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What Makes a Control a Winner

Posted by Brian Jones on October 7, 2022

In our continuing analysis of direct mail control packages, we attempt to zero in on exactly what makes a control — a control.

What are readers attracted to?
What interests them about it?
Why do they read it?
Why do they respond to it?

Some controls are so good that they’ve bested all challengers to date. And they remain the undisputed control — sometimes for years. These are known in the industry as “Grand Controls.” You may have received some in your own mailbox. They show up every so often and you know you’ve seen them before. Chances are, you’ll keep seeing them until you respond — or a new control package beats it.

But the baffling thing is...

Many of the biggest direct mail winners are the packages you would least expect to win.

Sure, they follow the rules. They adhere to tried and true DM techniques, but they often seem to be understated. Sometimes, they are simple, plain, and unassuming packages. Other times they appear almost system generated. And still, others arrive with an air of bureaucracy to them… yet somehow, they continue to win.

So How Do You Beat a Grand Control?

If your creative is solid and you’re sure your list is clean – that is, you’re mailing the right message to the right people — then it boils down to the offer. After all, the DM formula for success is 40% List, 40% Offer, and 20% Creative. If your list and offer are good, you’re 80% of the way there.

In fact, even if your creative is lackluster (as some Grand Controls are), if it’s clear and easy to understand, your message has a great chance of getting through to the person who needs to hear it — the person who can benefit the most from your product/service. iStock-1352144618

And if your offer hits the right audience at the right time — and they fully understand how it will make their lives better, well you’re in great shape. Putting a valuable offer in front of the right people precisely when they need that solution is what leads to high response rates.

If you’re saying, well we have a great offer, they’re just not responding.

Try repositioning that offer. Instead of “two for one,” say “50% off,” “BOGO,” or "half price." They all convey the same offer, but one may resonate with your particular audience better than another. Or make it a hard dollar amount (Save $25). Repositioning alone could be the difference between a winner and just another challenger.

Format Plays an Important Role, Too

Test a #10 vs. #11 or a 6 x 9. That little bit of difference could make a big impact. Normally postcards or self-mailers won’t ever beat a control, but with the great paper shortage of 2022, you may have no choice. Just know they rarely work as well on a cost-per-sale or cost-per-lead basis.

And remember this — you can learn a ton from your poor performers, too (another reason testing is so important). Many times you’ll discover which words, layouts, colors, and/or images to avoid. That’s valuable knowledge. Again, watch your own mailbox for competitor mailers that repeat. Your fellow direct marketers will not remail losers. It’s like throwing money away.

Don't Try to Be Too Cute or Clever (or Funny)

When you look at what makes a control a control, there’s one common thread you’ll see almost every time. Clarity.

Creators of controls and Grand Controls know that readers don’t need (or want) to be entertained. They have social media for that. Focus on the reader’s problem and how your product/service solves it. Sell with conviction, use testimonials, and third-party endorsements, they’re powerful. Social proof is a tremendous tool, too. Use as much copy as you need to answer any doubts or objections (yes, long copy can work). And for Pete’s sake, put three CTA’s on every component with a deadline to respond whenever possible.

"When you look at what makes a control a control, there’s
one common thread you’ll see almost every time. Clarity."

Ultimately, your package has one job to do — it must sell. Do not joke or try to cajole the reader with your wit, plays on words, or poetic prose. They don’t care and they won’t be impressed. Focus on their needs. Create in them an irresistible desire to respond RIGHT NOW. Once they’ve read the clear, concise list of benefits you’re offering, they should convince themselves that this is a great value (remember Value = Benefits/Price – so your benefits better really outweigh your price) and they won’t want to miss this opportunity.

Another common trait of controls is active copy. Nothing should stop the reader or even slow them down while they’re reading or scanning your copy. And be sure to transition smoothly from one idea to the next. Drive readers to respond. Calls-to-action at the top, in the middle, at the bottom and on the back of every component. Don’t make them search for your phone/website when they’re ready to respond.

And don’t give your readers too many decisions to make. That’s called “overchoice” and when they’re faced with that, they often end up making NO choice.

When Testing, Swing Big

So how do you beat a control? Well, small tests = small wins. When you are trying to create a challenger or a new control buster, you need to go for it. If your control has a long letter with an official look/feel, try a short letter with more graphics and color. If your control has an “official” tone, try a more conversational tone. You can always optimize and streamline a control once it wins and has been validated (i.e., if the control had a buckslip and a brochure, try remailing without the more expensive piece and see if your ROMI improves). 

25-off Typically, a 25% reduction in the cost-per-sale or cost-per-lead qualifies as a breakthrough.

It’s not easy, but if/when you do establish a new control, don’t worry too much about exactly “what” made the difference. Stay focused on optimizing that new package and testing different challengers against it.

And if you need help doing any of the above, contact J&C 

At J&C, we've created long-standing control packages for Humana, The Hartford, Allstate, Merrick Bank, and more using rock-solid strategy and creative techniques for over 40 years. To us, the control lays the groundwork for all of our client's future success. Let us do the same for you.

Topics: Direct Marketing, Direct Mail, Creative

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