What's it Going to Pull?









Two Statements Follow. Which Do You Think Was Spoken by a Direct Mail Professional?

1. My gut feeling tells me this mailing will pull at least a 4% response.

2. Hell I don't know what it will pull until we test it.

The correct answer: 2. But you knew that. Yet what about clients?

It is a good yardstick to judge a person's experience in direct mail by the firmness of pulling-power estimates. The more one knows about direct mail the less likely he or she is to shoot from the hip about responses.

The reason for this reticence is simple – none of us has a crystal ball that can foretell the future. When asked, "What will the response be?" Our answer should always be, "We don't know what the response will be until we test lists, offers, and creative."

Certainly, we have gut feelings based on professional experience, especially whether or not a package will beat the control. But that's not what was asked for. We were asked to come up with a number – an estimate if you will – of the pulling power of an untried program.

When my reluctance to guess is made clear, a client may grow impatient, suspect my confidence, or conclude perhaps I am not the right person for the job. Frankly, when it comes to that, I would rather lose a client than lie to him, and guessing without a foundation of solid information is a lie.

No One Is Always Right about Pulling Power Estimates

Anyone who could accurately prophesy response rates would have supernatural powers and be worth millions of dollars annually in consulting fees.

We really wish we had such powers. But we do not. And no one else does either.

But this isn't much comfort to a client who wants confirmation of a preconceived notion about success. There's a good chance he has spent hours with a spreadsheet building models to show how much money he will make at certain response rates. Easy money seems within reach at a certain response and it becomes the magic number he wants to hear confirmed in early discussions.

It Is Pernicious to Play "Pick a Number"

If the client insists on a guess, I feel an obligation to break the bubble and say, "You must risk some of your money without knowing how well the program will work. It could be a total bomb. There is no way to guarantee direct mail of any kind will pull a certain response until it's tested."

The truth is direct mail starts with questions, not pulled-out-of-the-air answers. We start with questions like: Which lists are best? Which offers are best? Which package formats are best? Which copy is best?

We can start to make cautious response estimates only once the client has paid to find the answers to these questions.

There Is No Way to Avoid an Upfront Financial Risk

It is like the cost of exploring new lands. You may find riches, or you may find swampland. You never know for sure without risking the cost of exploration. Your exploration also takes time. Direct mail is a time-consuming medium. A direct mail program may take months to answer your preliminary questions. Then more months may be needed to plan, create, and produce a finely tuned roll-out which should include second-level testing for further variations.

On this topic of estimating response rates, we feel there's one thing that deserves special attention. It is the 2% response. Every amateur knows 2% is always an average response rate, right?

Nothing Could Be Farther from the Truth

Somehow, someway, the figure of a 2% response rate found its way into our national mythology. Like a phoenix, the apocryphal 2% estimate arises from ashes again and again.

Where did this figure 2% come from? We don't know. We do know any response estimate plucked out of the air can be a limit as well as an unrealistic goal. How would it be a limit? Consider a direct mailer who quickly achieves his 2% rate. He thinks he's doing as well as he ever will. So he doesn't continue testing to create a much higher response He goes on and on, convinced he has achieved maximum success when, actually, significantly higher response rates are easily within reach through testing. Picking numbers out of the air is always a fantasy akin to writing letters to Santa Claus; it is a primrose path to embarrassment, even if the embarrassment comes from underestimating the real potential success.

We have created direct mail programs that pulled less than one-half-of-1% responses for insurance companies and those packages were hailed as phenomenal successes. A number of clients continue to use packages we created years ago that still routinely pull in the 15% range. The 15% is now their normal expectation – but they continue testing new concepts. One package created by us for a major oil company pulled a 40% response on a 4.5 million piece mailing. Why would 2% be such a big deal for them?

Let Your Mail Establish Itself

Estimate with caution, continue testing and always avoid picking imaginary numbers out of the air, even if the client's ego demands confirmation. But what about a direct mailer who does not have the time or money for evolutionary testing? What about the client who needs direct mail, but the first mailing is the last? What about simple programs limited by time, such as grand openings, seasonal offers, etc.? What about those day-to-day mailings unable to support the needs of sophisticated empirical testing?

In Such Circumstances You Give It Your Best Effort – and Pray

You mail for better or worse without making response projections. Frankly, you pay your money and you take your chances.

Such a circumstance is exactly when you must start with the very best list broker, copywriter, and artist you can find. Your chances for success will be better. Much better.

With things so cloudy up front, with no idea whatsoever what will happen, and having no idea whether your direct mail program will ever work, how do you put together a financial projection for your program? Frankly, you can't. You can estimate costs and leave a big “?” for income. So how can you look at a financial officer or chief executive and say you want to spend a lot of money on direct mail without having the slightest idea what will happen?

We help clients deal with these questions. We can show you how to test economically. We can help by building in go/no-go points to minimize losses. We can meet with managers and explain the nature of direct mail. We can share experience gained from similar clients. And we can help you establish budgets and time tables necessary to prove what direct mail can do for you.

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