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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

Direct Marketing On A Shoestring
By Alan Rosenspan

The Echoes, it's not. It's not even the Gong show. But for the last eight years, direct marketers in New England have been entering and winning awards for doing, shall we say frugally?

It's the "Direct Marketing on a Shoestring" Award Show, and it's the one and only award show that honors great work that was done under difficult or even impossible conditions.

Consider the three entry categories:

1. "Does That Include Postage?" honors direct marketing packages that have been created and mailed for under $20,000.

2. "What? That's All You Have?" is for work under $10,000.

3. "You've Gotta Be Kidding" recognizes direct marketing solutions that have been accomplished for under $1000.

These are the real categories. As you can see, the awards recognize the few, the proud, the great majority of direct marketers that don't work with giant companies and unlimited budgets.

What I would like to accomplish in this article is to take you through the Direct Marketing on a Shoestring Awards, and to introduce you to what I call "Shoestring Thinking."

How It All Began

As an officer of the New England Direct Marketing Association, and a perennial judge of the Echo and Caples Awards, I was concerned that we weren't seeing all the great work that people were doing.

I believed that part of it was the fact that many companies felt that they couldn't compete against the resources of a large agency. And part of it was the relatively large entry fees for most award shows.

So I thought -- why can't we have a different kind of award show that honors big ideas on a small budget? Why can't we spurn the glitzy stuff, pass on the three dimensional pop-ups, ignore the expensive packages where they only sent out four, and honor the work that we all have to do every day? And why can't the entry fee be only $9.99?

Based on that idea, I came up with the "Direct Marketing on a Shoestring" Awards.

The first Award Entry package was sent out in a paper bag, which was donated by a neighborhood merchant. The call for entries said -- "If it's good and cheap, we want to see it." And it featured a real shoestring.

We sent out 4000 of them, and they each had to be hand-tied. The way we did it was to hold a "Stuffing Party" where 16 dedicated NEDMA volunteers sat down and hand-assembled every package.

The copy was tongue-in-cheek and began: "Attention all skinflints, misers and penny-pinchers -- and people who have to work with them."

And because the creative work, and the package assembly labor were all donated -- the package cost $816 for printing, plus postage. I believe this put us in category 2, "What? That's All You Have?"

The package was written by Nancy Harhut and Beth Stone. It was art directed by Carla Barratta, and later won both an Echo and a Caples award -- which was pretty ironic, when you think about it.

The Shoestring Awards themselves were designed by my wife Laura, who drove all over Boston to find gold shoelaces. (She couldn't -- so we spray painted white ones.)

The invitation to the actual Award Show read "Call 237-1366 for a cheap thrill." And Eila Zay, the secretary at NEDMA, was so grateful that we used her phone number and not her name. Think about it.

An Evening of Cheap Thrills

The first Award Show was hosted by the distinguished direct marketer, Denny Hatch, editor of Target Marketing, and Who■s Mailing What. When Denny pitched up, I asked him to see a copy of his remarks. He didn't have any.

I'm not sure what happened next because I might have passed out. But Denny said, "I'm sick and tired of award shows where the presenter does all the talking. Why can't we let the winners speak for themselves -- and tell us how and why they did it?" I quickly agreed and a Shoestring tradition was born.

The Echoes may have had Steve Allen and Ed Asner and other celebrities -- but the Shoestrings has people who actually did the work.

Other presenters have included Jerry Ellis, the founder of Building 19 (Their motto is "Good Stuff Cheap") and, of course, me (Don't ask about my motto!).

This past year, another Shoestring tradition was born when we invented the "People's Choice" Awards. What we did was lay out all the entries and we invited the audience to select the best ones -- and place a shoestring on it.

The entries with the most shoestrings won the People's Choice Awards for first, second or third.

This unique involvement device worked extremely well -- and the audience selected many of the same entries the judges did, which was fortunate.

A recent trend in the Shoestrings Awards has been the proliferation of work on the web. This is obviously because of the low costs involved as compared to other forms of media.

And the winners are...

Category: "You Gotta Be Kidding!"

