Wednesday, November 02, 2005

In Which Our Hero Wins an Echo Award and Threatens to Stomp On It

I just got back from the DMA's Echo Awards ceremony, and I'm a little ticked.

Not just because I came in third. Hey, I've been watching the Barbara Walters' Specials long enough to know that "I'm just honored to be nominated" ... and I've mastered that sphincter-squeezing little smile that Oscar nominees manage to put on their faces when the envelope is opened and someone else's name is announced.

No, I'm ticked because I don't believe I was competing on a level playing field. You see, I had written an actual direct-mail package. You know, the kind that is mailed to millions of people and is supposed to get an order back in return. But virtually all of my competitors were doing lead-generation dimensional mailings.

If that term is not familiar to you, picture this. Let's say you run a management consulting firm and you're trying to drum up business. So you send out a mailing to 100 hot prospects with the headline, "ARE YOUR PROFITS GOING DOWN THE TOILET?" And then just to drive the point home, you enclose an actual toilet in your mailing.

You think I'm kidding? I wish I were. During the awards ceremony, I saw winning mailings that contained blocks of ice, cases of beer, cell phones, live animals, you name it. Usually, these items are connected with some little direct-mail package that makes a pun on the enclosure, e.g. DOES YOUR CURRENT CELL PHONE COMPANY TREAT YOU LIKE A SMALL POTATO? ... enclosed, of course, is a small potato.

Geeze-louise! Let's put aside the fact that this kind of stuff is so easy to dream up that most good copywriters could do it in their sleep. What really bothers me is that it's not economically realistic. The only marketing situation in which such packages could possibly work is if you were selling a $50,000 product to a prospective customer list of 50 people. Even then, if your only goal is lead generation (and that was true of most of these packages), you'd still be better off with a well-written one-page letter in most cases.

I'm not an "awards-hating" absolutist like so many of my direct-mail colleagues are. (When I wrote to a few friends asking them if they were coming to Atlanta, they all replied that they wouldn't be caught dead at the DMA anymore and one said, "Richard, awards are like hemmorhoids. Eventually, every asshole gets one.") Awards have been good to me over the years, especially the Caples. But for heaven's sake, let's at least have a category for direct-mail packages created in the real world.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


The folks at INSIDE DIRECT MAIL (formerly "Who's Mailing What!") have been after me for awhile to write another article for them in their "How I Beat the Control" series. I keep telling them they have to be patient because I only beat a control every ten years or so. But I did write one for them recently that will be appearing in the December issue. They asked me not to put that one on their blog because they want their subscribers to have first crack at it. (Makes sense.) But they suggested I re-print this one from 2003. Hey, I guess I beat a control every *two* years. Not bad! I just found out that the package described in this article was finally beaten. Ten years is a pretty good run.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Never-Ending Control Package
By Richard Armstrong

Perhaps you've never heard of the Good Sam Club. But if you own a recreational vehicle (RV), you almost certainly have heard of it. Because the simple way to describe this organization is that it is the AAA for RV owners. Short for Good Samaritan, the club grew out of the spirit of camaraderie and volunteerism that has always existed among RV owners on the road.

With nearly 1 million active members nationwide, the Good Sam Club is among the nation's largest membership organizations. At nearly 7 million prospect pieces mailed each year, you'd have to rank it among the nation's largest mailers as well. And, at close to seven years of continuous mailing with no sign of fatigue, the prospect letter I wrote for the Club would have to be considered among the strongest control packages in the mail today.

Improving Upon Success
I began working for the Good Sam Club in the fall of 1995. At that time, its control package had been mailed for two years and had stood up against a barrage of testing. (The Good Sam people were then, and continue to be, highly sophisticated direct marketers.) The control was a simple affair with a personalized membership card and a main letter signed by someone who said he was new at the job of membership director. Written in the first person, the letter talked about how he'd come up with the "crazy idea" of giving away memberships in the Club for just a dollar a month. He'd managed to convince his bosses to give it a try. And now he was hoping that the reader would justify this risky decision by deciding to join.

I thought it was an excellent package, and it filled me with the sensation I often get when I'm trying to beat a long-standing control -- namely, dread. But I have a little two-part maxim that I live by in these situations: 1) If the previous control is doing something wrong, fix it; 2) But if the previous control is doing something right, do more of it.

As near as I could tell, the package was doing nothing glaringly wrong. But it was doing something glaringly right. It was telling a compelling story in a first-person narrative style. So I decided to do the same thing ... only more so.

The Art of Storytelling
Two of my most fundamental copywriting beliefs went into the creation of this package. First, I believe there is nothing more powerful in direct mail than telling a good story. Second, I believe the single most important word in direct-mail copywriting is not you, as is widely believed, but another pronoun many copywriters tend to avoid, which is I.

