Category Archives: Direct Response

Improving the response rates in every direct marketing medium: Print, Online, Direct Mail and Broadcast

How to make a direct mailing break through the clutter

The most successful business-to-business mailing I ever produced was early in my career, for a company called Acro Automation (*). It was a lead generation letter, mailed in a standard window envelope. But the envelope was stuffed with a wad of real shredded money. I bought the tangled remains of one-, five-, ten- and twenty-dollar bills direct from the U.S. Treasury, in eleven pound boxes. Each was enough to fill approximately 2,500 envelopes. Showing money fragments through the window of the envelope, along with a printed teaser that explained their relevance, was enough to trigger an 11% response rate from a notoriously non-responsive audience of production engineers.

A publicity shot of me with the Acro envelopes, back when I still got carded in barsShortly after that mailing the government called an abrupt halt to the sale of this byproduct of monetary obsolescence. They apparently didn’t appreciate my use of ex-money to generate more of the real stuff. But the lesson had been duly noted. I had learned how to reach out and grab the reader by the imagination: Be unique and outrageous.

I was reminded of this lesson when I read Seth Godin’s account of marketing one of his books. Read his story and take heed. Reconsider that me-too mailing you were planning for your next promotion. Why settle for average when you can break records — and in the process, accumulate great stories, such as mine about the Treasury, and Seth’s about his similar, bureaucratic battle with International Paper?

*I had nothing to do with their current web site, by the way, but I was involved in the acquisition of their four-letter domain name. At the time I had no idea how rare these would become. I was also responsible for another one of those: If I only knew then what I know now, I would have treated these as the valuable client assets that they are!

Sticky ideas are made not born

Memes are ideas that spread like viruses. Some are more contagious than others. What makes an idea contagious is a quality that makes people want to share it. Memes must also be memorable — they have to stay with their “host” long enough to spread. A common cold wouldn’t be nearly so common if it didn’t last long enough in our bodies for us to sneeze or cough. It’s the same with memes. They don’t have to live in us forever in order to be successful, but they do have to find a host and take it for a ride.

In order to be memes, ideas have to be sticky.

An example of a sticky idea that has come and gone is that Elvis Presley is still alive — that his death was faked. Another, which is leaving our consciousness in half lives, is that Halloween trick-or-treating is dangerous because of rampant poisoning of the candy being given out. Did you realize that this was an urban legend? This meme — or sticky idea — reached its apex in the 1980s and drained Halloween of a lot of its fun for subsequent generations of kids.

Sticky ideas are the tools of the trade for marketers. They are of particular importance to interactive marketers, since email and other online communcation can spread a meme like wildfire. Stickiness can make selling a product that much easier. Here are two ideas, one sticky, one not-so-much. They both deal with our immune system:

  • Zinc in lozenge form can help our immune system by interrupting the virus that causes a cold, thus preventing it or lessening its severity
  • Probiotics in foods like yogurt can strengthen the immune system and fight things like upper respiratory infections, since healthy bacteria in the gut are part of our body’s natural system for fighting disease

These are two ideas about staying healthy. Both have the support (in terms of communicating the idea and selling products) by major food and drug companies. But only one of them was sticky enough to be the topic of conversation yesterday, when I was walking to lunch with a couple of business associates.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we were talking about lozenges and not yogurt. The idea that a lozenge can help you feel better — especially with a new, exotic ingredient (zinc) — resonates.

On the other hand, eating yogurt, or taking a pill, with live bacteria in it? As a way to stave off illness? Yuck. It may be true, but it doesn’t stick. I’ve heard this concept for years, but I still don’t think it’s going to catch hold in a big way. Probiotics may continue to grow in sales, but I’m putting my money on zinc.

Made To StickThose ideas were built into the product. You can’t do much to change their stickiness. But many can be altered, like an engineered microbe, to better connect with an audience. This is the theme of a book by the Brothers Heath (not to be confused with be-bop jazz greats The Heath Brothers). The book is called Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

They contend there are six aspects to a sticky idea:

  1. Simplicity — Is it easy to grasp? (“A mineral we don’t get enough of in our foods can cure our cold …”)
  2. Unexpectedness — Like a joke, does it have a punch? (“… and it’s zinc!”)
  3. Concreteness — Does it draw a clear picture? (“… which you can buy in lozenge form.”)
  4. Credibility — Can you believe it? (“I’ve heard it’s based on clinical trials …”)
  5. Emotions — Does it make you feel something? (“Even if it doesn’t work, it’s just good to feel like I’m doing something about colds …”)
  6. Stories — Can it be verbalized? (“… and I think it does work. I started taking zinc just when I was starting to feel a cold come on, and it lasted just three days!”)

