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Old Rules Still Apply: Getting Great Response from Your Communications

With all that has changed in commercial communications in the last 25 years…with email and the web…mobile technology…and social media…could direct response rules developed over 25 years ago still be relevant and useful today? In actuality, all the new media and messaging developments have INCREASED our opportunities to create, deliver and analyze measureable communications. Here is a fresh take on old rules of thumb that can dramatically improve response and engagement in prospect and customer communications.

By Bob Lieber
Published: June 17, 2011

About Thinking Creatively

Thinking Creatively is about taking a step back... when you want or need to think strategically and creatively about your business... or about your customer's business... or about a solution to a challenging business problem. The goal is to be one part inspiration and one part motivation. We hope to provide - over time - thought-provoking advice, tools, ideas and company profiles that help get you to your next breakthrough. Your feedback and interaction is invited, welcomed and encouraged.

Thinking Creatively is made possible by the support of GMC Software Technology. Normally such features are for "Premium Members" only. However, because the topic is so timely and essential to all executives in the industry we asked GMC Software Technology to provide support for this series. Their support allows us to to present these articles free for all WhatTheyThink.com members.

I had lunch recently with an old friend and colleague who I worked with 25 years ago. He was describing his success growing and eventually selling his company. And today he spends the bulk of his time helping entrepreneurs and nonprofits grow their companies and organizations.

During our conversation, he reminded me of "The Three Irrefutable Rules of Direct Marketing" that I used to invoke with clients 25 years ago. These are rules that would apply to any company, in any industry, and any type of marketing program designed to generate measureable response. From direct selling of merchandise or services to lead generation or even loyalty programs.
And he then told me that he still teaches all his clients those rules, even today.

I was flattered, but it actually got me thinking; with all that has changed in commercial communications in the last 25 years…with email and the web…mobile technology…and social media…how is it possible the same old rules would still be relevant and useful? As It turns out, all these new developments in communications have actually INCREASED the ability to deliver and measure communications.

So in this installment of Thinking Creatively, I want to share these old rules with you. My hope is that as you hunt for new business, or work to reactivate old prospects, or want to advise your customers on how to guarantee great results, these rules can serve as a guidepost to getting you the most return for the time and resources you invest.

The Three Irrefutable Rules of Response-Generating Communications
There are three key variables – in order of importance – that determine the success of any communication effort that is attempting to deliver an offer and generate response:

1. 50% of your results will come from your list (or the people you will be reaching via the medium you've chosen);
2. 40% of your results will come from your offer (this means the proposition you are asking people to respond to);
3. 10% of your results will come from your creative (including the copy, format and graphics used to convey your message).

Also, while the percentages are important, they are really guidelines, or rules of thumb. The most important takeaway here is the order and relative weighting of each variable.

Let's take each variable, one by one.
Rule #1: 50% of your results will come from your list -- Who will you be reaching with your communications effort?

This may seem like an obvious one. But I can tell you that in test after test, whether you are working with a set of lists for snail mail, email or telemarketing, or you are running a DRTV ad on a selection of the television networks and dayparts, or purchasing key words from Google, we see this variable swing us to success or failure.

In most mail or telemarketing tests, we would see that our best list often outperformed our worst list by a factor of 3-10 times the response. So one list might deliver a 1% response, another list 10%. And it is easy to see why.

There are three key variables that determine the success of any communication effort attempting to deliver an offer and generate response.

I recently got a sales call pitching diabetes testing supplies. Our household would not be purchasing. Bad list.

I also recently got an email offering me some unique new iPad applications. Only problem is, I don't have an iPad.

But I also got an email with a very generous offer from Toyota to lease a brand new car. They obviously knew my current lease is expiring in 2 months.

Bottom line, the more testing you do, the more work you put into finding the people who are just right for your offer, the greater success you'll find.

Rule #2: 40% of your results will come from your offer -- What is your offer and what are you asking people to respond to or do?

One of the biggest mistakes made in response-generating communications is underestimating the importance of the offer – and specifically, how that offer is worded and expressed, and the instructions you provide to take advantage of the offer.

This rule – about offers – has never been more important. I like to say that we are living in "The Groupon Age"…where consumers expect, and often receive, dozens of high value offers daily. In a recent study, 86% of consumers say that they are open to connecting with brands via social media. And what do they expect? Seventy-seven percent of new-media users look for free products, coupons, or discounts from those companies, according to the study. http://www.coneinc.com/new-media-users-follow-only-five-companies-online.

One of the biggest mistakes made in response-generating communications is underestimating the importance of the offer

So this means the pressure is on to create and deliver high value offers.
Here's an example. There is the age old question: Is it better to offer 50% off, buy one/get one free or to simply lower the price and advertise an incredibly good value? The offers are the same, but often the results can be quite different. According to a Wall Street Journal article that dissected holiday sales http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704694004576019771942029048.html, some retailers have switched their strategy on this and found great success.

Another popular discounting approach is called "timed discounts" or "flash sales", which expire quickly. According to Jeff Galak, assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, these deals are exciting to consumers. "Exclusivity is really what drives it," he says. "People feel like they're getting a deal."

When the "irrefutable rules" were created, every good direct marketer knew that having a deadline date would always increase response. And so it continues today.

One last word on designing offers; in the case of lead generation programs, it is crucial to be precise in what you are asking a respondent to do to express interest. If your offer is to "have a salesperson call", you can count on a lower result than if you offered a white paper, or a free evaluation. The more you obligate the prospect, the lower the response. The easier and clearer you make the language, the greater the results.

One of the most illuminating tests I ever ran was to add two qualifying questions to a response vehicle, to see if it was worth it to gather a bit more info about respondents. Well, that cell of the test pulled 25% fewer respondents! The only change was the addition of two qualifying questions. Apply that thinking to a website registration form. Adding extra questions and requiring more information about prospects may be worth it, but it will suppress sign-ups.

Rule #3: 10% of your results will come from your creative -- How is your communication packaged, how is it designed and written?

The irrefutable rules put "creative" as the least impactful variable. But that does not mean this is insignificant work.

In "the old days" writing envelope teaser copy was one of the most important tasks of any direct mail program. Or having a killer opening 5 seconds for your direct response television commercial.

The irrefutable rules put "creative" as the least impactful variable. But that does not mean this is insignificant work.

Today, people will respond to many of the same things they used to; intriguing, provocative thoughts, eye-grabbing photos and clarity of language and concept.

With that said, we still must confront today's phenomenon of shorter attention spans.

In a recent article in Fast Company, titled "The Cure for ADD-vertising", Martin Linstrom talks about the antidote to our multi-tasking, ADD-like, over-saturated advertising culture. It is about brands owning one word…yes, one single word. You'll find Lindstrom's work fascinating on the topic of constructing strong communications efforts. http://www.fastcompany.com/1753945/the-cure-for-add-vertising.  

So one big change from "the old days" is that we're in a world where you often need to pack your thoughts into 140 characters…or a short blip for a Facebook post, or a manageable text message. Or, better yet, the use of one very impactful photo or visual and a caption. On a postcard.

So there you have it. Three irrefutable rules. They worked back in the good ole days. They apply just as much today too.

Bob is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us here.

Bob Lieber is founder and CEO of OriginalThought LLC, a marketing strategy and services firm, creating “original solutions to chronic industry and consumer problemsTM”. Industry expertise is diverse, including technology, health care, financial services, consumer packaged goods and graphic arts.

What do you think? Please offer your feedback to Bob at blieber@originalthoughtllc.com


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