Three-Step Process Boosts Response from Your Current Controls

There's a three-step creative approach that builds on your current controls to boost response. You're probably familiar with some of the ingredients. But if you put together a testing program based on all three steps, the payoff can boost your bottom line by 25 percent — or more.

Since you're using the strengths of your current controls as a starting point, you're cutting your risk to the bare minimum. And your cost is ultra-low, too.

The three steps are very straightforward:

1. Test new outer envelopes wrapped around your current controls.

2. Test new lift notes in your current controls.

3. Test new headlines and lead paragraphs on your current control letters.

Step 1 involves wrapping a new outer envelope around your current control. You could test an envelope with a new headline, and you probably should. But why limit yourself to a variation of your winning formula? For a few cents per piece mailed, you can test new approaches such as:

* An envelope with doodles and a coffee stain on it that beat the control and reached a market segment the control couldn't touch (see DM News, 3/9/98, p.56).

* A package that looks like it was mailed from Russia. It had a simulated cancellation that looked like an Orthodox church dome. The Russian stamp, a reproduction of the real thing, was a transfer device for the sweepstakes inside. But this package was mailed in the United States by bulk rate. It pulled a 9.38 percent response.

There are several things to keep in mind when you're planning creative approaches for outer envelope tests. A different envelope wrapped around your current control may boost response rates or bring in new types of customers. And a third-class letter does not have to look like bulk mail. It can look like almost anything you want it to — as long as it sells the goods and meets postal regulations. But to really sell the goods, it has to do more than just grab attention. It has to set the stage for the scene inside.

An indicia does not have to look like an indicia. You can work it into your creative strategy.

A stamp does not have to be postage. A stamp can be foreign. It doesn't even need a denomination. A stamp can be a transfer device. It can help you tell the story of your merchandise. It can have any design — even one created from scratch.

An official-looking outer envelope may not seem to perform differently from its more commercial-looking counterpart. But if you find a way to measure response by marketplace segment, you may find that an official-looking outer envelope appeals to a different kind of person.

Most of the time you should not give much information about your offer on the outer envelope. The outer envelope is just like a store window on Main Street. You want it to grab attention, but you don't want it to close the sale. The close is made on the sales floor, after the sale has been set up.

There was a time when all we had to do was put an enticing benefit or two on the outer envelope. Prospects would then open the package and read more. But the explosion of direct mail has caused a problem. Too many copywriters have promised too much. Many prospects have become cynical.

Tried-and-true winning formulas are getting tiresome because we've bombarded our marketplace with the same stuff, year after year. We have always stressed benefits, usually in a straightforward manner. In the process, we have educated our prospects. So, they've seen it before and they know what's in the envelope without opening it. There are no surprises anymore.

Until recently you could tell prospects about the 150 percent profit they could get by using a little-known investment strategy, and they'd be hooked. Now they don't believe it. More prospects are likely to toss the unopened envelope in the trash.

Once upon a time we could offer a 37% discount on a newsletter, and we'd get the prospect's interest. Now everyone offers newsletters at discounts — and they give away free sample issues.

In the old days, a promotion for a book on marketing plans could trumpet “The $30,000 marketing consultation you can get for only $129.” Many prospects have seen this technique before, and they know they're not going to get what the copy promises. So it's necessary to test another approach in a head-to-head, A/B split.

The change in the way our marketplace is responding to direct mail is similar to its response to the news. Most news shows have become just shows with a large dose of entertainment mixed in. The direct mail equivalent is not quite entertainment, but it's similar.

Our marketplace wants direct mail to be intriguing: “Hint at a benefit. Grab me by my curiosity, as well as by my emotions. Then I'll open your envelope. If you can keep me interested. If you can make me say 'Wow!' after my initial 'Huh? What?' And if you are a master sales person — then I may buy from you. Tell me about a projected 1,444,460,000-ounce shortage of something that's not gold, but isn't identified on the envelope, and I may be interested — especially if you tell me I can make an 899% profit.”

