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American Red Cross blood donation marketing could use a shot in the arm

A family member died from a blood disease, so I’m sensitive to the importance of blood donations. I had not given in far too long when I stopped into an American Red Cross trailer a few weeks ago and donated a pint plus platelets.

The techs warn you at the time there’s no guarantee your blood will be acceptable, but I got a follow-up call a couple weeks later for another donation. I happened to be in a public place and the connection seemed to be poor. I asked them to call me back. Later, I reflected on the fact my blood must have passed muster or they would not have called me. Why didn’t they just tell me the good news?

Tonight, another call. Again the connection was poor, which I’ll now say is due to some budget choices on the equipment used by the telephone staff. There’s a drive this Thursday at Saratoga Catholic, would I prefer 11, 12 or 1 pm?

Wait a minute, I said. I understood there was something special about my blood from the previous call and I’d like more detail before committing. The rep read through a script about how important blood donation is. But what about my blood, what’s special about that? Well, you’re A Positive which is 34% of people but only 3% give blood. Further you’re able to give to A Negative donors as well.

I had to stop her there because I’m not available on that date but asked her to call again. I really do want to give blood and intend to, but this process is self defeating. Let’s see how it could be made better

1. On the first follow-up call, congratulate the donor on the fact their blood was found acceptable and is helping save lives right now. Why in the world would they not do this?

2. On the second call, don’t lead with generic blood donor motivators. Tell me what my blood type is and why that’s important, rather than have me ask for it.

3. Finally, don’t twist my arm. Calling me out of the blue and trying to set up an appointment right way is way too intrusive. How about a softer direct mail sell? And how about a secondary ask of a donation, which might help pay for the program?

DMA 2015 &then was a home run

&then2015, also known as #andthen2015 or simply the DMA Annual Conference, is in the books. The Boston event concluded with an emotional keynote from John Legend that wrapped up about 4:15 this past Tuesday, October 6. I would venture to guess that the event succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest hopes and dreams.

A huge format change had staff scrambling up to the last minute to get relevant information online. As a presenter, I was a bit worried about who might show up or if nobody would. But they came, and they were engaged, by a curriculum that somehow weeded out the self-serving promotional sessions of prior years as well as cutting a full day off the program by removing the Hall of Fame Luncheon, report from the DMA President and other excuses to take your client offsite for lunch.

I’ve rarely seen a mature organization give itself such a radical makeover and objectively the possibility of a failed event was pretty high. But these guys pulled it off and it really was the best of maybe 20 DMA conferences that I’ve attended. Special thanks and congratulations to my immediate contacts, Jeremy Ladson and Keith Baker of the programming committee. See you next year, I hope.

First review of $50 Amazon Fire tablet

Mine arrived today and I wanted to review it on the Amazon website but they said the product has not yet been officially released and can’t be reviewed so I’ll share experiences here. It’s a 2 or maybe 3 star product. Good performance and graphics, but due to interface problems it’s going back if I can’t fix it.

This is basically a delivery mechanism for Amazon products and services. If that’s all it’s good for they should give it away free, not charge $50. It’s very difficult to log in to anything other than Amazon’s own app store. (I tried to access the NYTimes app for which I had a subscription; they wanted me to get it through their Kindle store.) The second problem is that when you try inputting your user info after finally reaching a log in page, it autocorrects to nonsense. Can’t find a way to turn this off.

Not a fan.

Get a free copy of my book at DMA2015 &then

Update: DMA &then website has now been updated with full schedule information. Go to to read all about it. BE SURE TO USE THIS LINK; the “build your schedule” menu on the home page of still produces the old placeholder content.

Here’s the session I am leading on Monday, October 4, from 4:45-5:30 at the DMA’s revamped &then conference in Boston:

Devilish Details: Looking for an Advantage in Your Copy and Design
An interactive sequel to one of last year’s most popular sessions, “The Devil’s in the Detail”. Share clever tweaks and clumsy misfires that made a big difference in creative execution and bottom line results—good or bad. Veteran copywriter Otis Maxwell will kick things off with examples of a few gems and gaffes, then you join the fun. Fabulous prizes for the best ideas!

