Why Didn't I Beat the Control
Experts weigh in on some common mistakes that can derail your control-beating efforts
By Tracy A. Gill
Ask any 10 direct marketers to list the characteristics of a good control, and you are likely to get dozens of different answers: concise, clear, dramatic, unique, directive, targeted, emotional, powerful. But there is one thing I think we all can agree good control packages have in common: They are difficult to beat.
If you are reading this article, you've probably learned that lesson the hard way; you went up against a control with a package you thought was a winner, only to learn after weeks of testing that you came up short.
So where did you go wrong? Why didn't you beat the control? To help you determine where you went foul, I spoke with some industry experts who expounded on common control-busting pitfalls and mistakes theyor, in many cases, their "friends" (wink, wink)have made.
Do Your Homework
A strong foundation in the basics, a good eye and a gut for what works are essential elements of success for a
direct mail creative, but there is just no substitute for solid research and competitive intelligence. It is tempting to take an assignment and run with all of your great ideas, but make sure to do your homework first; take the time to analyze:
* the control package,
* what has tested against it in the past, and
* what else is in the mail now.
The beginning is a very good place to start, indeed, when it comes to beating controls. "The control itself may have the seeds of a better package," says Alan Rosenspan, president of Newton, Mass.-based Alan Rosenspan & Associates. "You just have to find them."
The key is to understand the pros and cons of the control, so that you can create a package that builds on the good and eliminates the bad. "Analyze what it was that caused the [package] to succeed," says direct-response copywriter and author Herschell Gordon Lewis, creator of many long-term controls, including the 20-year-old Omaha Steaks package. "And why people who parallel buyers didn't respond to this particular approach."
The control isn't the only mailing that you need to keep an eye on. Packages that have mailed against the control in the past can be just as telling about what works, what doesn't and what hasn't even been tried.
"Look at your biggest losers and your biggest winners," says Jerry Roache, president of Jerry Roache Direct, a 22-year-old direct marketing agency based in Shrewsbury, N.J. "And ignore all the stuff in between because it doesn't tell you anything."
According to Roache, beating a control is all about identifying mailing trends and then either working with them or against them.
And don't forget to keep on top of what is going on in the industry (pardon the not-so-subtle plug), because it's not just the control you are up against. "In direct mail, your real competition is not just the other club or the other insurance card," says Roache. "It's whatever else is in the mail that day."
Take a Chance
Too often, says Mark Bloom, vice president/creative director at TargetCom, a Chicago-based direct-response agency, direct marketers are afraid to take chances. This is an understandable reaction to shrinking testing budgets, but it eliminates many good ideas and reduces your chances of developing a package with real impact.
"Too many people in our profession run on tracks. 'This is the way I did it before for a circulation proposition and it's the way I'm not going to sell steaks,'" says Lewis. "But they just aren't parallel."
Staying open to new concepts and formats combats customer boredom and keeps you on track for that next break-through idea. When Smithsonian magazine's 9" x 12" closed-face outer envelope control lagged after years on top, the magazine went against the publishing voucher trend and took a chance on an 8-1/2" x 11" billboard mailing with acetate pouch. That innovative package beat the control by 83 percent and has been in the mail for the last nine years (see "Tale of a Nine-Year Control," May 2004).
Direct marketers also often eliminate ideas because they have seen them fail in the past. "Just because you tested something before, doesn't mean it won't work in the future, particularly if it's used in a different context," says Hugh Chewning, president of Irvine Calif.-based Chewning Direct Marketing.
Testing, Lewis points out, reveals only what works for a particular package at a particular time. "About 10 years ago, for an upscale magazine," recalls Lewis, "I had a double postcard that outpulled a lavish jumbo mailing with four-color inserts, not only dollar for dollar, but piece for piece. I don't think that would happen today, but it did happen then, when double postcards were working."
And Now For Something Completely Different
Going out on the proverbial marketing limb can be rewarding, but only if the situation calls for it. Radical changes sometimes can be the way to beat a control, but make sure your plan of attack is based on your knowledge of the product, audience and marketplace, not just your desire to do something different.