It's deliberate that the shortage is not an even amount. Not only was the odd number true, but it was more believable than a round number. This outer was wrapped around a successful newsletter insert, so we could turn it into a direct mail piece. It pulled more than 400% of break-even.

The second step in your three-step, control-boosting process is to test new lift notes in your current control. Lift notes are an underutilized tool to boost profits. A lift note that costs less than $20 per thousand can double response.

One example of a lift note that doubled response in an A/B split test was created for a $200 a year investment newsletter. It promised to show investors how to avoid scams. The text explains that mobsters are manipulating the price of some Initial Public Offerings that look like legitimate stock. But the editors of IPO Insider know all the signs of trouble, and they'll warn you away from problems.

So after the initial “Huh? What?” the prospect says, “Wow! If I'm going to invest in IPOs, I better have a subscription to this.” It's a powerful message. It's based on those two sales motivation factors: fear and greed. Powerful direct mail concepts are often controversial and unsettling.

For most of us, response rates are declining. We can't say the same old thing in the same old way if we want to get attention, interest and action. We need creative that makes prospects say, “Huh? What? Wow!”

The bottom line is that this lift note told the truth in a compelling way. The information on mob involvement in IPOs came from The New York Times. So, no wonder this lift note doubled response.

There are several factors that make lift notes work:

• They give a different point-of-view, so they catch undecided prospects who weren't motivated by the sales letter.

• Since they have a different viewpoint, they should not be signed by the same person who signed the sales letter.

• They give prospects a compelling reason to upgrade an order.

• The headline is fascinating, teasing and involving, so the prospect just has to open it to find out what you're talking about.

• They make an ordinary topic memorable and fascinating. For example, “The Mystery of the Chinese Egg Puzzle” is really a lift note for a commodities trading newsletter.

A strong lift note — even if it's small — will get noticed, read and acted on no matter how many other things there are in the package. Lift notes even work in big, complex sweepstakes.

One of the valuable tests you can do with lift notes is to check your assumptions. Every company has them. Every industry has them. They're things we all know for sure. But how do we know for sure? Sometimes we don't really know at all.

At Marketing & Publishing Associates, for example, we knew extensive track records help sell investment newsletters. Everyone who publishes an investment newsletter knew that, too.

So why not use a thorough track record to boost response for one of our newsletters that had unusually good results? We chose a publication for futures traders for this test. Our editors had made a huge number of trades, and most of them were successful. So we put together a list of these trades. They filled three 8-by-11 sheets. We added a certification by our accountant that said he had examined all these trades, and the track record was accurate. It looked impressive. The results were unbelievable. We tested the lift note with the track record in an A/B split. It cut response in half.

Since many of our packages had extensive track records in them, we learned a valuable lesson: You can learn a lot from a so-called failed test. We realized that too much good news is overwhelming. It makes it seem like it takes a lot of work to make money with this newsletter since there are so many trades involved. It's better to weave the track record into the narrative of the letter, one trade at a time.

Never assume you know anything for sure. What worked yesterday may have fatigued and may not work today.

Lift notes are a great way to test your assumptions. They're cheap, and you can produce them quickly. Lift notes are a prime tool in the direct marketer's strategic toolbox.

Here's another way to use lift notes as a strategic tool. Test a concept in a lift note. If it boosts response, test it on the outer envelope. An inexpensive lift note test can point the way to the creative strategy for a new package.

After you've tested several envelopes and lift notes, you're ready for the third step:

Look at the test results for Steps 1 and 2. Identify winning creative concepts and copy platforms in your tests. Use them in the headline and lead paragraph in your letters. Test once again.

Now, when you read your test results, you should have enough information to decide which concepts and copy platforms are strong enough to use as the basis for completely new packages.

Instead of testing an entirely new package, with all the cost and risk involved, you've done a series of low-cost, low-risk tests. If they all beat the control, there's a high probability your new packages — based on these tests — will beat the control, too.

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