Developing a creative-breakthrough audit that works

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According to the Direct Marketing Association, 85 percent of direct communications (mail, e-mail, television, etc.) fail to live up to their response potential. For some, the shortfall is a result of not having a proper call to action. For others, cluttered design is to blame. Still others fail because of unclear creative goals.

There is, however, a foolproof methodology for marketers to determine the response-readiness of their communications. It is called a creative audit.

Creative audit defined

A creative audit is an in-depth analysis of an existing piece of creative (or a campaign). Through a creative audit, both the pros and cons of the opportunities for improvement of the communication vehicle-or vehicles -- are explored.

It is the goal of a creative audit to deliver a better understanding of the tenets of good direct creative, a hands-on understanding of how to make communications work hard for improved response and return on investment, a proven methodology for proper integration with the brand, and an understanding of how to optimize customer relationships using data-inspired creative elements.

A key component of an effective creative audit is the act of questioning. Through a creative audit, marketers can address pain points that keep a creative piece from reaching its fullest potential. Such questions might include:

  • Are there appropriate calls-to-action?
  • Is the copy sufficiently feature/benefit driven?
  • Are the font sizes commensurate with the needs of the target audience?
  • Does the communication do the brand justice?
  • Is there proper aesthetic integration across all channels of communication?
  • Do e-mails use "bite-sized" copy points instead of paragraph-driven narratives?
  • Do interactive efforts have sufficient links "above the fold?"
  • Is the style of design and the offer appropriate to the audience?
  • Does the design serve up a clear hierarchy for the eye?
  • Does the communication make its goals clear from the start?
  • Is the communication cost efficient?

The end result of a creative audit should not be the pinpointing of opportunities for reshaping the brand. Rather, an effective creative audit will reveal ways to leverage the brand while adhering to the tenets of solid direct response advertising.

A well-done creative audit is completely vertical agnostic. Regardless of the industry or market, if more effective solutions and stronger creatives are important, then a creative audit is appropriate.

When should a creative audit be performed?

A number of markers can easily indicate that the time is right for a creative audit, including:

  • Client dissatisfaction with current creative executions
  • Unacceptable response over time
  • Difficulty retaining customers (the need to staunch the "leaky bucket")
  • The lack of aesthetic integration between brand and direct communications

When embarking on a creative audit, marketers are smart to review and recommit to some important creative tenets. For example, creative executions should always be solutions-based, not format-based. In other words, creativity for "creativity's sake" is always a mistake. In all creative development, strategy and deep connection to a target market supported by data must be the driving force.

Other key concepts:

  • Creative solutions are best brought about by a thorough understanding of the core target audience - font sizes, color schemes, reverse-outs, length of copy should be based more on the recipient's age/demographic/etc. than any other factor.
  • Aesthetic decisions are as much science as art - the number of words, subheads, links, etc. should be based on the core goal of that tactic (Awareness? Hand-raising? Product ordering?).
  • Marketers should be strong proponents of creative integration across channels. When more than one channel is used, brand elements should cohere to provide a powerful overall message.
  • Marketers should be strong proponents of branded direct. This means following the tenets of solid direct response, but leveraging the power of the brand.
  • A creative audit also can reveal when the client's own data is not properly utilized. Sometimes, the client has fairly solid data about buying behavior, demographics, segments, etc. but the resultant creatives use none of it - they are merely brand ads posing as direct response communications. A good audit can teach how to deploy those valuable bits of data into segmented, personalized creatives.

Case in point
A Web-based company specializing in connecting would-be employees and employers sought to audit its online creative initiatives. A thorough creative audit revealed the problem wasn't so much "creative design" but ineffective use of personalization. While the marketer had solid data from which to work, it did not apply the data in any apparent way. It was determined that increased personalization, intelligently applied, would result in higher response.

The resulting new creative applied name and business data to the employer-targeted pages, allowing prospective employers to see their company's name and job titles highlighted. The ability to speak directly to an individual (for example: "Attention Mr. Smith") helped draw attention to relevant messaging, including prominent offers.

One major lesson learned through this creative audit exercise was understanding that direct marketing creatives have different goals than "brand" creatives. In this case, the creative audit revealed potential response flaws. The audit served as a virtual no-risk way to assess current "one-to-one" effectiveness, and to refine messaging accordingly.

For direct marketers, a creative audit can be an effective tool to help fix problems caused by lack of measurement, under-whelming response rates, and lack of balance between brand and direct creatives.

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