"That's abandoning the creative process altogether," agrees Lewis. "I see that frequently, where someone covers up an imaginative sterility by saying, 'They have this, so we are going to do that' just to veer far away. But the control is a control for a reason."
Roache learned that lesson the hard way when he infused a test package with some sex appeal and moved away from the control's offer-driven message toward a benefits of usage appeal. "The package turned out to be a bomb," Roache recalls. "If you have an offer-driven client, make sure that your creative is merchandising the offer, not some other part of the sell. That was a real lesson for us, that sometimes you get too clever for yourself."
Working off of what made the control so successful in the first place can be the key to making your package a hit as well, as Donna Baier Stein learned when she set out to beat Frank Johnson's 20-year-old Nature Conservancy "sandhill crane" control. Recognizing the power of the package, Stein opted to work with that power, rather than against it, creating a package that featured its own "spokesbird," this time a black-crowned night heron chick, and benefits-oriented copy that employed the same sometimes humorous, sometimes emotional, sometimes business-like, and always effective tone (see "Creating a Celebrity Spokesbird," February 2002).
Stein's version went on to beat the control by upwards of 15 percent and has been mailing for 10 years. "If the night heron package has been a success," wrote Stein, "it's at least partly because it was based on such an excellent model."
Format Before Function
Another common mistake is placing too much emphasis on format, says Bloom. The danger here lies in building a package around an idea or format that you've seen elsewhere or that has worked for you in the past, regardless of whether it's right for your product.
"You look at [the package] postmortem and you realize you just fell in love with the color and the concept and the copy and you just ended up being too close to it," says Bloom. "We try to make sure that no matter what we are doing, it's designed to get an order. Creativity is the way to get our message out there; it's a means, not the end."
Lewis also warns against mechanical tricks, such as full bleed, embossing and die cutting that don't affect responsebut can have a dramatic effect on your budget. You are better off, he cautions, "simply making a clear offer and saying something on the envelope that forces it to get opened."
"Sometimes, when I've lost a test," agrees Chewning, "it's because I was trying to be a bit too clever, or it's an idea that I've been too married to."
Budgets also play a large role in this problem, as many creatives and clients can be inclined to use a particular format because of what it means to the bottom line. "The mentality right now," says Bloom, "is 'if we can get this package for a dime, let's just keep getting it for a dime and sacrifice the response rate.'" To circumvent this, work with your clients to develop a relationship of trust, asserts Bloom. "Say to them, 'I know my job, you know your job, let's work together.'"
All this perspective on what went wrong yesterday is great, but how can you be better prepared for tomorrow?
* Ask yourself four very important questions, says Lewis: "What has caused this to work and why hasn't it worked better? If I were getting this instead of sending it, what would cause me to respond? Has it been clear? Am I replacing my imagination with mechanical tricks that have nothing to do with response?"
* Avoid the direct mail traps that are the fault of having an effective control to start with, including cuteness, boredom, parallelism and an unclear message, says Lewis.
* Don't try to do too much. Changing too many things can be very risky, warns Chewning. "It's like a baseball player going to bat in the ninth inning with men on base, and he tries to hit a homerun instead of just grounding to the outfield so the other guys can score."
* Stay away from subtlety. "The rule of negative subtlety," says Lewis, "is that a direct response message loses impact in direct relation to an increase in subtlety."
* Be dramatic. "[People] get all this stuff in [their] mailboxes every day," says Roache. "And most of it is just boring as can be. ... [Your package] has to do something to dominate the mail."
* Take a cue from what you know works. "All the long-standing controls have this in common: They are clear, they are concise, they are directive, they sound or read like people talk, and they build a one-to-one relationship," says Bloom.
* Get to the point fast. "You've got to instantly say 'Here is a gigantic benefit for you and you are a doggone fool if you pass it up,'" says Lewis. "That's the way you beat a control; come in with guns blazing."