Pushing the Envelope Needn't Break the Bank

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There's a way to test the creative approach for No. 10 envelope direct mail packages, even without a testing budget. I've named it Pushing the Envelope, and this low-risk approach costs less than $1,500 for creative and printing.


The payoff -- pointing the way to a new control, finding a new winning formula and combating list fatigue and universe saturation -- is possible while boosting the bottom line.


Faced with declining response rates at a small specialty financial newsletter publisher, I decided to minimize test risk by wrapping new carrier envelopes around proven, money-making control packages. I had several objectives in mind when I created these tests:


* Beat the control and make even more profits with essentially the same package.


* Combat universe saturation by making the package unrecognizable and thereby buying a new chance to get the envelope opened.


* Appeal to new prospects who didn't respond to the control envelope.


* Point the way to an entirely new control package -- and a new, fresh, winning formula -- built around a new winning envelope. This was especially important because all the envelopes used the same highly promotional approach -- and it was showing serious signs of fatigue.


The first test used an official approach with a plain, white No. 10 window envelope. The return address did not identify the sender, and the envelope was blank except for a small black square and a governmental-looking serial number. A checked background was added to the window show-through area that made the package look like that hoped-for refund check.


The first test tied the control. It was decided to use it as a second control, which then was alternated with the highly promotional envelope. Unfortunately, the firm's database and the design for the product promoted in these packages did not have the ability to tell us much about what type of buyer responded to the official vs. the promotional envelope.


The second test was more ambitious from a creative point of view. It also involved a more sophisticated product that gave more information about respondents, so it answered the question about test vs. control buyers, at least in part.


I chose a totally different creative approach for the second test. The envelope was designed to look like someone had used it as a notepad. Hand-written notes, with cross-outs and doodles covered the front and back, and a few items were circled, underlined or marked in red ink. A smile face wasn't smiling but had tears pouring down it. And a simulated coffee stain in the corner of the envelope added to the doodles' quality.


The copy was straightforward. The front of the envelope read:


"Bonds out of the question. Rising interest rates will slaughter them. Joe is right. Nix that plan!!"


"Blue Chip Stocks Return too low. Can't retire in style. 11% not enough."


"CAN'T RETIRE."


"John has answer. Says he'll show me how investors make 200%+ with safe investments. Take him up on offer to show me. Top priority!!"


The back of the envelope had a scribbled retirement budgeting attempt with "Can't retire" highlighted in red ink.


It looked as if someone had jotted down all their frustrations about investing for retirement -- along with a possible solution. Was that solution inside the envelope? You bet!


This envelope looked different from anything else in the mail. It won a Gold Award -- Best of Show in the Women's Direct Marketing International Jillies in September 1997.


More important than an award, the second test tied the control on the front end. But a quick look at the numbers showed some more analysis was needed to get the complete picture.


The new test produced a higher response rate, but a lower break-even. Analysis showed that there were more orders from subscribers choosing the quarterly-payment option and fewer payments for the entire year. When I looked at projections for long-term profitability, test No. 2 beat the control by several percentage points.


This was big news. We still had another winning formula. And the number of quarterly payments made it obvious that it met our objective of appealing to new prospects who didn't respond to the control envelope. Once again, we decided to use the new envelope as a second control and alternate it with the first.


The cost of these tests was minimal. The conceptualization and writing were done in-house, and the free-lance design cost a couple of hundred dollars. On a 100,000 A/B split run for the envelopes, Westvaco charged about $300 for a press wash-up. And there was a charge of less than $100 for a black plate change for the keycode on the order form.


Even if your company doesn't have in-house creative, you should be able to push the envelope for less than $1,500.


David R. Yale was a vice president and director of marketing at Marketing & Publishing Associates, Fairlawn, NJ, when he developed Pushing the Envelope. He now is a free-lancer in Bayside, NY.
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