What today’s digital marketers 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.

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