This is an “Ignition” session which is designed for attendees to interact in a town-hall environment. I’ll share some examples of copy and design decisions that had a negative impact on campaigns, then make suggestions for how to improve them. After a few examples I’ll open things up to the floor and ask folks to share their own experiences which can be a/creative home runs and pratfalls they’ve experienced in their own work and what they’ve learned from them, or b/third party examples similar to my own.

While copies last, everybody who makes a meaningful contribution gets a free copy of my copywriting book, Copywriting that Gets Results!

Note: As of September 27, there is still placeholder copy on the website. This is the session in the slot called “Concentrating on the Detail: Copy & Color Choice”. That’s the placeholder title; what I’ve described above is the real deal.

Why too many good ideas can sink your direct marketing campaign

Front of Save the Children OE

Save the Children outer envelope has lots of good ideas

It’s great that you are brimming over with good ideas. Unfortunately, your prospect is not nearly as enchanted with your creativity as you are. They’ll sit still for one powerful marketing statement, perhaps supported by a call to action subhead, then it’s off to the deleted messages folder or the recycling bin. When you put out too many good ideas, you run the risk of getting none of them across.

This Save the Children appeal is an example of too many good ideas. On the front of the outer envelope is this headline: “What if your donation had 4x the impact for children in need?” That’s a very legitimate teaser and it’s supported by the subhead “learn more inside…” Unfortunately, the reply-by date is a complete non sequitur. Does the 4x benefit cease on that date? Then there’s the free notecard statement which I’m aware is a popular fundraising technique in today’s society, but it appeals to greed which is a different motivator than wanting your gift to do the most good so it’s misplaced here.

Save the Children OE back

Still more good ideas on the back of the same envelope (click the photo to enlarge and read the quotes)

On the back there are MORE good ideas. Here’s a quote from Bill Gates that would support a package all by itself. When asked to recommend a top philanthropic cause on the Today show, he replied, “you can go to Save the Children—they help mothers have safe births… It’s amazing. You can be sure that [this organization] will put your money to good use.” A minor quibble, not everybody knows who Bill Gates is so I’d set the stage by saying he was the world’s richest man until he started giving away his money. Then we’d have a very nice setup for a direct mail pack or maybe a long form print ad.

Unfortunately, the Bill Gates quote is diminished by a quote from the Save The Children’s own president, in the same size type. Since she has maybe a tenth the credibility of a legendary philanthropist in this context, that should be the weight of the two quotes—or, better yet, leave it off. And we’re not done; the envelope needs to tell us that Save the Children has earned its 14th consecutive 4-star rating from Charity Navigator. For what? Hopefully it’s for using my money efficiently instead of spending it on administration and marketing. But tell me; don’t just show me the Charity Navigator logo.

Save the Children is a fabulous organization that really does great work; I was quite familiar with some wonderful packages written by my mentor Robbin Gehrke at Russ Reid. But this isn’t a winning effort. It falls victim to too many good ideas.

Coming to DMA &then in Boston? We’ll be talking about this and other examples of marketing milestones and miscues in my interactive Ignition session, Devilish Details: Looking for an Advantage in Your Copy and Design. It’s at 4:45 pm on Monday, October 4. See you there!

Copywriters, don’t spill your candy in the lobby

Bowtie Cinema urinal sign

Sign over the urinal at Bowtie Cinema, New York

Gore movie maven and direct mail copy guru Herschell Gordon Lewis had a great admonition in one of his books: “Don’t spill your candy in the lobby.”* It means that you should not give away the premise of your selling message too soon but instead should take the time to build up some interest and curiosity. I have a good example in a OE teaser for Investor’s Daily which I show in my direct mail class:

40% are millionaires
35% have portfolios over $500,000
60% are in management
37% own two or more homes
What are they all reading?

Now, think what would happen if they left off that final line. You’d be fascinated by these impressive stats and would be thinking “who are these financial overachievers” and would tear open the envelope to find out. But IBD (which does not identify itself on the OE; the return address is an anonymous street address) has to refine the discussion and let us know they are selling a publication. If I’m not a reader, out it goes. The marketer spilled its candy in the lobby and arrives at the loge seating alone and empty handed.