Probiotics don’t stack up nearly as well on the stickiness meter. I give the yogurt wheeze high marks for #2 and 4, but medium or low marks for the rest. Especially #5, Emotions, which I think is a key to a sticky idea.

The fact is, no one likes to think much about their lower digestive tract. A finely tuned gut may make you healthier and happier, but please, keep it to yourself, buddy. I’m trying to eat.

The next time you face a marketing challenge, use this checklist to ensure your marketing proposition has what it takes to spread virally. Although I find the Brothers’ Heath list one that was designed as much to fill a book as it is to exhaustively explore stickiness, your idea cannot go wrong if it scores high for all six criteria. It will become sticky, and earn the right to be called a meme.

Get out your yellow highlighter to emphasize your most important web copy

Two of my favorite sites use a technique to make their short, punchy web copy even stronger.

  • 37signals is a smart, irreverent Web 2.0 developer of web-based collaboration and development solutions. I’ve praised one of their products in this blog: Basecamp, an ASP alternative to MS Project. They market their products through a web site and attached blog that aren’t afraid to break with convention. That includes the way they draw your attention to important sales copy.
  • Very Short List (VSL) does the same. It’s a fun, free subscription email and web site that delivers a list of exactly one interesting product, service or web site every single day. The copy they employ to describe each “VSL” is always short and clever. To further aid in scanning, VSL highlights important points in their message.

VSL Thumbnail - Click to enlargeBoth use the technique you see in the sample graphic (click to enlarge). They use a text highlighting technique that any web site could adopt but few do. It’s a clean if somewhat “cute” alternative to bold and italics.

Is this new formatting based on science? In other words, do metrics exist to show that this technique improves readership, or helps convert readers into customers?

No. Josh Fried of 37signals admits in, “We don’t have metrics [to support our design changes]. It’s all gut.” (I agree wholeheartedly by the way, with Brian Clark, author of He cautions in this post that listening to designers and one’s instincts can be a dangerous practice when the outcome could be a major decline in the bottom line of your business.)

So right now web marketers appear to be flying blind when they are using this technique to showcase important copy. This could be remedied.

I’ve made a point to talk to anyone I know who conducts eye tracking heatmaps to see if they’ve ever seen any evidence that this hinders or helps a reader through the thicket of online copy. And if they haven’t, would they like to give it a try?

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on whether this hip spin on copy formatting will prove to be more than a novelty.

In b-to-b marketing, fear and greed are all you’ve got

Years ago a mentor told me that in consumer advertising, there are many motivations for someone to act. But when you’re talking to someone about a product or service for their business, the motivations are less varied. In fact, they boil down to two:

  • Fear
  • Greed


That was nearly 20 years ago. A lot has changed, but I cannot see any evidence that this has changed at all. Your thoughts?

Ads with prancing cowboys may annoy, but they sure do work

Not all online marketers can make this claim, but if you peered into my soul (or some would say analyze my circuitry), you’d see a direct marketer. I’m proud of it. And I feel vindicated when I read articles like today’s in the Advertising section of the NY Times. It’s about and how they’ve annoyed millions with their silly online ads. And made a fortune. Here’s an excerpt:

The company, one of the Internet’s biggest advertisers, routinely festoons Web sites large and small with its ads, spending $74.6 million on them in the first 11 months of 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence. The surprising success of the ads led LowerMyBills to a significant payday: the credit agency Experian bought the eight-year-old company for $400 million in 2005.

Example from the NT Times  article of a LowerMyBills adBut on the path to prosperity, LowerMyBills has run into a lot of people who say the undulating characters in the ads are highly distracting and have so little to do with low-interest loans that they border on the surreal.

The most memorable LowerMyBills banners feature silhouetted dancers like the prancing cowboys, or the couple doing a jig on their roof under a full moon.

