Don’t be afraid to experiment

When Claude Hopkins wrote his classic book, Scientific Advertising, in 1923, he was of the opinion that advertising was no longer a gamble. Because he had studied the cause and effect relationships of variables like copy, headlines, illustrations and typefaces, he felt the risk of advertising had been reduced so that it was “one of the safest of business ventures.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we felt that way today? Most businessmen these days are scared to death of advertising: it costs a lot of money and they’re not sure what they get in return.

Certainly there are infinitely more variables to worry about now than when Claude Hopkins plied his trade. Still, the primary point of his book is lost on today’s practitioner: learn from every effort so your next one is better.

Claude Hopkins was an incessant tinkerer, an advertising scientist of the first order. He wasn’t afraid to treat words, visual elements and even delivery vehicles as a chemist would treat variables in a lab. He played with them until he was convinced he knew the best combination for maximum results.

That’s exactly what we advertising and marketing communications professionals should be doing today. Several years ago, I wrote a column for Marketing News entitled, “Accountability is the name of the game.” It’s truer now than the day I wrote it.

Advertisers are demanding accountability. They want to know what they get for their money, and why they should be expected to budget large sums for future advertising programs. It’s up to us to tell them and, in general, we’re doing a lousy job.

It’s not entirely our fault, however. The advertiser has to help the agency in its quest for knowledge.

A few years ago, I had a client who was having a difficult time achieving breakeven for a product that should have been selling like pancakes. We couldn’t put our finger on the problem. Perhaps it was price point. We initially priced it at $15.00, but had reduced it below $10.00 without much improvement.

We wondered if the product, a disposable bacteria test kit, should be packaged individually, several to a package, or in bulk with all like components bagged together in an economy pack.

We had tried several introductory offers, like discounts, limited time offers, even one promising a free gift with every trial purchase. Nothing worked too well. The client’s top management was getting ready to pull the plug and we knew it. Patience was wearing thin, and we had to come up with the winning combination or all was lost.

We recommended a direct mail program to a data base of several thousand interested prospects that had been compiled from previous promotional efforts. We would vary the offer, even the way the product was packaged, in each “cell” and determine which one pulled best. Then we would use the winning combination to follow up with the other prospects to see if we could produce a steady, upward sales trend.

Unfortunately, the product manager wasn’t as concerned with finding the winning combination as we were. Despite the fact that our direct mail test would be very inexpensive (personalized letters and 2-color product flyers with business reply mail response cards), he had become infatuated with Swiss Army Knives, and wanted to offer one to all of his prospects.

We groaned, and proceeded to carry out the product’s death sentence. Six months later, the product manager was working in a fast food restaurant in Montana and we were minus one very promising account.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Direct response people know about experimentation. I’ve always admired and respected their discipline. Many years ago, I agreed to lead a workshop on creativity at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual conference thinking that direct marketers wouldn’t be all that interested in the subject. Imagine my surprise at the standing room only crowd. They soaked it up.

I came away from that experience convinced that direct marketers are looking at “creative” as the final ingredient in their recipe for success. They already know how to maximize the other variables.

But what about other media? Is it possible to experiment with trade publication advertising, for example?

Absolutely! And since trade publication advertising generally involves large chunks of an advertiser’s budget, it’s precisely the area in which you should concentrate first.

I spoke with John Emery and Gordon Hughes, past presidents of the American Business Press, in gathering information for this essay. Both pointed to the day when magazine publishing will collide with the information superhighway, creating all sorts of advertising experimentation possibilities. That day has now arrived.

For many years, publishers have been willing to work with large advertisers to run separate, “split run” ads in different geographic or demographic editions of their books. Computerization makes this much easier now, and for much finer circulation splits. Why emphasize “processing speed” to financial managers when “reducing costs” is what they’re interested in? Tell that to the engineers or plant managers.

What if you’re considering the appeal of several possible calls to action? Use split runs to test the pulling power of a product sample versus a packet of case histories versus a specialty item with your logo on it. One suggestion Emery made was to test various ad appeals with a sampling of a publication’s total audience by producing color laser prints of your ad with the three different appeals, then mailing them along with a cover letter asking readers to help you decide.

Tinker. Why be happy with one approach when you can test several? This is the chance you’ve been waiting for to test that stupid idea your boss keeps bringing up against your brilliant one.

And if the stupid one wins, look at it this way: at least the boss will be highly motivated to expand the program next year.

Comments are closed.