I was reminded of this advice when visiting an actual movie theater the other day, where I spied the pictured plaque above the self-composting urinal. The initial message is praiseworthy: These state of the art waterless urinals will save over 600,000 gallons of water in their lifetime. Which is great, and they should stop there. But then comes the spillage: That’s enough water to take 20,000 showers.

It takes 30 gallons of water to take a shower? I had no idea… shame on me for taking so many showers. A positive message has been turned into a negative, unless this is exactly what the management of the theater intended. And maybe it is. But think what would have been the effect if the final line had been left off. You’d be left with a positive impression of the theater’s conservation practices, and that would be that.

* Actually, I don’t know if he said it or not but he’s said a lot of other clever things so I’ll give him credit for it.

Making the most of your Xiaomi Yi camera

I have been having fun with my Xiaomi (pronounced show-me) Yi, a GoPro knockoff I bought online for a little under $70. You can order on Amazon at prices that fluctuate, but always under $100, and there’s no reason not to get one of these and have fun with it and maybe even discover a practical use.

The two things I’ve been doing mostly are time lapse photography (see sample) and as an action cam that allows me to take it with me on forays to sandwich shops, farmers markets and potentially the Saratoga Race Course to document experiences for my food blog. You need some kind of mount for this purpose since your hands will be busy with your smartphone (iPhone or Android) which is how the camera is controlled. (At this price it does not have its own monitor screen.) So far I’ve acquired a head harness, chest harness and underwater mount (which blocks the microphone, so it’s not useful for above the surface work.) You’ll also need a mounting screw (it has the standard 1/4 inch receptacle in the bottom) and perhaps other hardware to attach to these setups. All of these are available at low cost on Amazon from Chinese companies that will take a couple weeks to ship to you. Also, you’ll need a micro SD card to capture your images and a USB external power supply if you want it for power intensive work such as time lapse photography.

I was initially self conscious about wearing the camera but folks don’t seem to care or maybe don’t realize it’s a real camera. I’ve used it on a selfie stick stuck out of my briefcase and on the chest mount, worn under a shirt with just the lens peeking out. Haven’t found the chutzpah to wear the head harness yet.

It’s oddly hard to find good info online about the extensive capabilities of the Xiaomi Yi camera. The manual is in Chinese and brief. The app is very good and frequently updated, but it’s not always clear what all the options are and how to use them. Here are a few random tips which I recorded simply because I didn’t see them anywhere else:

  1. How to know if you’re shooting video or still without looking at your smartphone? When you select video by pressing the front button, an additional light comes on, on both the top and bottom of the camera.
  2.  Wireless connectivity problems? Before you start the app but after turning on wireless on the camera, go to your settings and choose its network. You may have to enter a password which is 1234567890.
  3. There’s a function to transfer files from the camera to the phone (so you can watch them when the camera is not connected) but it takes forever. A much better tactic is to use the built-in micro USB jack to access the files from your computer and transfer that way.
  4. What’s the meaning of the colors on the front ring of the camera? It flashes when starting up then turns to a bright solid color. Blue fully charged, purple partway, red low battery. When hooked up via USB it is purple then red if you eject the card.
  5. The HDMI jack is for use with a monitor that broadcasts what the Yi sees, like for a security camera. Apparently it can’t be used to play recorded video/photos.
  6. Use the time lapse function under video, NOT under photo to make a time lapse movie. If you choose time lapse photos you will get a large number of individual stills which I guess are useful as a security camera. For time lapse you’ll definitely need external power (a brick that plugs into the micro USB port, which the Yi uses for charging) because time lapse is a huge memory hog.
  7. It was doubtless a cost compromise to use a removable cover for the area that houses the HDMI and micro USB jacks and the memory card and you are probably going to lose it. Don’t worry too much. None of these items is extremely fragile (no more so than the camera overall) so you’re unlikely to do serious damage if you’re taking good care of the camera overall. But at this price maybe you should just buy a second camera, just in case.

Stage management in your direct mail package

Mutual of Omaha teaser

OE teaser on Mutual of Omaha “keepsake” package

Direct mail has a unique benefit, compared to other direct marketing media: the opportunity for stage management. You can control the user experience by the way you design the components and deliver your message. You can decide what your user will see first when they open the envelope (which is why you should always give your mail house a folding dummy, stapled together with the components in the correct order) and then lead them through a compelling story.

