The Perils of Playing It Safe
Let's talk about playing it safe. And why you shouldn't.
As I look at what's being mailed these days, I've noticed a palpable disinclination to venture beyond the well-worn paths of past experiences.
I'm talking about not wanting to try bold new ideas and concepts. ... Not swinging for the fences, but rather settling for a singleor worse, a base on balls.
Example: A copywriting colleague of mine told me about a circulation manager who thought she was playing it safe by deleting all words from the writer's copy that she felt "weren't needed." Transition words like "so," "plus," "including," "and more,"tossed in the trash heap.
Conversational phrases like "and just to get you started," "because you're the type of person who," and, "I know you're going to like what you see"surgically removed as if life-threatening growths. What was left of the copy was inexpressive, unapproachable, sterileand ineffective. The package bombed.
One marketer that proved the benefits of not playing it safe is The Economist. Seven years ago, it started mailing a magalog from Lori Fletcher and Jo Fox as a test against its long-standing #10 envelope control. Bold move. The magalog format generally is reserved for titles that have an abundance of color photography to showcaselike cookbooks and family activity booksand lots of recipes or step-by-step instructions to fill their pages. The Economist, of course, has neither. But the marketer made use of its full-color covers (46 in the original test, 19 in the most recent version) and breezy design to reshape an imageat least in my mindof rather unspectacular layout combined with word-heavy articles. The gamble paid off, because the magalog became the new control.
Today the Fletcher/Fox original has been bested by a 9" x 12" envelope package from Terry Talley and Linda Tabatch that is sort of a magalog with the staples removed and couched inside an envelope. The headline: "When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another." (Really? Guess I'd better spend a little more time glued to The Weather Channel.) I've noticed that there's also a magalog version of the 9" x 12" package that's being used as a Sunday newspaper insert. A real roll of the dice. But heythree cheers for The Economist!
Now the ultimate example of playing it safe is the dreaded voucher.
If you've been reading this column on a regular basis, you know how I feel about that format. It's misleading because it tricks the recipient into thinking it's a bill. It's misrepresentative because it has nothing to do with the personality of the magazine it's selling. And it's counterproductive because it's destroying the integrity of the direct mail industry and giv-ing "junk mail" reason to live up to its name.
But once you have a voucher control, how can you justify testing out of it? It's cheap to produce, and it gets results.
Well, there are viable alternatives to vouchers. But you've got to look beyond the immediate added costs of production and focus on long-range benefitslike higher-quality subscribers who continue renewing for years to come.
Case study: When Hearst bought Veranda, the richly designed home-decorating magazine out of Atlanta, GA, last year, it asked me to beat the voucher control. Rather than play it safe and mail either another voucher or an inexpensive double postcard, it graciously allowed me to create what I felt the magazine deserveda big and beautiful 9" x 12" poly package.
How did this leap of faith materialize? What made Verandawhich had never mailed a full-blown, four-color packagedecide that now was the time to not play it safe?
Well, the Veranda "story" is this: The magazine allows people interested in exquisite interior design to visit beautifully decorated homes, villas and chateaus all over the world. The magazine has a sophistication and style about it that you have to see to appreciate. So, to adequately tell the story and visually showcase the color and elegance of the magazine, it made sense to utilize the "larger canvas" that a 9" x 12" poly provides. It was a classic case of choosing a format based on need rather than on budget, whim or crapshoot.
I made my case to Hearst. It, in turn, made the case to the editor at Veranda, and she wholeheartedly agreed to the concept, the rationale and the choice of format. And best of allto everyone's creditvery little of my copy or Lynda Chilton's design was changed from what was originally presented.
The 9" x 12" poly boosted gross response by 52 percent and the net by 17 percent. Yet because the voucher package typically brings in a higher percentage of cash orders and is so inexpensive to produce, these numbers didn't quite make the poly a profitable alternative.
For the time being, the voucher remains the Veranda control. The decision was this: If the magazine's goal is to grow the circulation numbers, the poly is one way to go. If the magazine wants a higher profit margin, even at the sacrifice of higher circulation numbers, the voucher gets the nod.
Hearst is watching this one closely and plans to analyze the renewal rates on subscribers who came in with the poly
versus those who subscribed via the voucher. It is also studying ways to reduce the costs of the poly package.
Bottom line: Hearst chose to take a chance. And it may yet have a winner on its hands. That's the way direct mail should work. Always testing. Always probing. Always looking for something better.
The message? Never play it safe. Never hold back. Throw caution to the wind. And swing for the fences!
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.