Monthly Archives: March 2013

What today’s digital marketer can learn from The Reader’s Digest.

When I was working at The Reader’s Digest Association (I headed up their in-house Promotion Department for five years) people always asked me: “Why do you put all those bits of stuff in the mailpacks, isn’t it just a waste of trees?”

And the answers are, from a direct marketing perspective at least, very interesting and have a very timely resonance for today’s digital marketers.

The first thing to note about Reader’s Digest mailpacks is that their basic construction evolved over the best part of 50 years. By testing, testing, testing.

So the famous packs that used to roll out worldwide were beautiful examples of where testing gets you. It gets you busy, multiple piece mailings stuffed with all manner of printed items.

Nothing is in the pack by accident or whim. It’s there simply because it increases response.

Three important DM techniques make this so.

The first is the use of incentives. They are the magic ingredient that converts a punter from a ‘maybe’ into a ‘yes, please’.

Many of them in the RD packs were prize-draw based of course. The main incentive, and the one given the most real estate in the pack, was the main draw: ‘Win £250,000 when you respond’. ‘Yes, please’. Double your prize draw win if you respond within a week ‘Yes, please.’

And remember, the big prize draw didn’t actually incentivise purchase. You could reply and enter the draw using the ‘No’ envelope. It’s illegal to offer a simple draw for purchase in any case (hence the No Purchase Necessary on your baked bean tin competitions etc).

But 1) allowing a No response builds you a list of responsive punters and 2) people learned that they could open one of our packs and enter the draw without having any pressure to buy.

But if you did decide to buy the book or CD set or whatever, you got extra incentives—like additional competitions, often a spot the ball to win a car, for example. (The law considers this a test of skill and judgement so not a draw.) And an extra prize on top if you buy quickly.  Or a free widget.

So each incentive is tested to see how it increases response. Perhaps it first appears in the letter. It increases pull by 5%. So then it’s tested as a separate ‘action device’. A little mini-promotion in its own right.

And this is where the second principle comes in: Entry Points. Having several bits of stuff in the pack allows different people to ‘enter’ the pack from different places. Hmm, win a car, hmm, win £250,000, hmm a great DIY book, hmm some stickers to play with….

So the pack gradually build in size and complexity as each new incentive idea is tested and then given its own separate identity. (And of course these stand-alone pieces can be used in loads of different packs, all over the world too.)

(By the way, good direct marketeers are always conscious of Exit Points, too. Places where you give the reader an opportunity to stop reading. That’s why mid-copy links are such a terrible idea on your hard-selling website.)

The third key principle in a Digest pack is personalisation. This is all about making the reader feel that he or she is somehow being addressed one-to-one. The pack has been put together just for them.

So we use lots of mechanical perso and copy techniques like Reward & Recognition (‘because you’ve enjoyed our cookery books before, Mr Scrolls, I thought…’) and Selection (‘Only two people in Stafford Road will receive this chance to win £250,000…’).

We’d often make the envelope look like a personal package from DHL or something. (A good envelope could easily increase pull by 20% in a test.)

Most importantly, we make sure nothing in the pack looks like advertising. Everything is carefully under-designed

Odd is good, we used to say.

In today’s digital-focused world, making direct response stuff look like advertising is still the easiest way to kill its pull stone dead. Same in the press; editorial style ads always outpull ads that look like ads. Same on telly.

And this is the reason why banner ads that look like banner ads simply don’t work.







Is selling a science or an art?

It’s a funny old business.

If you’re a big gun creative director in the world of advertising, your salary depends on the amount of awards you’ve won.

But if you’re a big gun creative director in the direct marketing business, your salary depends on the amount of stuff your work sells.

That’s why real direct marketing copywriters are always looking for new ways to increase the response rates their work generates—always seeking a little copy twist or technique that will add a percentage here, a percentage there, to the ‘pull’ (DM jargon for response) of the campaign.

And they know these techniques work because they test. And test and test. If the new technique adds response, you keep it. If it doesn’t you ditch it. Simple.

It’s what makes direct marketing seem more like a science than an art. Which, in many ways it is. And, as in science, things often happen that are completely counter to many people’s intuition.

Here’s a great example, and a very interesting technique.

A client I was working for made their money out of those Premium Phone Lines that everyone hates.  Not a client I’m particularly proud of, but instructive none the less.

The business model was this: you send a letter telling the punter that they have been selected to receive an award. You give them a list of the awards which will be distributed. They have to ring up to find out which one they can claim. Naturally most get the cheapest one on the list, the voucher, the mp3 player etc.  The phone call they make costs a ludicrous amount like five or six quid, which is how the company makes their money.

So it’s all about getting as many people to call as possible, like any other direct mail exercise.

Now, two of the most powerful sales/response motivators are what social psychologists call Social Proof and Scarcity.

Put crassly, Social Proof works by appealing to one’s herd mentality. “Nine out of ten owners say their cats prefer it”, “87% of women said it improved their appearance of youthfulness”.

If you want to persuade someone to do something, show them that lots of other people are doing it. It’s an unbelievably powerful motivator. It’s one of the reasons testimonials always work so well, for example. (And the reason why suicide rates always increase when one is reported in the news.)

Scarcity, on the other hand, works by planting an idea that something the punter wants/is on the point of buying is quite scarce/rare so you better snap it up quick, madam. “Only two days until Sale ends”, “Last ten pairs available” “Strictly Limited Edition”. (Ebay is a master of manipulating this of course: “Don’t miss out on…”)

What I did for this client is combine these two motivators. I wrote some copy for a test which said “Experience shows us that this offer is certain to be hugely popular. We apologise therefore if the phone lines are particularly busy when you call, but your call will be answered. Please call promptly however as the number of awards are strictly limited to those shown here.”