Projects with budgets under $1000

1st place: Agency: Epsilon Client: Epsilon

2nd place: Agency: Cargill Creative Client: Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge

(Author's note: even though pro-bono work seems to have an unfair advantage because it was done for free, it's always a pleasure to have a good cause win)

3rd place: Agency: Cuneo Direct Client: Cuneo Direct

Category: "What? That's All You Have?"

Projects with budgets under $10,000

1st place: Agency: Group 121 Interactive Client: Group 121 Interactive

2nd place: Agency: KHJ Integrated Marketing, Inc. Client: Salem Five Cents Savings Bank

3rd place: Agency: Berenson, Isham & Partners Client: Berenson, Isham & Partners

(Author's note: an awful lot of self-promotion pieces won -- once again, because the creative was free.)

Category: "Does That Include Postage?"

Projects with budgets under $20,000

1st place: Agency: Epsilon Client: National Railroad Passenger Corporation

2nd place: Agency: John Greiner-Ferris and Pheasant Hill Creative Client: InterSystems Corporation

3rd place: Agency: CFI Design Group Client: CFI Design group

Best of Show Agency: Epsilon Client: National Railroad Passenger Corporation

Please note: this year's Direct Marketing on a Shoestring Awards are on November 12th. If you're interested in attending, please call the New England Direct Marketing Association at 617-237-1366.

What Is Shoestring Thinking?

The "Direct Marketing on a Shoestring" Award Show is more than just a fun event. It highlights an innovative way of approaching every direct marketing problem.

Anyone can cut the costs of a program by changing the paper stock, or eliminating color from the package. The real challenge is meeting -- or even exceeding your goals -- by applying the principles of what I call "Shoestring Thinking."

"Shoestring Thinking" is the subject of a full day seminar that I present. My goal is to have attendees learn and apply the principles to their own direct marketing programs. However, in this article, I'd like to share three main ideas with you.

The only time you ever pay attention to your shoestrings is when they break. So the first rule of Shoestring Thinking is this:

1. You've got to get people's attention.

Large advertisers may be able to afford the luxury of multiple impressions or building their message over time. Most of us can't. We have to get it right the first time. And the best way to do it is to get your prospects attention. But you don't need a big budget to do that.

One of the best examples I can think of was done by Stavros Cosmopolous.

He created a postcard for O'Neils Auto Body Shop that was nice and glossy. It had this message. "If your car looks like this, you should come to O'Neils Body Shop."

However, before they sent it out, they did something interesting. They crumbled it up!

And the headline still read, ""If your car looks like this, you should come to O'Neils Body Shop."

Another innovative way to gain attention was used by a small software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The company is called Dataware and they make CD-Rom disks that store massive amounts of information.

Their business problem was an interesting one. How could they convince potential customers - in this case - huge corporations and government agencies - to turn over their entire database to a company they had never even heard of?

They called me in and let me know that they didn't have a huge advertising budget to create awareness. They couldn't afford an expensive break-through direct marketing package. But they did have some extremely well known clients - including the U.S. Patent Office.

My solution was to create a series of self-mailers for them, each one focusing on the success they had achieved with some very well known clients.

A good solution, even a cheap solution, but where did "Shoestring Thinking" come in? My recommendation was to take all the money they saved on production, and spend it on frequency.

Each prospect received three mailings in one week. After that, you can be sure that every last one of them had heard of Dataware and they equated them with huge organizations like the U.S. patent office, NYNEX and Ford.

The campaign was incredibly successful. And the total cost of the campaign was just under $15,000 -- about half the price of a single product they sell.

So remember; if you only have a limited budget -- or worse, you only have one chance to succeed -- it is absolutely essential that you do your absolute best to stand out and be noticed.

2. You've got to think creatively.

Shoestring Thinking is like "guerrilla marketing." If you can't launch a massive (and expensive) campaign -- you have to find hidden opportunities and work with what you've got. That's why you need to be a creative thinker.

One of my favorite examples of Shoestring Thinking was by National Photos of Australia. They are a film developer by mail.

Their marketing problem was that they wanted to reach people who were coming home from vacation, and who presumably wanted to develop their photographs as soon as possible.

National Photos could have bought airline magazines (usually an expensive media) or they could have put kiosks in airports. But they did something even more creative. They sponsored the motion sickness bags.