As a direct marketer, I know that the only way you can tell if an ad is working is by testing. And there is little logic to what works and what doesn’t.

My background as a direct marketer makes me passionate about the opportunity that the web provides to test many creative concepts and refocus spending on the best of those, in a matter of hours instead of weeks (as is the case with direct mail). This same background makes me quite boring. When I client says, “Should we do it?” — whatever it is — nine times out of ten I have to tell them, “Let’s test!”

Congratulations, by the way, to James Gardner, whose online “hobby,”, got him some ink in the article. He’s a great guy and deserves all of the attention this article is sending his way.


The collaboration technology of choice varies by marketing discipline

Today I had lunch with my friend Don Buck of Buck Marketing. He owns a list brokerage. I was explaining why I had not yet installed the program he swears by, Trillian by Cerulean Studios. It’s a way to aggregate all of your instant messaging (IM) identities into one account. That way, regardless of which system someone wants to reach you in — AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google (Jabber) or a less popular IM account — you can receive and send through one account.

Pretty clever. But it was a solution to a problem that I don’t have.

I only have Google IM, and that’s primarily to communicate with my team members. Few people beyond my coworkers are in my Google buddy list, and I have no need for other accounts. Don said, “That’s interesting but not surprising. I find that my contacts in the email marketing industry use IM to do their work, but those in direct mail use email.”

I have a theory why. Direct mail takes weeks to plan and execute, as do most other marketing projects nowadays. Passing information via email is sufficient to meet those types of deadlines.

Email projects are usually more immediate — at least when you are in the execution stage. We’re talking lag times of days instead of weeks. IM may be the only collaboration technology immediate enough to keep things on track and still keep a record of what’s discussed (otherwise you can just pick up the phone).

Or perhaps it’s something else that turns email marketers away from their lingua franca. Perhaps those who send emails for a living can’t bear to lean heavily on that medium to manage the projects. Sort of like the guy who makes donuts every morning never wanting to sample his own work.

As long as you’re stuck in traffic, can we talk?

Actor, comic and screenwriter Steve Martin wrote the character of God — or at least an omniscient sage — into his 1991 romantic comedy L.A. Story. This is car-centric Los Angeles he’s talking about, so the voice of God wasn’t in the form of a burning bush or an intervening angel, but was the flashing lettering of a freeway sign. Instead of the sign reporting the typical warnings of delays, it gave the lead character personal advice and admonishments. Our star eventually heeds these digital messages, and his own personal heavy traffic magically lifts for a happy Hollywood ending.

Digital BillboardI was reminded of this when I pulled to a stop at a notoriously busy intersection near my home. There, in the muted half-daylight of dusk, was a glowing billboard so rich in color and crisp in detail that it almost seemed to open my door and climb in beside me. I was riveted.

This was a new digital billboard by Lamar Advertising. Both Lamar and competitor Clear Channel Outdoor have posted these LCD boards in my city, along with many others. Over coffee this past Sunday, a friend of mine mentioned the sighting of one of them. They are noteworthy enough that their arrival gets people talking.

It also got me thinking.

LCD billboards grab attention by their picture quality and brightness, and also by the fact that they can rotate ads as frequently as every six seconds. These boards have helped fuel incredible growth in this ad category, called out-of-home advertising. The category is second only to Internet ads in terms of its growth. These boards have also fueled traffic safety concerns, as reported in this recent New York Times article:

“There’s a perception in the advertising industry that you have to up the ante,” said David Zald, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. “We see so much information coming at us that for it to actually leap out and capture our attention, one has to go at a more salient level than you used to.”

But, he added, “there’s a trade-off between the advertiser’s need to grab our attention and the actual safety implications of that attention capture.”

It’s a real concern, especially when the signs are new to a particular roadside. But the danger caused by their novelty will fade. Perhaps their introduction can even be made less jarring by slowing the rotation time — less to gawk at, and thus, more time to think about driving.

What really got me thinking was how a formerly analog medium can work harder when it goes digital. I’d like you to consider for a moment a digital billboard that’s smart enough to anticipate traffic speeds and potential dangers. There are a couple of methods being tested now using things like anonymized cell phone signals to better understand in real time the traffic speeds and conditions of pinpointed stretches of road. Using this sort of information, the signs could respond. When traffic speeds up, rotation could be throttled back.

