10 YEAR CONTROL!
HOW DO YOU PERSUADE PEOPLE WHO CAN'T READ THAT THEY CAN WRITE A BLOCKBUSTER!
"The direct mail package for Writer's Digest was so successful that, for years ...
"... it crushed tests written by some of the biggest names in the business."
--Gordon Grossman, Circulation Management
INSIDE DIRECT MAIL
ANATOMY OF A CONTROL
A BLOCKBUSTER OF A MAILING
by Hallie Mummert
How do you tell the story of a publication that has been in print since 1920, and that already has a long-term control mailing by the legendary copywriter Linda Wells selling its benefits?
As the copywriter hired by F&W Publications to beat Wells' control package for Writer's Digest, freelancer Josh Manheimer was, understandably, a little intimidated. "Linda's a great copywriter, so I was shaking in my little boots," says Manheimer.
But, he adds, he also knew that he had an advantage in taking a shot at the previous control. Even though he was already a successful professional writer, he also was a budding creative writer—a fact that helped him feel intimate with the desires of the audience for this monthly magazine.
Manheimer's "Blockbuster" package, which was designed by David Wise, tested against Wells' package and became control in 1989. Since then, it has been mailed continuously, with F&W Publications giving it a break periodically to guard against fatigue.
Understanding the Target Prospect
Writer's Digest magazine is one of a handful of periodicals created by F&W Publications to service writers, artists, woodworkers and other types of creative professionals and hobbyists. What sets the firm's publications apart from the craft periodicals of other publishing companies is that its magazines are for people who want to make a career out of their interests, or at least strike it rich with one assignment.
But as Manheimer points out, the majority of prospects for Writer's Digest are more likely to be aspiring writers who are obsessed with fortune and fame, not their craft.
Since the financial side of writing is what appeals so strongly to this audience, he explains, that is why money imentioned so often in both his and Wells' controls.
An Outer Envelope That Says It All
As one would expect from a product that is so heavily concerned with words, Writer's Digest is not big on graphics, says Manheimer. Thus, the outer envelope created by Wise and Manheimer does not attempt to position the magazine in a graphic way.
Since the main motivators for this audience are greed and success, Manheimer chose the word "Blockbuster" to represent prospects' longing; Wise then magnified the worso that it dominates the outer envelope. The Courier typeface makes the word look hand-typed—a humanizing touch—even though it couldn't possibly have been.
"The outer is a complete rip-off of Bill Jayme," says Manheimer, alluding to the use of bold, singular words in the package design of Jayme and his design partner, Heikke Ratalahti.
For Writer's Digest, this approach is right-on, because it conveys in one word what the audience wants—to write a blockbuster. And even though some authors of best-selling books have not gone on to be rich and famous, there are plenty of writers who have. It's an implied promise.
What this headline doesn't do—and neither does the supporting copy underneath it—is tell the prospect exactly what's inside. The only clues that the offer is for a publication is the "five free issues" copy that shows through the circular die-cut window on the outer envelope, and the magazine title and return address printed on the back flap.
"With the outer, I wanted to cast a wide net, and not to limit anyone from the offer," says Manheimer.
One other small, but important, detail on the outer envelope is the indicia that has been printed in fine, red type. While it's obviously been printed, the squiggle cancel lines give the impresion that this mailing came from somewhere real, says Manheimer.
The Heart of the Appeal
While the letter is the main voice in any direct mail package, it truly becomes the focus in an appeal that reaches out to fledgling writers.
Manheimer's letter is four pages long, and creates instant rapport from the first paragraphs by sharing the story of a failed writing assignment from his college days. This puts him on a level with the members of the audience who have had similar experiences, and it also reminds the readers of their pain of not being acclaimed Once they have been reminded of defeat, Manheimer delivers victory, by next revealing that he has since become a successful copywriter who earns a handsome income for his professional services. At this point, readers are hooked, because there is the promise of turning failure into success.
In general, Manheimer explains, the client makes up the names for the letter or finds names from within the company to use. Because this was his personal story, Manheimer signed the letter, and was careful to drop hints in the letter that he does not work for F&W Publications.
Because the story is true, Manheimer can inject other benefits into the letter that might appeal to a novice writer lusting for the comfy life of a successful author, such as being able to live on a 55-acre farm in Vermont. Even though Manheimer says he has since moved to
a smaller farm, the story remains true year after year.
The postscript stands out in this mailing, because there's an extra thought before the standard repetition of the call to action. The first sentence
of the postscript: "Writing is so much more than putting one word after another. The trick is to know which order to put them in."
Manheimer explains that he used this sentence here, not only because he couldn't find room for it elsewhere, but because the postscript can be the first copy a prospect reads. If so, he wanted to get these prospects focused on the challenges of writing, before they learned anything about the offer.
Again, Wise's design is "writerly," with large Courier type used for the story copy that starts on the first page of the letter, above the magazine title, eyebrow and salutation. By putting the eyebrow in red capital letters, this offer preview copy holds its own on the page. A few subheads are scattered throughout the four-page letter to break the copy into manageable chunks. Another strong technique that Manheimer and Wise use is the indentation of text blocks every few paragraphs. It's a subtle way to emphasize copy and move the reader through the letter without heavy use of underlines, high lights and boldfacing. It's also a great way to break up copy when you don't have more than one or two buffeted lists.
Manheimer says, "You have to respect the writing and the audience, and give as much space as needed to explain the product and offer."
Second Story, Second Letter
Since the personal story has already been showcased in the main letter, the lift letter presents the rags-to-riches concept in another way. Manheimer explains that there are plenty of stories in everyday life of a writer getting a huge sum of money to create a book, screenplay or other masterpiece. The best of these stories are those that astound people by the enormous amounts of money promised in return for an outline, first chapter or other small segment of the final work.
At the time he wrote the mailing, Manheimer chose the story of a writer whose incomplete manuscript drew a bid of $1.01 million dollars. Writer's Digest has since updated the lift letter with an example of a $2 million advance. For any writer with illusions of grandeur, these true tales make you say "Wow!"