Anatomy of a Control Mailing: Long Live Long Copy

15 May

An eight-page letter mails for more than 28 years as part of International Living’s acquisition package

In fiction writing classes, novices are often discouraged from using the second-person point of view. Beginning a story with “You” is something to be left in the hands of the experts, because it is difficult and awkward to do well. So, what are the rules about using the second-person narrative voice to begin a direct mail sales letter?

When William Bonner, owner of Agora Publishing and founder of International Living newsletter—now magazine—sat down 28 years ago to write an acquisition letter for the publication, he elected to begin with a second-person narrative: “You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry and fig trees … amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.” His letter continues on to describe your seeing the heavenly blue sky, sparkling sea and your maid bringing you breakfast in bed.

To this day, the eight-page letter that Bonner penned at the inception of the publication has remained the cornerstone of the company’s long-standing acquisition control. “That simple letter has evolved little since William wrote it all those years ago. The message still calls to many who wish to retire, reinvent themselves, buy a second home or invest overseas,” says Licinda Mytych, marketing manager in the Baltimore offices of International Living. In fact, the letter is part of what may be one of the longest-running controls still in the mail.

International Living covers travel, lifestyle, real estate, investment and retirement opportunities abroad. The acquisition package mails quarterly and most recently dropped in February and April, each time to a segment of about 90,000 prospects and lapsed subscribers from house lists, other Agora publication lists and core outside names. Within the February and April mailings, Mytych conducted offer and format tests—including an auto renewal offer, outer envelope tweaks and a brochure—but in both drops, the letter remained the staple.

A Time-Tested Letter
Bonner’s letter begins by setting a scene in tropical paradise, and this copy is meant to describe a lifestyle, which the publication promises to bring within reach. “The writer, Bill Bonner, is painting a dream for the reader; he’s bringing them into this dream life, this dream image. You don’t have to stay in your daily-grind life; you can embrace a different opportunity, an alternative reality for yourself, if you just look beyond the shores of the United States,” Mytych explains.

After the copy’s opening scene, which appears in large, bold font, the letter takes a more formal “Dear Reader,” sales approach, touching on every facet of International Living’s editorial, with an occasional mention of a gentle sea breeze or clear ocean view. The letter also details, in real dollar amounts, the cost of living and savings associated with particular locations. “It is crucial to put cost savings and prices in here; it proves to the reader the validity of what we’re saying,” Mytych says. “We update our numbers every quarter, because it’s very important to have the most current data in our package.”

On the eighth page, the letter closes with a description of the subscription benefits, including two editorial premiums—one about retiring in paradise, the second detailing travel discounts. At the bottom of the page, of course, is Bonner’s signature.

An additional one-page introductory letter is enclosed within each package, which persuades the prospect that reading the longer letter will take only 10 minutes—“Ten very productive—and possibly very profitable—minutes.” No matter how long it takes to read Bonner’s letter, the long copy works. “Long copy is actually king; it’s absolutely crucial in the newsletter industry. The bread and butter of our basic core business is copy and delivering a lot of information to our readers on a monthly basis. To get them to subscribe, we give them a lot of information to really sell them on who and what we are, and we do that with a lot of heavy copy to play up those premium reports and the benefits of being a subscriber,” Mytych says.

Testing to Improve a Winner
Constantly monitoring the mail, Mytych does not see many other companies employing the two-envelope approach, which International Living has been using for years. In February, the control mailed using double-outer envelopes, where the first outer was a 10-¼˝ x 4-½˝ kraft carrier, holding the introductory letter and yet another envelope package. The second outer was a white #10 with the teaser copy, “RETIRE OVERSEAS! Enjoy a million-dollar retirement on US $600 a month.” This outer contained the eight-page control letter, a reply form with a one- or two-year subscription offer, and a BRE.

