Eight Ways to Lift Response in '99

We hear it all the time from prospects and clients, alike. “Our response rates have remained flat in recent years, and some have even declined. Why aren't we getting the results from our direct mail efforts that we used to? What can we do to lift response?”

Of course, there are no sure-fire answers to these questions. But before I offer some suggestions, I'd like to introduce you to a friend of mine.

Karen is a 37-year-old professional manager with three children, two cats and one husband who owns his own business. With their demanding schedules, Karen and her husband don't get to share nearly enough time together in their three-bedroom colonial house in the suburbs. It's not uncommon for Karen to feel overwhelmed and stressed out much of the time.

She also feels like a thousand people are talking to her at once. There are actually more than 2,000 because that's about the number of promotional messages in all media that marketers are forcing on Karen every week. She receives more than 30 pieces of direct mail alone during that period of time.

What's more, financial services — everything from credit cards and home equity loans to investment services and debit cards — make up the lion's share of this overload (almost 3 billion credit card solicitations were dropped last year). Karen is being inundated with information, much of it complex. And because most of these marketers are making the same claims, she figures most of them are lying. So what's the point in being loyal to any one financial institution? They're all pretty much the same.

But it doesn't stop there. Overwhelmed, inundated and skeptical, Karen typically looks at her mail in the evenings when she's tired, preoccupied and impatient — she'd really rather be doing other things with this precious time. No wonder she looks at her mail over the trash can.

Is Karen your friend, too? She'd better be. Because Karen, or someone like her, is your prospect today. And if you're going to succeed, you must do everything you can to make her life more tolerable. You must truly understand the complex reality she lives in. You must find a fresh, believable and intrusive way to state your selling proposition at her level of self-interest. If you don't, Karen isn't going to be your friend for long.

The above description is undoubtedly an over-simplification of what is going on in the marketplace. It is also, however, a painfully accurate representation of what we face. As we head into 1999, we should think about Karen before we launch each initiative to market financial products and services — and aim our creative appeals right at her. Here are eight ways to do it.

Simplify. Keep your offer and your language clear, crisp and concise. The temptation is always there, but don't try to say too much and sell too much. Testing has repeatedly proved that it pays to have a single-minded focus. Complexity breeds confusion, and confusion kills response. Remember that consumers are particularly wary of intangible products, especially those that are complex to begin with. KISS is the golden rule in financial direct.

Begin with the benefit. Pretty basic, you say? Yes, but it's not observed as often as you'd like to think. How are you going to make life better, easier, more convenient? To paraphrase Lombardi: Benefits aren't everything, they're the only thing. Use them generously.

Give 'em the facts. Choosing a financial service is a highly considered purchase. The exact opposite of an impulse buy. It's your job to help consumers make an informed, intelligent decision. Do it with a selling proposition that's packed with reasons why. After all, there's a lot at stake. They may have to live with the results of this decision for a long time. And if they get the feeling that something is missing, they'll pass. Be concise, but get specific.

Do it with a difference, part I. Using creative leverage to achieve results has never been more important. Consumers are no longer responsive to the kind of promotion that worked in the past. There is simply too much marketing noise. Like our general advertising colleagues, we must cut through the clutter to get our message noticed. This is especially true in the parity marketplace of financial products. What's more, thanks to our persistent efforts, today's consumers have become direct mail savvy. They recognize the techniques. So we must carefully package these techniques in powerful, relevant concepts that will arrest attention.

Do it with a difference, part II. If you doubt the value of Part I, remember one thing: Virtually all of the cornerstone techniques of direct response creative that we use today were developed by the pioneers of our business 80 to 90 years ago. Yes, they are based on sound principles of human motivation. Yes, they still work, but using the techniques alone aren't enough anymore. Today, we have to generate some excitement before we can generate a response. The old “40 percent offer, 40 percent list, 20 percent creative” formula still applies. But that 20 percent means more to the success of your program than ever before.

Test and test again. It's a dying practice in financial products marketing. The result is we're not learning anything from the one-shot, one-package, one-offer programs that have become commonplace. Testing makes as much sense today as it ever has. Maybe more. Here's one example. Recently, we tested a whimsical, playful creative approach in a credit card acquisition effort for one of our clients. Traditional wisdom says that this will not work. Guess what? Not only did it substantially outpull the control in terms of pure response, the package also lowered the cost per response. So much for traditional wisdom. Test. It's the only way to be sure.

Build your brand. It can make a big difference. Particularly if you do it by appealing to your prospect's self-interest in a way that clearly distinguishes you from your competition. A little familiarity can help a lot, particularly during those first, critical seconds when the consumer is deciding what to do with your package. Over time, it also can help to build trust and comfort. Even today, a strong brand can still create genuine brand preference. And that is what it's all about, whether you're selling laundry detergent or checking with interest.

Make it easy to say yes. Give prospects a variety of convenient, no-hassle ways to respond. They may not use your toll-free number or your Web site, but you'll lift overall response just by offering choices. And always, always make it absolutely clear what it is you're asking them to do. Once again, confusion kills response.

These principles, in and of themselves, won't work miracles. But by applying them consistently, you'll stand a better chance of getting Karen and millions of busy, stressed out, overwhelmed, skeptical and demanding consumers like her to accept your offer.

Dom Cimei is senior vice president, creative director at Marketing Resources of New York Inc.

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