The case for long vs short direct mail copy

I recently did some digging to help make a case to a client that the direct mail effort we were discussing should be a letter and not a postcard. It was an interesting exercise, because I’ve been having this conversation with clients for more than 20 years. Then and now, they distrust long copy. “I wouldn’t read something that long,” is a frequent refrain.

Little has changed since the last time I needed to gather evidence for the letter format, back when we all got a lot more direct mail. The reasons for this format’s success can be boiled down to:

Credibility: A letter, because of its “gravity,” stops people. They pay attention. Especially if it’s signed by someone they know, or by an authority figure they think they should respect.

Novelty: Then and now, a truly well written direct marketing letter is novel. People give it a chance.

Laziness: This one you need to think about for a moment. If you have a letter that is properly constructed, it is scannable. You don’t have to read every word. Usually, short copy is harder to scan, and easier to dismiss. Paradoxically, good letters can actually encourage the sort of grazing that we all do with our print media.

Drama: Nothing sells like telling a story. And you can’t do that with short copy.

Of course, if you’re selling something that isn’t truly a considered purchase, go with the postcard. Or if the offer is clear enough to spell out in a paragraph, do it. But even then, you may want to test a long-format package to run against it.

Because, believe me, the long-format letters have been tested against shorter packages again and again. It’s sheer economics. And yes, sometimes they lose. But it’s surprising how often they out-pull the postcard mailing by a mile!

Bored? Let’s put on a metaverse!

Second Life is a “metaverse,” which is short for metaphysical universe. In Second Life, everything you see — every scrap of clothing, every piece of scenery and every avatar (which is a player-operated character) — is “built” by the players themselves, either for their personal use or for sale to others. Someday, this world’s ability to empower and inspire its residents to build and share could challenge movie studios. In the meantime, Second Life is becoming the defacto movie studio (and dance studio, and design studio, and much more) for tens of thousands of people with a strong vision and a lot of spare time.

I only wish Second Life had come along 20 years ago, when my wife and I were two such restless auteurs.

This young couple — the Jeff and Julie of the mid-1980’s — are only a memory now, but a particularly vivid one this weekend. I’m writing from a cybercafe in my home town, during a holiday visit with my many family members who never left. Visits like this remind me of who I was back when I lived here too, and how my wife (who also grew up in this town) and I responded to this quirky way of life.

How do I describe my home town? Deep in the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), it’s not as heartwarming as the place in the 90’s TV show Northern Exposure, but it was, and is, no less eccentric. For instance, I may be in a cybercafe, but it’s one that caters to people who proudly call themselves “Yoopers” (sound out the letters U.P. and you get the epithet’s origin).

So naturally, you can buy a piping hot pasty along with your WiFi access. What’s a pasty? It’s is a meat-and-potato pie that is the closest thing Yoopers have to soul food, which tells you as much about Yooper “soul” as it does about Yooper food. What I mean is, when I think of the U.P., I think of words like traditional, genuine and consistent. These are qualities that I’ve come to appreciate now — both in pasties and in people — but back then these small town virtues were easy targets for rebellion.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived near this town, and wanted to capture the area’s eccentricities before we moved on. We scripted a movie, called The Porchlights, about a fictitious nuclear family who loved each other and their Upper Peninsula lifestyle. It was to be a comedy.

We had little choice in what technology we would use for our proejct. If we were going to shoot this thing at all, it would on 16-millimeter film. The format wouldn’t make us candidates for commercial success, but that was far from the point. This film was for the exclusive entertainment of ourselves and our friends — most of whom were to be involved in its production.

None of these friends were actors, by the way, but we solved that problem as well. All of the characters in our little film would be pink, plastic lawn flamingos (clever, huh?), manipulated off-camera and synchronized later to sound studio voice-overs.

The project died a quiet death in pre-production, as they say, and much of the reason was the technology challenges. Film stock. Lights. Editing equipment. Producing even a humble Porchlights was so out of reach.

Not today. Right now, many thousands of people have similarly daft plans and dreams. But they are making them come to life, in quirky patches of virtual real estate.

They’re putting their stories on Second Life.

I mentioned that all the objects in Second Life are residents’ creations, including the avatars. Roughly a third of these objects are scripted, which means they can realistically interact with each other, at the whim of Second Life’s 230,000+ residents. Roll-playing games are common, as are amateur theatrics. These are sometimes “filmed” using special cameras that other residents have developed, for replaying and sharing.

You see why I wish Second Life had been around 20 years ago. To be clear, most residents find their fun in ad libbed interaction, not carefully plotted entertainments such as The Porchlights. But along with the typical night club and public park gathering places, Second Life includes such innovations as a “living” re-creation of a dying Native American culture. Built by a real-life Native American, this authentic village keeps alive his tribe’s heritage.

That’s just one example of how this metaverse is absolutely anything residents want it to be, even if their vision might include a U.P. ranch home populated by talking pink lawn flamingoes.

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, the software company behind Second Life, says his residents are far closer to the norm demographically than participants in most multi-player game environments. These residents are more likely to be middle-aged, and more likely to be female.

