with order. And how do you beat a voucher? With a 6" x 9" package? A 9" x 12" poly? Maybe a #10? You tell me.
Maybe I'll take my legal box (or should I say "illegal box") full of voucher packages I've collected down to my local D.A. Just for fun. Just for grins. What do you think? Again, I'm no lawyer. But this whole voucher thing smells like dead skunk on the highway. But that's just me.
And (drum roll, please) that brings me to point number two. If we all agree that The Curse of the Vouchers arose out of the collapse of the effectiveness of the more traditional direct mail formats, then maybe we should look under that rock and see what we can find.
As I stated last month, based on samples of test packages I was shown by a certain client awhile back, I'm not surprised that response rates are down, down, down and circulation directors' anxiety levels are up, up, up. Even I might be tempted to sell my soul to the big bad voucher, given what I saw that was not only accepted and approvedbut MAILED!
Pulleeese! Maybe our industry needs bumper stickers that say "Friends don't let friends mail stupid packages." Trouble is, I'm afraid a lot of your friends out there don't know the difference between a stupid package and a well-conceived, well-crafted, well-positioned, well-designed, and well-written one.
But it's probably not your fault. You've probably never been shown the difference. (Although this newsletter and other publications do try.)
And there's another thing that's mucking up the works. And I may need to enroll in a witness protection plan after this. But there are quite a few writers and designers offering their services out there who have no more business doing it than I do trying to perform open heart surgery. Trust me. I've seen their portfolios. Sat next to them on seminar panels. Received their work in my mailbox. If we were talking about the medical profession, I'd be talking about the sound Donald Duck makes. Hint: It rhymes with "hack." (Hey, that works too!)
Look, call me mean-spirited. Call me a cry baby. I'll take the criticism. I'm simply pointing out what I see as big problems in our industry. Problems that have existed for years, but are now so prevalent that the industry is suffocating from them.
So I'll say the things nobody else will. I'll take the heat nobody else wants. Because it's simply not fair to all those writers and designers who do great work year in, year out. Who get control after control for their clients. Who have winning percentages so high that if they were baseball players their batting averages would be rewriting the record books.
As I said last month, direct mail works. It's as dynamic a source now as it always was. We've just become poor stewards of its power. We can do better. And the sooner we start, the better.
In the months to come, I'll give you more specific examples of what makes the difference between a stupid package and a great one. I'll share my thoughts on how to hire outstanding creative talent and send the charlatans packing. And I'll reveal who those big sluggers are with portfolios full of real (not pretend) winners. Stay tuned! This is gonna be fun.
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.