Listen to Them









A magnificent dialogue takes place between direct marketers and consumers. We say things and they talk back to us. But hearing them – really hearing them – takes skill, planning, and patience.

Master This Dialogue

It is the mother tongue of direct marketing. Learn it. Study it. Perk up your ears and listen. Open clear channels of communication so the consumer can talk back to you. Why? Because a consumer will tell you exactly where to find riches – if only you give him the opportunity.

What does this dialogue sound like?

You might say something like, "Lose 20 pounds in one month for only $44.95!" And the consumer answers back in a clear voice. "No thanks!" Then you try something else. You change the price to $34.95. And the consumer says, "well, maybe." Then you say, "Okay, let's make it $24.95 and give you a FREE 200 page book on aerobic exercises!" The consumer says, "It's a deal!"

How Did This Dialogue Take Place?

You used ordinary language to state your offers. But the consumer used a special language. He talked back with money in a rudimentary yes/no language. But as surely as if he sat in your office, the consumer told you what was right and what was wrong with your offer. But he did it only because you gave him the opportunity.

Given the opportunity, the consumer will tell you everything you want to know about how to find success. He knows everything there is to running your business, and he will gladly share this goldmine of information if you let him.

He Can Be Remarkably Direct

"Your price is a little too high. Space ads are better than radio. Give me a limited time offer and I'll act on it. Color ads are a waste of money. It is okay to use more economical paper. That pretty girl in the ad makes a big difference. I respond better when you talk to me with a long message than with a short one. The lasered letter was a better way to make me pay attention. I am more interested in what you have to say at certain times of the year. I'll pay more for your product than you thought I would. I'll send you more money if you will let me use my credit card."

All of this information, and more, is in the hands of consumers. They are willing to share it with you. All you need to do is be clever enough to give them a way to talk back.

Creating a way for consumers to talk back to you calls for special planning because their words must be interpreted. The consumer, like the computer, speaks only in a simple yes/no language. And, as when using a computer, you have to develop a system – software if you will. This translates the yes/no language into usable information.

Your Listening System Starts with Questions

The more questions you ask, the more answers you will receive. These answers will map your course.

Let's say you want to know which price is best. You run an ad or drop mail that tests a price variation. The consumer quickly tells you in his yes/no language which price is best.

But there are many questions to ask. You want to know about seasonality, what it takes to increase the size of the average order, and so on. There are thousands of questions to ask. And asking of each question takes time and money. Large direct marketers spend millions of dollars annually asking questions in order to hear the consumer's instructions on how to increase profits.

Let's Look at This Example

You receive a 4% response. That encourages you. So in the next mailing you change the creative approach, change the price and try a second mailing list. The second mailing gets a 6% response. But you don't know why it happened because you didn't structure the mailing properly. You didn't ask questions in a way that would be answered in the consumer's yes/no language.

Why did you receive a better response? Was it the new creative? Was it the new price? Was it the new list? Was it some combination of these factors?

When asking questions through testing, you cannot ask more than one question in one place.

Testing is like solving an algebraic formula. You can only have one unknown (variable). For instance if X +10 = 12 you know that X is 2. But if X + Y = 12 you are hopelessly lost because X could have any value.

This means you can test only one thing in one place. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN' T TEST MANY THINGS AT THE SAME TIME. You can ask many questions through sub-cells of your mailing. Methodical testing by allocating sub cells gives you a comparative picture with solid answers.

Let's say that you have a test mailing coming up and you want to test two creative approaches, two prices, and two lists. Here is what your test grid would look like.

Creative A

List A   $39.95
List A   $49.95
List B $39.95  
List B $49.95  
Creative B
List A   $39.95
List A   $49.95
List B $39.95  
List B $49.95  

You have 8 sub-cells to test against your control, each with only one variable. But what if you want to test half a dozen lists, as well as three or four creative approaches. The number of sub-cells grows geometrically. This can get expensive and time-consuming, but it is the nature of the beast. Initial testing is a simple quest for the right offer to the right list.

Later, once you have a strong control package, you can do endless testing against it with simple variations like envelope size, full color versus two colors, personalized versus non-personalized, with or without a plastic card, and so on. These "fine tuning" tests will be done on the fly along with mailings of your control.

Speaking of mailing lists, they tend to fatigue fairly rapidly when you keep mailing the same package time after time. When you see the curve dropping on a particular list, make sure that you put testing lists and creative at the top of your priorities.

To keep track of your sub-cells you code your reply device in order to track the response source. I have had clients assign a special toll-free number to each sub-cell in order to ensure accurate response tracking. By comparing responses among the eight cells, you would hear the consumer tell you exactly what your next course of action should be. You would hear things like, "Creative #1 is better. List Y is better. $49.95 is more profitable, even though the response rate dropped slightly."

This kind of comparative testing should be done at every step of your marketing chain. Once you think you have all the answers, start asking your questions all over again because things change quickly in today's marketplace. The clear message you got just two years ago may be sadly out-of-date today. Never stop the dialogue. Test, test, test. Include communication channels and testing every time you talk to the consumer. Never communicate without giving them some way to talk back to you in a way that tells you more.

But Isn't This a Production Headache and Awfully Complicated?

Isn't it expensive? Doesn't it take a lot of money, time, and energy to decide what to ask and keep track of everything?

Yes it does. But that's how it's done.

You might avoid most of this bother for a while through blind luck, good instincts, and fortuitous timing. But there will come a time – maybe sooner, maybe later – when the roof will cave in on you and you will not know why. You'll blame it on everything from competitors to the gang in the White House. But the fault will be yours for not giving customers a way to talk back to you as things changed. They always have the right answers.

Is there hope – a wonderful shortcut – to be found in the focus groups and clever interview techniques used by general advertising agencies?

Not a chance.

We have helped several clients deal with the deep wounds caused by general ad agencies who used Madison Avenue research techniques in direct marketing.

We actually accompanied a client to a shopping center where his general agency’s research team stopped bag-toting housewives in the parking lot, held up two envelopes, and asked which one they would be most likely to respond to. It would've been funny if there hadn’t been so much money riding on the agency's stupidity. I sincerely tell clients that I would rather see them have syphilis than a general advertising agency. Syphilis is curable. Agencies are not.

We told the client this was not the way to get the answers they needed. In fact, we would reserve the right to say, "We told you so." The most valuable thing about this mess was the general ad agency was in pathetically over its head and didn't even know it. They hadn't a clue about how direct marketing works, yet they accepted the assignment and reassured the client they could do the job.

Their parking lot research gave totally erroneous results and their test-free, multi-million-piece rollout mailing bombed. We took the client aside without relish and whispered, "We told you so."

We simply wanted to impress upon the client that their general ad agency was not privy to the secrets of the one true faith. We did it for the same reason you tell a youngster to look both ways before crossing the street, for his own good, for the rest of his life. All of the client’s subsequent mailings have been handled by direct marketing professionals. Myself included.

Nothing Gives a Reliable Message Unless It Is Exactly As It Will Be in the Actual Roll Out

There are no reliable shortcuts. To hear answers about mail or e-mail, send mail or e-mail. To get answers about price, ask consumers to pay it. To get answers about space ads, run them.

Yes, it's cumbersome, expensive, slow and complicated, but it's worth it. It’s worth every penny and every second it takes to open clear channels of communication for the magnificent dialogue that happens when you talk with the consumer. Listen to him. He knows it ALL. And he'll tell it to you if only you let him.

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©2011 John Nicksic Copy
707 E. Palace Ave.
Suite 2
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501