Mutual of Omaha Keepsake

This is the Mutual of Omaha “keepsake”

This Mutual of Omaha burial insurance package has a great example of stage management. The OE teaser says, quotes included, FREE “Family Keepsake” ENCLOSED. I despise unnecessary quotes, which often make their way into peppy corporate manuals (e.g. “huddle” with your team) but here they have a place because they call attention to the rather intriguing phrase. I’ve got to know what this “family keepsake” might be so I rip open the envelope.

Mutual of Omaha components

Components of Mutual of Omaha “keepsake” package

Turns out the keepsake is a pretty two-fold on card stock which is for recording your family tree. Without commentary, on the flap Mutual Omaha provides some lines to write in the contact information for people who should be notified in the event of your demise. See what they did there? They got me thinking about my family and how they would be affected by my death, and I realized I don’t want them paying for my funeral out of pocket so I better buy this insurance.

Fresh Air Fund OE

Fresh Air Fund OE

In contrast, a missed opportunity for stage management comes from our old friends the Fresh Air Fund. I have to give credit, first of all, for a much better teaser than in past years. When I hold the package there’s an odd heft to it. Something extra is in there. I open the package and… it’s a note pad, with the logo of the Fresh Air Fund on it and nothing more.

Fresh Air Fund Notepad

Components of Fresh Air Fund package with noet pad on top

What else could they have done? Invite you to write down a message to the kid you’re sending to camp, maybe. (The first page would be pre-filled, then when you tear it off you’ve got a usable notepad.) Or ask you to write down your own favorite camp memories, which brings alive the value of summer camp in the same way the “family keepsake” brings alive the reality of funeral expenses. Plus they should have their contact info on there, since the note pad will stay around long after the other components have gone.

Fresh Air Fund tickets

Fresh Air Fund Tickets

In addition, the reply device is a series of “tickets”. That’s the right idea: your gift directly contributes to a child’s camp experience and this is the embodiment of that benefit. But let’s make them look like tickets, instead of calling them tickets and then making them standard response devices. For example, instead of

Good for: One Round-Trip Bus Ticket
Mr. Maxwell, please give a child a ticket to adventure!
Yes, I want to help send an inner-city kid to camp….
And help him or her discover hidden strengths and talents

It might say

Round-Trip Bus Ticket to Camp
Provided through the generosity of: Otis Maxwell
Please use my contribution to help send an inner city to camp.
[ ] $21 pays for one bus ticket.
[ ] I want to help more kids and I am enclosing my contribution of [ ]

Or, given a little more budget (which might be provided by eliminating the note pad) I might print very authentic-looking tickets without an ask, then put them inside a carrier sleeve of some kind. It would then be very credible and an involving experience to have the donor indicate on the sleeve how much they are giving and how they want the gift to be used. Stage management.

Salvation Army shows the perils of localized donor mail

Front page of Shield letter

Where’s my town in this localized letter?

I gave a fair-sized gift to my local Salvation Army this past holiday season, and was happy to do so. (I wanted a particularly enthusiastic bell ringer to get credit, so I found out his name, wrote it on the check, and dropped it off at the local center.) Inevitably, this has spawned a series of large donor mailings asking me to repeat with similar amounts.

I mentioned one of these mailings in an earlier post because the art direction on the outer envelope wasn’t particularly adept. But later I got a second mailing that caused me to dig deeper and I found some object lessons in what not to do if you’re a national not-for-profit and you want to customize mail for individual locations.

Why should you go to the trouble of localizing your appeal? Because local donors to a cause like the Salvation Army want to know their contribution is put to use in their community. Some years ago I did a localized campaign for the American Red Cross. It had an insert on emergency preparedness, which was variable. We didn’t talk about hurricanes in the Midwest, or rivers flooding in the Northeast. (With climate change, maybe we’ll soon have the same disasters everywhere and non-profits can save the money.) And there were statistics which were localized by county of number of people helped, first aid courses taught and so on. Even thought it was a national mailing, folks in Milwaukee would feel like it was about their local Red Cross.

Localization on page 2

Here it is… on the second page.