"Use this strong bag to send your film to National Photos," they urged airline passengers. The campaign has been extremely successful for them, and they've been doing it for several years. I congratulate them for thinking creatively. I'm just not sure I want to be the person who opens the mail.

3. You've got to make every dollar count.

What I mean by this is that you have to be totally ruthless about your advertising and direct marketing. On several levels.

From a media point of view, you have to measure and eliminate everything that doesn't work. Because you want to invest your budget where it will do the most good.

From a creative point of view, you have to consider every element in your direct mail package and make sure each one is working as hard as it can for you. There's a very effective way to do this called "Yield Loss" that I will describe in a later article.

And from a strategic point of view, you have to make sure you are maximizing every opportunity with your existing customers. This alone can make your direct marketing program far more successful and cost effective. In fact, sources report that the average customer mailing outpulls a rented list mailing 2 - 10 times over. And even if you're operating on a shoestring, always mail your customers first-class.

The Real Secret To Shoestring Thinking

I gave a presentation at the DMA Annual Conference last year called "Better, Cheaper, Faster." I stressed that the single best way to make something cheaper was to make it better.

If you spend $25,000 on a direct marketing campaign and you get 100 responses, you've paid $250 for each one. And they may be well worth it. However, if you spent the same amount and got 300 responses, your cost per response is a lot less. That's one reason why it makes sense to invest in better creative and stronger offers -- they are the best way to leverage your cost and reduce your cost-per-response.

Someone once said that "Not spending enough money on your advertising is like buying a plane ticket half-way to Europe. You still spend a lot, but you don't get anywhere."

The same is true of your investment in creative.

The "Direct Marketing on a Shoestring" Award Show may have started as the world's most un-traditional award show. But it has become an important showcase of some of the best work in New England, and an inspiration to both clients and agencies.

Shoestring Thinking Techniques

Here are some of the techniques we share in our seminar

1. Test a postcard. Although postcards will rarely pull as well as a direct mail package, they are an ideal way to test an idea, as well as measure the effectiveness of your mailing.

I did a campaign for a high-technology telephone answering service called Wildfire. The client decided that the mailing piece was too expensive. So I recommended we split the list and mail half of them a postcard with the same offer. The result was a significant reduction in costs. Plus the postcard won in terms of cost per response.

In addition, first class postcards are also an inexpensive way to clean your list.

2. Use card decks. When available to your target market, card decks can be used as a "secret weapon" for direct marketers. They're very cheap to buy and inexpensive to produce.

Most card decks also allow you to split run their deck, so you can test 2 or more different offers. Once you measure the comparative results, you can then decide to invest in a more expensive program.

3. Try a "cluster bomb." Here your goal is to get more than one response per mailer. You can do a sophisticated program where you ask people to recommend others in their company. Or you can simply include an additional reply card. I did this for a mailing for Interleaf and increased response by almost 20% -- for pennies.

4. Develop a fulfillment "wrapper." A software company I worked with had high fulfillment costs. Every time they changed their product or their price, received a favorable product review, or gained a big new customer, they had to reprint their brochure.

I created a simple "wrapper" folder for them, and a set of independent elements including a price sheet, product specs, and case-histories. When something changed, they merely replaced that single element. Plus they could add new elements as they went along.

5. Be creative about buying and using lists. You don't have to mail to the entire purchased list. You can mail half and then decide if it pays to mail again.

You can also negotiate multiple use. For example, many list companies will sell you unlimited use for one year for about double the cost of a one-time use. However, if it's a good list, you will want to mail to it several times over the next 12 months.

Swapping lists is also a money-saver. Try to find a company that makes a complimentary product or shares your target market. You might even decide to run a co-promotion. The software and the hardware companies do it all the time.

6. Use clip art or stock photos. There is a lot of free clip art available as well as inexpensive stock photography. Try to negotiate a fee for "testing." You can then agree to pay more if you decide to roll out your program.

7. Lose the brochure. If you have to cut out any part of your direct marketing package, this is it -- particularly in business-to-business. A powerful letter and an effective reply device can sometimes pull just as well, at greatly reduced costs.

8. Think of your customers first. It is 5 times cheaper to get a sale from an existing customer than to find a new one. (It can cost 100 times as much to win them back). One of the most important shoestring techniques is to keep your customers satisfied.

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