Now take that traffic-sensitive capability a step farther. Remember, these digital billboards have essentially taken a two-dimensional ad medium and added the third dimension of time. Driven by a computer, anything can be served up on a board, and changed at any time (sometimes the computers fail, with comical results).

What if, when traffic slowed to a crawl, a message was flashed that drivers could respond to immediately, with their cell phones. When you’re bumper-to-bumper, it’s easier to manage a phone conversation and still remain safe. This slowly passing line of drivers would be flashed direct response offers that they have the capability — and free time — to respond to immediately.

Anything that eases their frustration with the wait would drive interest and action. As a public service, and as an added incentive to make the call, the end of the recorded message that consumers would hear would be specific information about the cause of the slow-down — an accident, stalled car or construction — along with verbal instructions on what might be done to ease the slowdown.

Is this smart? Dumb? I’d like to know. What do you think? One thing I’m quite sure of. This idea absolutely cries out to be tested.

To the 2006 ROI Award winner: Your trophy is in the mail

This year, ROI (return on investment) has become a battle cry for marketers in every industry. On this, the last day of the year, I’d like to present a Digital Solid award to the marketing medium that has shown the best overall ROI in 2006.

And the award goes to … the envelope please? [sound of ripping paper] Well, no surprise here. Once again it’s that marketing workhorse, direct mail.

Yes, with all of the marketing technology tactics going — including those with incremental costs in the pennies (e.g., email marketing) and precision targeting that is a direct marketer’s dream (e.g., search engine marketing) — the trophy goes to the grand dad of them all.

Direct mail marketing continues to generate returns averaging between 13 and 16 times original investments, as measured by Direct Marketing Association research. This is as reported by The Winterberry Group, in its December, 2006, white paper on vertical marketing trends in direct mail. Professional associations have been known to puff up their numbers, but these don’t particularly surprise me.

I have several friends who manage multi-million dollar annual direct mail budgets. Each is in a different business category. None of them likes what they have to spend on the medium (postage, printing and lists are all going up faster than inflation), but they all report results that far, far outpace this spending.

What does this tell us about the future of marketing technology? Do we abandon online and mobile techniques and begin (or resume) pouring resources into direct mail? No way. The same Winterberry study emphasizes diversification of techniques and their careful integration. I and my friends agree with this recommendation: Direct mail yields the best ROI when complemented and supported by other media.

It’s also no accident that direct mail marketing is the most mature of measurable marketing technologies.

As other techniques “grow up,” we’ll see them morph and focus, just as direct mail has. Guided by smart marketers and the feedback loop of a well-designed CRM database, other media will evolve to be as effective as direct mail. With lower incremental costs, other media will quickly surpass direct mail in terms of ROI.

Watch this blog in 2007 for up-to-the-minute news on how other media are faring in their progress at delivering improved ROI. It will be an exciting race to the 2007 award, with many promising contenders.

With frienemies like this, who needs eneriends?

Woody Allen famously wrote, “And lo, the lion will lay down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep.” A similar arrangement has led to the coinage of the word “frienemy,” to describe magazine and newspaper publishers that have entered into an agreement with their online nemesis Google. In this agreement, Google is auctioning unsold print ad inventory to select AdWords clients. The arrangement seems to be benefiting both parties more than they expected.

According to a MediaPost report, the sales of print advertising through Google has far outpaced expectations:

Google plans to expand its pilot program next year. The system, which Google has been testing since November, allows advertisers to bid online for daily newspapers’ remnant print ad inventory.

During initial testing with 100 advertisers and 66 newspapers, the volume of ad sales tripled Google’s expectations, according to a story first appearing Wednesday in The Washington Post. That report echoed comments made earlier this month, at the UBS global media conference, by James Conaghan, the Newspaper Association of America vice president for business analysis and research. Conaghan told analysts and media at the conference that Google had sold in three weeks all inventory it expected to sell in the program’s first three months.

Plan on seeing more examples where online marketplaces broker print media space. What this unlikely collaboration means for the ink-and-paper industry is anyone’s guess. Got any ideas?


With Google for Print it’s all about reach

Last year Google tested their ad auction concept in the print advertising space. Bill Wise in MediaPost had a theory for why this pilot wasn’t a huge success. In a word: “scarcity.”

