Anatomy of a Control: A Major Acquisition
It's sold 4 million subscriptions since first rolling out in 1995. Tactful, thoughtful and genuine-certainly fundamental to its ability to remain relevant-the Mayo Clinic Health Letter also employs many of the finest direct mail tactics to great effect and continually makes small revisions to maintain its top-dog status.
"It's evolved over 15 years. It has changed quite a bit, but the fundamental concepts and base copy and base offer are largely the same," says Mark Johnson, the Carlisle, Pa.-based copywriter behind this control. Because the scale of this control is so large, with the Mayo Clinic sending 2 million to 5 million mailers per quarter, he spends two days per quarter in person meeting with the marketing folks at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. "It's a group environment for test ideas," reports Johnson, who says they're usually tweaking the control to either bring the response rate up or compensate for package fatigue.
Its oversize kraft outer envelope is now famous, with the simple teaser, "Please favor us with a reply within 10 days." Now the brown kraft paper is simulated and created entirely by ink, with the "label" simply the original white paper. Formerly as large as 11" x 14", the in-line produced effort is now 10" x 14" in order to save on paper costs-Mayo Clinic tried going down to a 9" x 12", but it was a significant loser. Inside sits an eight-page letter with a lift note; another page featuring brochure-like copy on both sides; and another full page with a reply form, premium description and BRE (Archive code #250-178560-0901).
"That teaser has proven to be very effective, as the older market responds well to being asked for the courtesy of a reply," explains Johnson. With a list that consists mostly of 70-year-olds or older with slightly above average household incomes, much of the package is conceived and tweaked with them in mind.
The letter, in response to the prevailing economic crisis, just underwent its first significant change. It now begins, "These days, you don't usually get much for $1.97. But that's the price for what could be one of the most valuable purchases you'll ever make." Johnson explains: "We call it the ‘Tough Times' approach. It evolved from an earlier test when we found that we got a terrific lift by positioning per issue pricing as opposed to per year pricing. We've used ‘$1.97 a copy' for the last couple of years, so the logical extension of that in the current economic climate was to have a letter lede that worked it in."
Before the prospect gets to that, however, there is a perfectly positioned lift note that's spot-glued next to the greeting. Added approximately three years ago, it's titled "From Mayo Clinic's mailbag" and uses one strong testimonial. "The package was jammed full, yet we loved the testimonials so much that we had to find a place for one. And we wanted to use it in a dramatic fashion and not just tuck it in some place by cutting copy," unveils Johnson.
To segue between the lift note and letter, a Johnson box that's personalized, uses faux-handwritten blue ink and refers back to the testimonial was added: "Someday you may even say, as one reader did, ‘Thanks, you're a real life saver.'"
After the new lede, the prospect comes across the most major change from the previous control: free reports. "The last control was all about the hard sell of the newsletter. I saw an opportunity to significantly improve the offer by incorporating existing special reports as premiums," says Johnson. Because it was off-the-shelf material, it didn't add to editorial costs. Every three or four years, Mayo Clinic updates the premiums. The first test included special reports on weight loss and back pain; the most recent incarnation is weight loss and arthritis.
But Johnson wants to make it clear that the bulk of the letter copy is about the product itself, including tons of benefit-intensive copy about a myriad of health conditions and concerns that are addressed by the newsletter. "The product takes the starring role in the letter, so we're not just generating customers who want information about weight loss and arthritis," he explains.
The second most significant change from the previous control was doubling the letter from four pages to eight (and currently testing nine). "I've found that in any self-help copy, long copy generally outpulls shorter copy. You can squeeze in more benefits, a technique I learned from Gene Schwartz," asserts Johnson, who also credits direct mail guru Schwartz for going with short paragraphs, each with a new benefit.
It wasn't a matter of stuffing as many words into the eight pages, though, as Johnson also urged Mayo Clinic to switch to 14-point type after a couple of years. "It's one of the most common mistakes I see in direct mail: The type is too small. If they don't read it, then it doesn't matter how good the copy is," says Johnson, who also oversaw the use of the "school rule," which like the larger point size, contributed to greater response. "Again, it makes it more readable. It's a good test for any market, not just seniors. It looks unique, more personal and less corporate," he contends.
Lastly, the reply card page is both unique and central to the package's success. "It performs the job of three: reply form, premium stuffer and BRE. It also works from a response point of view, for it puts it all in front of them at the time they're going to make that decision," states Johnson, who also pushed for a yellow reply envelope that stands out and raised response.
The reply card is called a "No-Risk Certificate" and is given a number, which shows the prospect that the offer is exclusive in some way, says Johnson. And so prospects don't need a pen that can slow down response, involvement stickers are used for the bill-me-only reply card.
Lastly, a full page is devoted to "The Mayo Clinic Story." "It creates public awareness about what they do and also supports the offer. We're fulfilling the organization's mission," explains Johnson, who says it's important that prospects see Mayo Clinic as much more than selling a product, but a place that supports pioneering medical research and excellent patient care.
"It's the most fun thing I've done. It's over the top with the impact it's had," relates Johnson. "It has saved people's lives. That's as rewarding as everything else."
- Package name: Mayo Clinic Health Letter
- Year first mailed: 1995
- Number of years as a control: 14
- Average drop: 2 million-5.3 million per quarter
- Copywriter: Mark Everett Johnson,email@example.com, 717-609-3096
- Marketing director: Jim Hale, Mayo Clinic Health Letter
- Production and Designer: Karyn Jones, Kendra Smale, RR Donnelly Response Marketing Services, Bloomington, Minn., 952-548-5935
- Premiums used: Editorial reports