Mytych tests tweaks in each drop and oversees completely new package designs on the sidelines, in hopes of developing a new control. “If you’ve had a package like ours, that has been around for 28 years, it gets a little tired, and you need things to lift response. We’re also working on a new acquisition package. We have a couple outside and internal copywriters working on lead ideas for us right now, and the one that floats to the top, we’re going to put that in the mail,” she says.

In April the control mailed again, this time using only one outer envelope and a different offer. The entire package rode in a smaller #10 kraft outer and consisted of an introductory letter, eight-page letter, added brochure, reply form offering an automated one-year subscription and a BRE.

Mytych says that mailing only one #10 outer in April not only trimmed costs, but may also boost response. “When you go out to direct mail names, you’re often hitting the same names over and over again … and while we try to mail to a lot of different lists, it helps us to have that outer envelope drop off occasionally to have a bit of a lift in response,” she explains. Two years of past tests on the auto renewal at a low rate of $39 showed an increase in conversion rates on the back end, and pushed it to current control status over the $49 one-year and $89 two-year offers.

Incorporating Online Into the Mix
E-mail is a good direct mail testing tool because it is inexpensive, fast and easy to track in real time. “I am a big reporting geek, and I am constantly looking at the numbers weekly and daily. We do direct mail, but we also have this package going out online, as well, so we’re looking at those response rates in addition to direct mail,” Mytych says.

“Right now our testing really involves getting the offer right—getting the best offer that’s going to appeal to the target and to evolve the package—that’s why we do a lot of testing online, especially with our premium,” Mytych relates. She’s currently testing an online offer for multiple premiums with a two-year subscription. If the multiple premiums boost e-mail response, she will test the offer in the mail next time.

Mytych has also tested four-color, glossy, image-driven acquisitions online and in direct mail, with varied results. The image-driven approach worked well online, with a good response and low cost to produce it using HTML. However, the four-color approach has not yet worked in the mail. “We’ve taken the same copy that we have in our letter and we’ve put it into a four-color, glossy magalog and a four-color, glossy digest format, and neither one of those formats can beat the control package,” Mytych shares. She thinks the black-and-white, personal letter is still more effective at painting a picture and making promises to the prospect than an image-heavy mailing.

In addition to online testing for its acquisition package, the publication also has a newly designed website and a free subscription to its Daily Postcard e-mail, which currently has a whopping 373,000 subscribers. “In all of our direct mail pieces, we push to get that opt-in, and we do a lot of pushing for that opt-in on our website, as well,” Mytych says. This successful daily e-mail is another avenue for acquisitions and has opened up an ad revenue stream. Mytych also engages search engine optimization and pay-per-click efforts to encourage further traffic to the site, and hopefully more Daily Postcard and International Living subscribers.

28 More Years in the Mail?
Even with the dollar down and the U.S. economy sluggish, the market for international investment remains promising. In fact, the slowdown of the U.S. economy makes International Living’s editorial even more relevant. “It’s the same premise that we had years ago: Your dollar will go farther if you look outside of the United States,” Mytych explains.

The audience for the magazine is currently 53,000 paid subscribers who are mostly male, around 45 years of age and making a comfortable living near $100,000 a year. “The newsletter industry, years ago, used to have a standard reader aged 55 and older, and they were retired. Well, now, especially with International Living, you see a younger person looking at the fact that the U.S. dollar is declining and the fact that maybe they are not so happy with Big Brother looking at their business so much in the United States, and they’re looking to go overseas, maybe to reinvent themselves, start a new business, invest, have a second home, travel or retire,” Mytych shares.

International Living
continues to transition from a black-and-white newsletter into a four-color, glossy magazine complete with advertising space. There are also plans to continue to develop the publication’s online presence and acquisitions, but until a new package or decisive test unseats Bonner’s letter, Mytych plans to keep mailing the package within the same parameters.

“For now, we don’t see it going anywhere. Until we have a new package that we can test against this and have it win, this is the package that we’ll be mailing. I’m really happy and proud that this package seems to be one of the longest-standing controls in the industry,” she concludes.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, July 2008)


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