Zimmerman Agency's Caroline Zimmerman on the Evolution of the Voucher
She began life after college as a school teacher before getting a job in the circulation department of a small magazine in New York City. That was when Caroline Zimmermann began to learn about direct marketing, including how much she liked it, to the point that she next got a job at a boutique direct marketing agency, where she became fascinated by both the art and the science of direct marketing—including whether or not her promotions worked.
“Perhaps it’s why I gave up teaching. I liked the idea of getting a report card from my clients more than giving them out,” says Zimmermann, who I recently enjoyed an extended conversation with about copywriting, design and her invention of the iconic, effective voucher that every publishing company now relies upon for revenue.
Clearly, she’s since received many stellar report cards from her clients, especially after she ventured out on her own and created the Zimmermann Agency in Brookville, N.Y. Zimmermann has created literally dozens of “control busters” in nearly every business category for companies like Chase Manhattan Bank, Time Inc. Magazines, American Express Publishing, Columbia House, Hearst Magazines, Hachette Filipacchi and others. For example, she has all the controls for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Discover Magazine, including acquisition, expires, renewals for gift giving, insert mail, etc.
Indeed, 40 years after beginning in the direct mail industry, Zimmermann is again a teacher, this time concerning the principles of solid direct marketing, running a business as both a copywriter and designer, and the ongoing evolution of the powerful voucher.
Boldt: After starting your own copywriting business, why did you decide to become a direct mail designer as well?
Zimmermann: I didn’t get into design until about halfway through my current career, but getting into design was probably the biggest thing that happened to me in terms of making a really meaningful contribution to direct response and to developing winning packages.
I used to write a package and then give it to a designer—sometimes that was great, but sometimes it really wasn’t. I believe that in voucher packages, for instance, the design takes precedence over the writing.
My design really came about because of the computer, which really revolutionized direct marketing. I developed a working strategy of first envisioning the design, then designing this vision and finally putting the copy in place to go with that vision.
Boldt: How did this change your working relationship with clients?
Zimmermann: When I started writing and designing, I started getting many more controls than I had prior to that. There’s nothing like having winners to put yourself in the hearts of those that hire you.
Second, when my clients started to critique an effort, I would have an answer for everything. I would be able to tell them why I did something. I could immediately defend what I was doing—and I could sell things that normally you can’t sell if you didn’t handle the design.
Boldt: What led up to your creation of the voucher?
Zimmermann: It came along about 15 years ago. I got that idea from the “Statement of Benefits” from the American Express Card in its monthly statement. I conceived the voucher package, but it was also fair to say that a few others were working on similar packages. I became known for the so-called “SOB Package,” or Statement of Benefits effort with the blue band.
Boldt: How did your publishing clients first react to the voucher?
Zimmermann: They jumped at it. There were two main mail pieces at the time: the classic editorial 6? x 9? package, with the four-page letter, a big brochure, order card, BRE, and sometimes a lift letter and BRE. For some, there was also the double postcard, which brought in almost no cash with order and sold with mostly a free preview issue and which further delayed billing. The editorial package was done much the same way, in terms of not much cash with order, premiums required, waiting for payment … all expensive avenues to go down.
The idea of a voucher package was something completely different. People had enough budget then to take a risk. And the voucher turned out to be one of the smartest things you could do, and at the time it was unlike anything that was in existence. What it did have was great cost efficiency, which remains very appealing to people.
So we tried it, and then it worked like gangbusters. Once it started working, it becomes a matter of moving it to the many stages it’ll go through. If you were to look at any of my packages today, it would bear almost no resemblance to the monarch package with the blue band and window. It’s evolved through the years.
Boldt: Why was the voucher so successful immediately?
Zimmermann: Because people thought it was a bill. That was my whole premise right away. I knew the American Express Statement of Benefits went to millions and millions of homes and people were used to thinking of that kind of package as a bill. If it goes into the bill basket, bills to be paid, then people already have the mind-set that they’re going to pay for it, checkbook in hand.
If it’s an appealing type of magazine, it increases the odds that they’ll take the next two steps that you want them to take: one, to subscribe and two, then paying for it right then and there. Then getting 80 [percent] to 85 percent of cash with order on a voucher is very hard to beat.