Google AdWords succeeds because there are only so many people searching for a term on any given day, and therefore only so many ad impressions than can run in front of this audience. It’s a finite supply of ads, and one that is perishable from one day to the next. Auctions are a perfect way for Google to optimize ad prices.

But printed publications are different. If a newspaper or magazine sells more ads, they can print more pages to accommodate those ads. (Do you remember how fat Business 2.0 was in the heady months before the Dot Com Bust?)

Google failed last year, but they aren’t giving up. They’ve just announced a deal that will include placement of select Google AdWords participants in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and many more. Later in this test they plan to expand into weekly news magazines.

It fascinates me that they are looking at getting involved in the very medium whose circulations they are helping to shrink. In the last six months the average circulation figures of daily newspapers have fallen another 2.8 percent, according to Dan Mitchell of the NY Times. True, he tries to put a positive spin on this news, citing a statistic that if you factor in online versions of the publications, readership is actually up significantly. But that actually helps to make my point: Why isn’t Google satisfied with running their ads on the fastest growing portion of the news business?

I can only think it’s reach. And I don’t mean just readers. I’m thinking portability.

Until this county develops a taste for news delivered to a cell phone or PDA, ink on paper is still the most reliable way to follow Americans into the many nooks and crannies of their day.

I’m only half joking when I speculate that Google may have realized that their AdWords were doing wonderfully in the American office and den, but were failing miserably in the bathroom.

The persuasive power of a map

David Ogilvy called direct marketing, “My first love and secret weapon.” I feel the same way. The power of a handful of direct marketing techniques has turned so-so campaigns into winners for me more times than I can name. One such technique is including maps in direct mail and email marketing messages. I’ll break the marketing power of geomapping into two tips.

#1 Don’t just tell consumers that they should visit you — show them how, as specifically as possible

Social psychologist Howard Levanthal conducted some experiments in the 1960s to see if he could persuade Yale University students to get tetanus inoculations. In his efforts to see if mailed brochures would work better using fear as a motivating factor, he stumbled upon something more persuasive.

He included a change in the booklet that boosted response from 3% to 28%. As reported in “Effects on Fear and Specificity of Recommendations Upon Attitudes and Behavior,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1965), he and his fellow researchers included a map of the campus, with the Health Department office circled, and the times when inoculations were being offered.

In other words, he made visiting the health department more real to the students by showing them how it fit into their lives and their schedules.

With digital printing, you can do one better: You can produce maps that include two dots: You are here and Here we are. I’ve used this technique, and it’s not easy when you’re mailing to a lot of neighborhoods, but seems to be well worth the effort.

#2 Tell them how close they are to you

People don’t look at maps until they are curious about what you have to sell. But you can help them grasp how easy it is to reach you if you tell them right in the headline. If they are closer than they thought, that’s great news. And to quote Oglivy again, “All advertising is news.” Here’s an example of one such headline:

We had the challenge of informing residents living near a community hospital that they should go there for the vast majority of their healthcare needs. The hospital, which was tucked away in a residential neighborhood and was easily overlooked, had witnessed much of their business being drained away by a neighboring medical center.

Our opportunity to start winning this business back came when we were hired to promote a series of open house events (by we, I’m referring to a team I led in a “former life,” as they say in business). The events were to celebrate a complete redecoration of the public-facing areas of the facility.

The headline of the mailing was blunt: You’re less than 10 minutes away from award-winning healthcare. We could say this honestly because we had done drive-time calculations, and created three versions of the mailing. One stating the above, and two others saying 5 minutes and 15 minutes. The database with drive times told us which mailing to use for each address.

When the first event rolled around, it was fascinating to watch people arrive, with mailing in hand, to claim the promotional item we were giving away. They needed to take a tour and turn in the mailing in order to get their gift. That, of course, meant that we could read their names and addresses off of the cards, and add these prospects to a customer relationship management (CRM) database. From there we could re-mail with other offers and news.

It was definitely a group of pospects worth re-marketing to, for these three reasons: 

  1. They were responsive. The response rate for the group closest the hospital was 3.7%.
  2. They loved us. Many raved about what they saw, saying things like, “It looks more like a hotel lobby than a hospital!”
  3. They were now truly our neighbors. Thanks to the geomapping technique, they all knew exactly how to find us.