I expect the Salvation Army did some similar database research, but they don’t use it well in the copy. My own community of Saratoga Springs is not mentioned till the second page of the “if this shield could talk” letter. Who are the 125 hungry families and 70 people who eat breakfast? Is that in Saratoga? (To read this and other copy details, click on the images to enlarge them.) I suspect this is just a flub: the numbers are appropriate for a town our size, but somebody forgot to plug in the name of the town. As a copywriter I’m well aware that the story of Sophia and Anthony is not local, but blending in local statistics would have blurred that line and made for a more compelling narrative.

Processing Center

Institutional “processing center” language turns off donors.

I’m also not easy with the qualifying statement (on the letter and the response form) that “In order to save on administrative costs, all mail is returned to a centralized processing center. Please be assured your donation is being used in your local community.” Well, first of all, that processing center (bad word—as a generous donor I don’t want to be “processed”) is in Albany, the nearest big city, so I don’t have a problem with it. Second, why don’t you say “in Saratoga Springs” or “in Saratoga County” instead of “your local community”? I have a very strong hunch that including this statement, thus raising an objection where one might not have existed, results in fewer donations that a mailing without that statement.

Salvation Army Camp Mailing

Second Salvation Army local mailer

Then the second mailing arrived, which is about sending kids to Long Point Camp in the Finger Lakes. I’ve previously written about the difficulty of “send a kid to camp” programs—that’s a very hard sell compared to feeding a homeless family and you really have to paint a picture of the kid’s desperate situation. So now we have this outer with the message “Please Open!” (I think they could have come up with a better teaser, no?) and two white kids in a tire swing. Is this a variable picture? It’s true that my community is pretty lily-white so maybe so. But why a tire swing? Can’t they afford real play equipment at this camp, which probably isn’t very safe if they’re using discarded tires?

Salvation Army Long Point

Send a kid to Long Point Camp.. why?

Moreover, why are we sending them away to camp in western New York when Saratoga County is chock-a-block with camps and rustic destinations? Or to Lake George, next county up the Northway? I feel like this effort is probably designed for donors who live in a big city, so when you mail to a resort area it really exhibits a tin ear.

I don’t have it in for the Salvation Army. I love these guys. I wrote fundraising campaigns for them many years through the Grizzard Agency, and contributed a pro bono effort to get donations after the Los Angeles riots of the early 1990s. But they have offered up a picture perfect example of what can go wrong with a localized campaign, and I’m sharing it as a bit of advice as well as others who think about localizing their national campaigns.

If you can’t read the results, why test it?

FICO envelope front

Envelope variations for Chase Slate FICO package, plus duplicates received at my address

My early direct mail copy chiefs beat this mantra into me: only test one thing at a time. If you change the offer and simultaneously change the letter lead, how do you know which change was responsible for any lift?

I thought of this as the drumbeat of “Free FICO Score” offers from Chase Slate continued, and I realized one of the envelopes looked different. Same color scheme, virtually the same OE copy on the front but arranged in a slightly different way. The first really noticeable change is on the back. One says “no annual fee” and the other has a lineup of four unidentifiable awards. (We know which would win in that test, don’t we, since benefits always eclipse chest pounding.)

FICO envelope back

FICO outer envelope back with testing variations

Inside the “alike but different” motif continues. One letter starts “Transfer high rate balances from other credit card issuers and save money.” The other, “From balance transfers to new purchases, Chase Slate makes saving simple.” Exact same facts, but one is about “you” and the other about “the card” so again, it’s pretty clear which would win if tested on its own. (That old copy chief of mine would have had the second writer start over, rather than testing the two leads.) However, the “you” copywriter is paired with the art director who put the shields on the back of the OE, so we’re tied.

Two FICO letters

Which of these letters is more persuasive? Why?

And it continues throughout the package, with design and copy slightly different without changing the facts or the basic presentation. What’s happening here is that two teams were tested against each other to see which one is “better”—a costly experiment on Chase’s part. This isn’t the same as a direct mail package test in which creative teams come up with completely different ideas from scratch. It’s an expensive waste of time.

My advice to Florian Egg-Krings, who signs both letters (no testing variations there): test spelling out “credit score” on the OE rather than calling it “FICO score”. Take one key benefit—I’d probably go with the reasons you’d want a monthly credit report and how great it is to get it for free—and lead one letter with that, then keep the other about your laundry list of benefits. Now you’ve got something worth testing.

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