Beat The Control

“Beat the control.” Those three little words can make or break businesses and careers. In the world of direct marketing, where results mean everything, many agencies, account executives, copywriters and designers live and die by those three little words.

For those who may not be so familiar with direct marketing lingo, “beat the control” is short for, “create an ad, mailing or TV spot that generates more sales or leads than the best performing ad, mailing or TV spot that ran before it for the same product.” You know the direct mail package that keeps turning up in your mailbox year after year, unchanged – or the TV spot that seems to be airing forever? We call those controls. They have the best response rates. They’re the benchmark, the hurdle against which other direct marketing materials are tested. They’re the winners.

So how do you unseat a winner? In over two decades of experience as a creative resource on both the agency side and as a freelancer, I’ve been called upon many a time to “beat the control.” Here are 5 little secrets I’ve used to create new winners.

1) Don’t miss a trick. Study the current control. Really examine it. Deconstruct it. Analyze its style, format and content. Is it straightforward or colloquial? How does it use graphic images and color? (Lots of photos, no photos, conservative or wild colors?) Why do you think it appeals to its target audience? Jot down your initial impressions. “Gut reactions” are usually spot-on and can tell you a lot.

2) Study previous controls. What did the current control beat? Study the contenders. You’ll be able to see what elements, if any, have remained constant from control to control, and you’ll want to use those elements in your new effort. Note: If there were no previous controls, then the existing ad, mailer or TV spot has yet to be tested and is therefore not a “real” control, but you still have to beat it, so skip to step 3

3) Look over your shoulder. What’s the competitor doing? The competitor has controls. They can provide you with a springboard for new ideas. See what’s working for someone else, and you’ll see what appeals to your prospective customer on someone else’s dollar. How do you know if a competitor’s ads are working? Here’s a clue: It’s been airing or mailing for a long time. Companies don’t generally like to throw good money after bad and will can a poor performing ad at their earliest convenience.

4) Mix and match. Take two winners, put them together, make a third. Learn to combine formats and copy approaches. Use what works for others to create a thing of your own. In practice, this step is more art than science. You can’t just smash things together because they “work” and assume you’ll have another winner. You may have created a Frankenstein instead of a Tiger Woods. Be selective. Start by taking two catchy phrases from the control and putting them together to create a powerful letter lead or a brochure headline. The idea is to take what works and work with it, not against it.

5) Know when to take a chance. Truth be told, no one can give you all the steps to create a control. You have to gamble a bit. Not gamble as in scratch-off lottery ticket or Russian roulette, but more like investing in a 401(k) plan. Diversify. Be conservative and aggressive. Combine “tried and true” techniques, elements of copy or design that have already been proven to work in the marketplace with your target audience (in other words, be conservative) with something new and different (the aggressive part). Give yourself permission to say, “I don’t know for sure if this will work; it’s never been done before.” Then add, “But I have every reason to believe it can work. Here’s why …”

Cynthia Maniglia is a member of the Philadelphia Direct Marketing Association (PDMA) and this article of hers appeared in the PDMA's newsletter last year. This article also appeared in the Detroit Direct Marketing Association’s newsletter.

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