Boldt: Does that original premise work as well today as it did then?
Zimmermann: Yes, but perhaps today, the voucher’s evolution means it doesn’t look so much like a bill as something important that you better check before you throw away.
My premise about direct mail has always been to put my money and my time into the envelope because you can have the greatest contents, but if nobody gets to them, so what? So I like to create an envelope that I call “mildly disturbing”—there’s something about it that the recipients can’t quite be sure that they should stuff it into the garbage. They either open it or put it someplace where it will be [opened].
Boldt: Is there a voucher style that you tend to use, or is it often different?
Zimmermann: It can be both. At Hachette, it’s the same package, just different logos, and same spirit for every title. But it’s rare to get the same voucher to work for every title. That’s why direct marketing is just as much an art as it is a science. We just don’t know when it will be one or the other. Same deal with Hearst, where the voucher control worked for most of their titles but not all.
Boldt: Are publishers asking for more from the voucher?
Zimmermann: Yes, one trend is that publishers want more branding in their package. They want to use the same typeface they use in the magazine, the same colors, same styles and icons and graphic design.
I consider that very carefully, as that can work to your advantage or can be to your disadvantage, depending on how that magazine was developed. A great example of that concerns renewals. I tell them I’ll use their branding in the beginning, but as we get further along in the series, they have to let me use my judgment. A lot of times the graphic devices you want to use just don’t have enough power to them to execute on a renewal effort. To say “you’re expiring” in 45 Helvetica light type is missing something. It doesn’t have the impact.
Boldt: How do you respond to the criticism of the voucher for its limited design and copy?
Zimmermann: One of the criticisms of the voucher is that it’s so plain. One of the criticisms of sweepstakes was that everyone is caught up in the money, but P.S., they are ordering. Same thing has happened about the voucher for a different reason. Different people are criticizing it, and the salespeople started to have trouble with it and wanted to do more to it to make it unique to each magazine.
So I started adding components that would give it more personality from the publication but yet wouldn’t destroy what the voucher was about. It wasn’t easy, initially, because you can’t just bring over the stuff from an editorial package. It was a matter of developing the kinds of components that felt right in a voucher, which is why you see so many buckslips and trifold brochures (usually the petite variety).
Boldt: Are there components that should not be in the voucher?
Zimmermann: The most difficult component but the most risky to put in the voucher is the letter. In spite of the fact that magazines are about reading, most people don’t want to read [their direct mail]; they want to scan. The letter forces you to read. You can still put in a letter that screams out, “Read me!” but most times it will reduce response.
That being said, one of my favorite letters for Kiplinger’s (that I didn’t write) was called “My Crazy Rich Aunt,” written by Richard Armstrong, and it was so good that I had to find a way to get it into the voucher. So I updated the letter and made it work in the voucher. And guess what? It really increased response. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
That example is more of an exception than the rule, of course. Think about how many letters you’ll find in there in vouchers today, but you’ll see a lot of other things in there. I called it the fancy voucher, where we put in one or two buckslips. And I continue to look at editorial packages to see what else I could include.
Boldt: Does that include freemiums?
Zimmermann: I love freemiums. They can get a pretty good response bump. If it’s editorially driven, like the map for New York Magazine, it becomes an educational way for you to tell people about your magazine as opposed to a brochure that is promotional. And it’s cheap, and it supports the magazine.
Boldt: Does the voucher leave enough room for the editorial package?
Zimmermann: Certain lists need an editorial package. Food Network Magazine started with an editorial package and then went to the voucher, and it’s doing very well.
But think about the cost per thousand for the package; think about what it’s got to do in comparison to a voucher. Usually, an editorial package has to have a sweetener in the package—premium, first issue free, cancel at any time—that delays billing and encourages cancellation. You don’t have that with the voucher.
Boldt: Does the offer remain the heart of the voucher?
Zimmermann: Yes. The reason it works is classic human psychology: They get to see how much they’re getting for a certain amount of money. Usually it’s a hard offer, so there’s no preview issue or premium involved. What works best is guaranteed lowest price. If you can do that, then often it can become a control.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Inside Direct Mail, a sister publication to Target Marketing. To learn more about Inside Direct Mail, visit www.insidedirectmail.com.