Ugly Mailings that Make Millions (1,396 words)
Looks can be deceiving, as the old saying goes. And it's espcially true when it comes to the mail. Often, what you might call "plain Jane" direct mail packages get the job done as well, if not better, than their fancier counterparts. Why?
The answer is simple, really: These successful mailings were not designed to be beautiful; they were designed to get response...because that's the name of the game in our industry.
Highly successful direct mail pieces—long-term controls that have made a lot of money for the companies that mail them—don't necessarily have slick brochures, colorful poly envelopes or expensive interactive devices (not that you never want to use these approaches, because there's certainly a place for them). But many top-notch mailings succeed without those expensive elements. Instead they use good, solid copywriting, simple but effective design, strong offers and some response boosting tricks of the trade like tokens, premiums and power words like FREE.
Plain Janes that WORK
We've talked ad nauseam in this publication about the most successful advertisement in the history of the world: The Wall Street Journal's "Two Young Men" control package that's been in the mail for over 18 years and generated over a billion dollars in revenue. What makes it a standout: great copy that speaks to the needs and wants of the reader WSJ is trying to reach.
The writer, Martin Conroy, gets inside the head of the prospective reader with a story about "Two Young Men." It is inferred, not stated, that the more successful of the two men was a reader of The WSJ. (Note: The idea of getting inside the heads of your prospects is a great one to try for your next creative effort, but fair warning here: Do not "steal" the story of two young men. Even if you try to disguise it, you could get snared since this is a copyrighted mailing. It's been tried before, and the folks have been caught.)
Other than the letter, the only other pieces in the package are an order card and BRE. With so few elements, it is a simple, inexpensive package to produce. There's no brochure, no lift note, no four-color graphics.
The Utne Reader's "Reading & Dining Salon" is another plain-Jane mailing that has probably made millions for the publisher since it first appeared in mailboxes back in 1985 (see TM June 1998, pp. 40-41). Once again, it's great copy and an amazingly simple design that keep this workhorse in the mail year after year.
My favorite part of this mailing is legendary copywriter Bill Jayme's classic lift letter. It's been tinkered with a bit over the years, but always starts out with "Utne rhymes with chutney. In Norwegian, it means far out..." Signed by Eric Utne, it describes the unconventional method in which the magazine is put together.
Both the lift note and the letter sound like they were written by an individual for an individual. As copywriter Richard Armstrong has said: "What makes a letter personal is not seeing your name printed dozens of times across the page, or even being battered to death with a never-ending attack of "you"s. It is rather, the sense that one gets of being in the presence of the writer...that a real person sat down and wrote you a real letter..."
Down and Dirty Formats
"Professional" rate offers have been used by most of the big business magazine publishers, as well as news magazines like Newsweek. Key to their success is the right list and a strong offer. Fortune has mailed a couple of variations on this theme.
The "bare-bones" version of this format has no letter. The offer is stated on the order form and attempts to accomplish the same feeling of exclusivity by stating, "As a select professional, you qualify for..."
In the case of Fortune, since it is making this offer to known business professionals, it can assume the audience is already familiar with the product. Therefore, the mailing doesn't need to waste time or space describing the publication or extolling its benefits. It can focus on price, a very special price being offered only to "professionals."
Another down 'n dirty format to consider is the double postcard; it's inexpensive to create, produce and mail. And it can be very successful. Many publishers have come to rely on this format to bring in large portions of their circulations. Inc. magazine has been mailing one for nine years (since 1989), and it's still working.
Made up of two cards, connected by a perforation, the double postcard must have one half exclusively used as a reply device. It mails first-class, at a discount, because the post office is really collecting postage twice on one piece of mail.
There are four rules to making the double postcard format work. They are:
1. A well-known product.
2. An irresistible offer. Inc.'s offer is hard-to-beat: a free sample issue...plus a free special report (with sample issue)...plus a free soft briefcase (with paid sub)...plus a free pen and pencil set (with paid sub).
3. Easy to order. There's just one box to tick: Yes!
4. Bill-me payment option. The offer must be bill-me only: There's no return envelope to hide a credit card number or enclose a check.
Two Testing Strategies
So how can you take these simple ideas that have worked well for other mailers and use that knowledge to improve upon your own direct mail efforts?
1. The Adaptive or "Tweaking" Approach. Even strong controls eventually will start to flag due to familiarity. Prospects may have seen the same envelope in the mail before and therefore won't bother to open it. Or a format that worked well and was adopted by a lot of marketers in a given category might grow tired. Maybe you and your competitors are all making virtually the same offer and prospects are responding by saying "been there, done that."
So you tweak that control to keep it working. Add a lift note and boost response by 3 percent. Make a more impressive guarantee and gain another 2 percent. Change the envelope and see a big jump—maybe 10 percent. Utne Reader's envelope variations (about eight versions in 12 years) is a perfect example of the adaptive or tweaking approach.
Another biggie to test is the offer: As Axel Andersson says, "If you want to dramatically increase response, dramatically improve your offer." If one premium works, try two, or three (like Inc. did).
2. The Innovative or "Thinking Outside the Box" Approach. An innovative approach to testing is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater and starting fresh. Where do you begin to look for ideas? Look at successful mailings in markets other than your own. Consider borrowing techniques, formats and/or approaches that may never have been tested before on your target audience.
Mal Warwick proposed this idea several years ago to the fund raiser community when he stated, "Often a close study of a commercial control will reveal a half-dozen or more ideas that fund raisers can replicate with little or no change."
For example, credit card companies, including First USA, began offering premiums when you sign up for their cards. Taking an idea that long-worked in the magazine field, they've adapted it to the crowded credit card market.
Note that there is more risk involved in innovative testing. You spend more to create and design something from scratch...and you've no idea how well it will work (other than your gut instinct and research as to what's worked for other mailers).
The way we've described them here, both the adaptive and innovative approaches to testing fall into the category of "stealing smart," a phrase coined by Dorothy Kerr many years ago.
In the October 1997 issue of the newsletter Who's Mailing What! (now Inside Direct Mail), Bill Jayme explained stealing smart: "...if you see a lot of mailers using tokens, you try a token. If you see a lot of mailers offering the 100-percent guarantee—Every penny will be returned to you even if you cancel in the 11th month—you try that. Stealing smart does not mean stealing copy and design from other writers and submitting them as your own work."
For more information on the mailings mentioned in this article, or to order samples from the direct mail archives, contact Laurie Sharp at DM Source, (215) 238-5224.