What injects "I" into direct mail? Storytelling.

Storytelling has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it never has fallen out of effectiveness. Yes, I know we live in a post-literate, some would say illiterate, society. I realize people don't have time to read anymore. I know that the average American's attention span gets shorter each year. But what was true 10 million years ago still is true today: If you tell a good story, people will gather around the campfire to hear it. That's why Jesus spoke in parables, after all, including the parable of the Good Samaritan.

So I came up with the story of a man who is sleeping comfortably in his RV when he hears a "ruckus" outside. Someone has pulled into the trailer park in the middle of the night and is trying to hook up his electricity, water and cable television. Because of his inexperience, he's making a mess of it and waking up the whole park. Our hero goes outside to find out what all the fuss is about and winds up helping the neophyte get settled. Afterwards they crack open a few beers and start talking about the trials and tribulations of RV living. The newcomer is so frustrated by the problems he's had on the road, that he's ready to give up and go home. But our hero calmly solves all his problems, offers all the right advice, and
reveals all the necessary inside information. What makes this guy so smart?

He's a member of the Good Sam Club, of course! And there under the stars, with a beer in hand, the crickets chirping in the background, he proceeds to give the new guy a six-page spiel on the joys of joining the Good Sam Club that's as easy to read as eating a bag of potato chips.

The entire letter is written in the first person, frequently using the word "I," but rarely "you." Direct-mail copywriters get a good deal of advice to use the word "you" to make copy sound personal. No less an authority than legendary ad man John Caples once said, "Keep hammering at the word 'you' in your copy -- you, you, you." But I've always believed that what makes a letter seem personal is the feeling that you are in the presence of the person who wrote it. To create that feeling, you must be willing to use the word "I."

Once I settled on this approach, the six-page letter wrote itself in less than an hour. In 25 years of writing direct-mail letters, I can't remember ever writing anything so quickly and with so little effort. As professional athletes say, I was in the zone.

How do you get in the zone? I wish I knew! Because I'd love to get in it every day! But on most days, I have to depend on technique, and this package also relies heavily on technique. Here are some key points.

THE OUTER ENVELOPE: I'm a big believer in brown kraft outer envelopes. Important things tend to come in these envelopes -- such as tax refunds, for example. So it's an inexpensive way to stand out in the mailbox and get attention. Also, if you're going to use a plastic membership card in your mailing, why not let it show through a window on the outer envelope? But here's something counter-intuitive: Don't show the whole card, just show a portion of it through a narrow slit. Finally, if you're going to tell a story in your letter, why not start the story on the envelope? If the reader gets hooked in the first few sentences -- and he should -- he'll have to open the envelope to find out what happens next.

THE LETTER: There are two things you'll notice about this letter. First, there is no letterhead or headline. It starts out with typewritten copy. To me, that makes it look more personal and more authentic. Granted, the reader knows he didn't receive this letter from some anonymous RV owner who just happened to be writing a note to 7 million people. But he might think for a moment that the letter is an unsolicited testimonial that has been mailed to him from the Good Sam Club without embellishment.

Second, the copy is six-pages long. Since I began writing copy, people who should know better have been telling me that no one reads long copy anymore. If you go back into the mail-order trade magazines, you'll find the "experts" have been saying this for nearly a century. This is 1917, for heavenÕs sake! Nobody has time to read long copy anymore!

And what has happened to direct-mail copy during those years? It has only gotten longer and longer! When I got my first job in 1975, we rarely wrote direct-mail letters that were longer than one page. Then, we discovered that two pages work better than one, three pages work better than two, four pages work better than three, and so on. Recently, I wrote a magalog that came out of my printer in manuscript form at 84 pages! And I fully expect to break the 100-page mark before I retire. If someone tells you that people don't read long copy, tell them they're exactly right ... but they do respond to it.

THE RESPONSE DEVICE: I worked very hard to come up with something more original and
creative than a dumb, old plastic membership card for this mailing. But after 10 seconds of intense
creative effort, I gave up. Nobody has ever beaten this technique, and nobody ever will.

Why It Works
So what are the morals of the never-ending Good Sam Club package? There are three of them:

1) If you've got a good story to tell, tell it! And tell it in the form of a story.

2) Write it in your own words and use the first-person pronoun. Perhaps you didn't have all the experiences you talk about in the letter, but I've got news for you: Betty Crocker isn't a real person, and there really isn't someone named Mr. Whipple at your grocery store either. A little dramatization in advertising is permissible, provided youÕre telling the truth about your product and what it can do for the reader. Dramatization is OK, deception is not.

3) Don't let a desire to be "original" or "creative" persuade you not to
exploit things that are proven to work well -- such as a membership card. You simply can't beat a personalized plastic card when it comes to promoting a membership organization. And if you can't beat something, what should you do? Join it, of course!

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