3 Sensible Ways to Beat Your Control

Want to beat your control but don’t know where to begin? Here’s a strategy I’ve developed over the years that can point you in the right direction. Simply decide in which of the following three categories your control belongs: excellent, good or bad.

This will determine whether you should come up with a completely new idea, tinker with your existing control or trash everything and start from scratch.

Beat an excellent control with a revolutionary approach. An excellent control makes the right offer, uses the right format and deftly employs all the right selling techniques. From a purely creative standpoint, it delivers a high-quality message. Most importantly, the numbers indicate it gets a superior response when mailed to the right lists or placed in the right media.

The key characteristic for excellence is that the control has proved itself a consistent winner in head-to-head tests. Merely being used for a long period doesn’t count because without testing, you don’t know whether it’s a true winner. The longer a control has held its ground, the better it is. Not too many direct mail pieces or ads fall into this category. And beating an excellent control is difficult. Given its particular approach, the control is doing just about all it can do, so incremental changes probably won’t have a significant effect. Your best bet is to test a different approach — a radically different offer or a totally different format. You’re looking for a breakthrough, so you need fresh ideas. The more different, the better.

The problem is that when you have a longtime winner, there’s a natural tendency to modify new test ideas to conform to the old pattern. But there’s no point in producing variations of an excellent control that get about the same response. The Revolutionary Approach works only if you allow yourself to explore new territory and take chances.

Beat a good control with an evolutionary approach. A good control is just that, good. It works. But perhaps it could do better. The numbers indicate acceptable performance, though it may occasionally get beat. There may be a few basic flaws, or it may not take full advantage of certain proven techniques. Perhaps it’s a solid performer that’s starting to fatigue. Or its performance may be so close to that of other controls that it cannot be considered truly superior. It may even be a longstanding producer but just hasn’t been tested head to head to prove its superiority.

Most controls fall into this category. Beating a good control isn’t always easy, but because there’s room for improvement, you don’t have to devise a radically different idea or take expensive risks. Your approach should be to start with what you have and look for ways to make it better. And better could mean better response or less cost, either of which will mean more profit.

Evolution is about making small changes that incrementally improve your control. You add something. Subtract something. Extract an element and build the whole promotion around it. Make something bigger or smaller. Make a more attractive offer. Strengthen the benefits or guarantee. Encourage more involvement. Test personalization. Make response easier. Whatever.

This is a safe and satisfying approach because you know you’re building on something that works. The only thing to remember is not to stray too far from the original. Whatever is working should keep working. You just want the same basic approach to work better or cheaper.

Beat a bad control with a back-to-basics approach. No one wants his control to be in this category, but it’s true for many controls. And I use the term “control” loosely because a bad control is one that is not performing well. And that means it’s not really a control at all. Most likely, testing has been sloppy. Or everything that has been tested has performed poorly, and the control is merely a little less poor than everything else. Or there’s been no testing at all.

What you’ll see here are clear violations of basic direct response principles, poor use or total lack of proven techniques, a copycat approach that’s inappropriate, weak offers, anemic guarantees if any, a lack of clarity and directness and so on.

There’s no point in trying to evolve something that isn’t working. And there’s also no point in trying new ideas when you don’t have a solid response history against which to measure results. The only sensible thing to do is get back to basics. This means keeping things simple and straightforward. Emulate the success of others. Choose a basic format. Make a standard offer. Use proven techniques. Only when you have found what I call your “success groove” should you try anything remotely creative.

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