He says it’s hard to generalize in any way about these residents. Their stories and motivations are that diverse. Except for this fact. Rosedale says that Second Life resonates most with people who live in parts of the world with bad weather, limited entertainment options and good broadband connections.

In other words, right here.

Perhaps right now that woman I see at the next table, tapping away at her laptop, is creating her own Second Life send-up to this odd little corner of the world. If she is, I’m sure that she — like Julie and me before her — is having a great time of it.

Curious about Second Life? This link shows a video that will help fill you in.

Sharing is good, but only with a few hundred of your closest friends

Metcalfe’s Law says that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially with its size. A recent New Yorker article by John Cassidy (pp 50-59, 5/15/06) pointed out that if this were the case, MySpace would be far more useful than Facebook. My calculations are that it would be about 100 times more useful.

MySpace has 70 million members. Facebook has 7.5 million.

However, if usefulness is measured in activity, you can’t get much better than Two-thirds of all members are on the site every day, and they spend an average of 20 minutes there!

If “stickiness” isn’t a measure of usefulness, consider this fact. Cassidy reports that since a recent Facebook policy change, members can upload an unlimited number of photos to their Profiles. Boy, are they enjoying that free ride! 

The volume of photos added to the site is unsurpassed anywhere on the web. One and a half million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day!

Other sites, most notably Yahoo’s, also have members, and unlimited uploading bandwidth. So why isn’t Flickr the leader? After all, it has far fewer restrictions to membership (just a Yahoo account), and far more open sharing between members (anyone can see everything).

Here’s a hint: That’s the explanation. Cassidy suggests restrictions add value to this type of network. Who wants to share really interesting photographs* with everyone in the world?

Unlike MySpace and Flickr, Facebook is a gated community. Only if you have an email address from one of the 2,000 colleges and universities it recognizes can you get in and establish a profile. And even within its walls, there is limited sharing of profile information between members who don’t designate each other as friends. Its very exclusivity encourages sharing.

* Speaking of interesting photos, many have discovered that you can have a fun, if useless, online experience by going to and searching on the tag “interesting.” But it’s a pain to browse through pages with very limited numbers of thumbnails on each. I discovered this cool way to view 500 of the most interesting photos of the day — and any other day you specify. Thank you for wasting more of my time!

What monkeys can teach us about offers and pricing

Earlier this month, research that I had come across a year ago, in The Economist, received additional attention in Seed. This study of the economic behavior of capuchin monkeys suggests that the human response to various pricing strategies has been in our DNA for a very long time.

When these monkeys were trained to use special shiny disks as money (which could be exchanged for pieces of their favorite fruit), they tended to behave with this cash in exactly the same ways as us humans. In fact, looking only at the data, you would be hard-pressed to differentiate a human consumer from one of these monkeys.

The research sheds light on behavior that marketers have puzzled over, and exploited, for generations. These include:

Why are “premium” test offers so much more likely to out-pull non-premium packages in direct response, even when the price of the offer covers the cost of the premium?
Answer: We all love getting a free “bonus” with our purchase.
Why are gambling games with some of the worst odds, such as lottery tickets and slot machines, also among the most popular?
Answer: They give the player small rewards more frequently, and keep our losses incrementally small.
Why are bonds more popular than stocks, in spite of the latter always performing better over the long haul?
Answer: We are loss-averse, and would rather guard what we have than take short term risks for long term gains.

What do I mean by loss-averse? Human experiments in game theory have repeatedly shown that in two scenarios — one where (for instance) we lose half of our transaction every third time we trade, and another where we double our transaction every third time we trade — we tend to choose the second set of trades more often.

Even when the equation is altered significantly to favor the first set of trades over the long run, we still favor the occasional free prize over the less likely loss. It’s simply human nature. Now we know the same rules apply to capuchin monkeys. Go figure.

Parenthetically, there is one other way that these monkeys seem to be behaving a lot like humans. Last year I read an account of this study in The New York Times. There I read that these researchers witnessed what was “probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind.” Keith Chen, the Yale economist behind this study, said that he noticed the exchange out of the corner of his eye. Although he wanted to think skeptically, that the trade was coincidental, he conceded that “The monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.”

When is an email click-through not a click-through? Think “unsubscribe”

When is an e-mail click-through not a click-through? When they’re telling you to kiss off!

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since I had lunch with my friend and long-time career doppleganger, Melinda Krueger, and she told me about her latest email metrics discovery. It was a way to take into account the click-throughs that people register from your emails when they are in fact clicking through to unsubscribe.

She described it, and it made perfect sense. Melinda’s formula in many cases would take meaningless data and actually tell us something. Specifically, it measures the power of a specific offer or message to cause a segment of your email audience to decide that enough is enough.

She was thinking of calling it the DI, the Disaffection Index. Personally, I thought something a little more dramatic was in order for a metric that could enter the email lexicon. I suggested, because it measured their very last click-through with you, the LCI — the Last Click Index.

She thought otherwise, and DI it remained. Do read this article, and the other articles and advice that Melinda provides as MediaPost’s “Email Diva.”