The client was very reluctant to run the test because he felt that telling the people the lines would be busy would put people off calling.

Quite the reverse.

Inserting these simple sentences into the call to action bit of the letter increased response by enough to make it a valuable addition to the control pack.

And now you know why. “Hugely popular” and “particularly busy” leverage social proof. “Strictly limited” leverages scarcity.

All of which goes to show, if you’re really interested in selling stuff, not just winning awards, you should study human motivation and the psychology of persuasion. You’ll get far more ideas than you ever will from the D&AD annual.

Search Engine Optimisation—a cautionary tale

Last year one of my long-standing online clients, Robin, MD of Planet Numbers, phoned me up in a bit of a tizz. Apparently his website had ‘stopped working’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well, suddenly we’re not getting any sales at all!’.

‘What have you changed on the site?’

‘Er, we’ve just had it search engine optimised by these SEO specialists. Cost us a bloody fortune.’

I went and had a quick gander at the site which, hitherto, had been pulling like a train (modesty forbids me to mention who wrote the copy).

Eek! (I actually uttered a slightly stronger word than Eek!, to be honest.)

Yes, these gurus had SEO’d all the copy, all right. And the hits were flying in from Google. Trouble was, once you arrived at the site it was virtually unreadable.

I mean, serious rubbish. Copy that looked like it had been written by a four year old. Full of all the right keywords (hooray!) but, to all intents and purposes, utterly useless in terms of driving online sales or even enquiries.

I rewrote it from top to bottom, keywords and SEO structure and all, and, as if by magic, the sales suddenly started coming in again. Literally as soon as my new copy was live.

Scary, huh?

All of which goes to show that SEO in itself is a pointless exercise. Unless your customers buy something when they get there, and unless you get the right customers going there in the first place, SEO is meaningless.

You’ve got to get them there, of course. And SEO in all its guises is the way to do it.

But when your punters arrive you’ve got to use every copy technique at your disposal to get them buying/responding or whatever it is you want them to do.

It’s about sales, not about hits.

As someone much cleverer than I, once said, HITS stands for How Idiots Track Success.


The Red Cross and The Reciprocity Principle

A door drop thumped emphatically on to the Nobodyscrolls doormat this week, from The Red Cross.

Stuffed to the gills with goodies to try and persuade me to give to this most worthy of charities. This was a direct response pack put together by somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Lovely jubbly!

As well as the letter—nice and long, two sides of smallish type, long PS. Weak headline, weakish opening—takes a while to get to the point but its heart’s in the right place.

Demands that I give a fiver upfront though; an ‘early close’ we DM folk call that. This one’s in the first headline so you can’t get much earlier than that.

But what the pack really majors on is reciprocity. This is a tried and tested sales technique that relies on me giving you something in order for you to (unconsciously probably) feel obliged to give me something in return. In this case, your hard-earned fiver.

(There are loads of interesting studies on how the principle works. Cialdini is the name to Google here.)

So how do they leverage the reciprocity principle? By including in the pack a bookmark, two greetings cards for me to use, two floral drinks coasters and a biro!

All in an envelope with a huge window so I can see the goodies before I even open it.

Now this pack will have cost A LOT. But the people who put it together know precisely what they’re doing. Because they know that the more gifts they include for me, the more likely I will be to donate to them in return. The ROI will work.

How do they know? Because they’ll have tested in small increments.

Put one gift in, response goes up. Put another one, response goes up again. Put some coasters in? Up again. And so on.

Until they get a killer ‘control’ pack that does the business for them time after time. It becomes harder and harder to beat.

And that’s when they call me in. Please.

The snake oil salesman is alive and well

They used to be called mountebanks, charlatans, snake-oil salesmen or simply confidence tricksters.

But now they run companies called Ouch! or Connexshuns or Orange Toad or something similarly fashionable and fatuous or, even worse, they’re Marketing Journalists.

What they all have in common is that they pontificate profoudly on marketing and advertising but have never actually had to sell anything in their life. And they therefore come out with stuff that sends the bullshitometer crashing into the red zone.

I made the mistake of idly glancing through a supplement to The Guardian this weekend  (“Superbrands”, whatever they are) which was rammed with pretentious statements by a choice selection of these self-proclaimed gurus.

Here are a few of my favourites…

“Heritage brands reign supreme for consumers, while virtual consumption gains pace in the business world”.

Virtual Consumption?  Eh? Sorry, new one on me. I read the article and was none the wiser. Is it imaginary customers buying pretend goods with hallucinatory money? Or just people visiting websites? No idea; but I do know the piece was written by a nice gel called Lucy. Which came as no surprise at all.

Here’s another one from Ms L: “In times of austerity consumers often revert back to what they know and trust, to find a sense of security in an otherwise mixed-up world”.

What on earth is this poor woman talking about?  Clearly she’s so posh she’s never actually met anyone suffering an attack of austerity.

It isn’t about some crazy, mixed-up world, dear. It’s about Not Having Enough Money To Buy Stuff. But then the lovely Lucy writes for The Guardian so she’s probably never met anyone suffering a bout of austerity in her life. Or a nasty case of consumption, virtual or otherwise.

But this is a cracker:

“With service organisations, consistency of the customer experience is critical to the strength of the brand”.

Riiiiiiight. So you’re saying, correct me if I’m wrong, that a service company needs to provide good service in order to be successful. Fascinating. What a brilliant marketing insight. No wonder this chap is, I kid you not, a Professor of Marketing no less.

And last but by no means least, a woman who works for an outfit called Contagious (told you so) says: “Disintermediation was the marketing industry’s buzzword of 2012”.

No it wasn’t.