December 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

New Rules

The web has changed the rules of direct marketing, often in ways that contradict Direct Marketing 101.

The four new principles of direct marketing, courtesy of the World Wide Web

By Herschell Gordon Lewis

Here we are, well into the 21st century, and too many retailers are ignoring the way the web has changed all rules of force-communication. It’s time to recognize two simple but profound facts:

1. Attention spans are shorter.

2. Skepticism is rampant.

So before I share some of recent e-mail test results, I’ll justify those results by relating them to four new principles of marketing, forced on us by the World Wide Web and its giant offspring, e-mail. Note these four 21st century developments. If you object to them, you parallel the buggy-whip store objecting to construction of an automobile dealership next door:

1. Increasing informality.

2. Increasingly emphaticpersuasion.

3. Substantiation of claims.

4. Quickly absorbed messagecoupled with promise offast action.

OK, let’s assume that we all accept, at least temporarily, this new selling environment. Put these developments to the test, as this marketer did: Which price sells more as an e-mail incentive? $19.95 or $20.00?

Ah, you say, since childhood we’ve learned that crossing a number-barrier suppresses a little more of the potential response. Oh, yeah? Take another look at that fourth rule.

The item that we were testing had been priced at $19.95, and that’s what it was to existing customers. But because testing is the key to increased response and because we’d begun to experience lost sales because e-mail recipients couldn’t or wouldn’t figure percentages, this company tested $20.00 against the $19.95 in e-mails to outside lists.

The results were, at first blush, bizarre: Responses from upscale ZIP-codes showed a preference for $20.00. The even number seemed either clearer or more honorable.

To validate the test, the next move was $20.00 versus $20. The clear winner: $20. To those of us who accept the four 21st century principles, it’s a validator: $20 not only is easier to absorb than $19.95 but the number is a less-formal, less commercial price.

I long have espoused even numbers for far-up-the-scale pricing. A sable coat isn’t $79,995. It’s $80,000. But the five-cent differential between $19.95 and $20? That’s a new level of education.

Accent on the imperative

Smart e-marketers have long since determined that usually an imperative subject line will bring more response than a descriptive subject line. That concept has leaped into even greater soundness as consumers become e-mail sophisticates, arbitrarily accepting or discarding messages. It is in total sync with the second of the new principles: increasingly emphatic persuasion.

An example is a recent test of an item pitched for early holiday sales. The two subject lines:

l Send one of these [NAME OF ITEM] and make their holiday.

l In plenty of time for the holidays, [NAME OF ITEM].

Which pulled better? “Send one of these” did more than 20% better.

One reason generalities are just that-generalities-is that testing invariably provides exceptions to any rule, however sound that rule might be. We know imperatives are congruent with the second principle. But for a different product we tested two subject lines, with these as the key words:

l Last chance to order...

l Don’t miss out...

Which pulled better? “Last chance to order” by 9%. As I said, testing provides exceptions to any rule.

Another e-mail test, for kitchen appliances, pitted two questions against each other. Added to the hyper-personal e-mail ambiance, questions should pull strong response, with one significant caveat: The question has to make both logical and emotional sense to the online target.

The two questions:

l Ready to do a special favor for a special someone?

l Interested in this private offer, open for the next 48 hours only?

The second subject line is a bit awkward, but I’m glad we didn’t mess with it because it pulled considerably better. Figuring a base of 100 for that version, “Ready to do a special favor,” although still profitable, came in at 72. We can claim victory for the fourth 21st century development-quickly absorbing messages-because the winning results were tied to speed.

The need for substantiation

An absolute psychological rule: Skepticism increases in exact ratio to the number of identical claims by different sources.

For many of us, huge chunks of the day’s e-mail are pitches for debt reduction or organ extension. The effect is both epidemic and contagious: We extend that skepticism beyond the borders of these offers, and those for prescription drugs and deeply discounted computer software and “Save up to...” deals, to embrace (negatively) too many propositions in which we should be interested.

Substantiation overcomes that negative embrace, because substantiation offers separation-legitimacy.

Substantiation can be a testimonial by an individual known to your message recipients, or a guarantee that communicates sincerity and credibility, or even an individual’s signature on the e-mail.

What may have been a watershed test was “Unconditionally guaranteed” versus “Our unbreakable four-point guarantee.” The latter produced increased sales. I’m not privy to the percentage, but anecdotally I understand the increase was about 6%.

An e-mail “expert” offered this flat admonition: “Keep your subject lines to 35 characters or less.” Certainly logic attends that suggestion, a slavish adherence to the fourth principle. And even before this century dawned, brevity has been the soul of wit, hasn’t it?

Well, not always. A test we ran last Mother’s Day had these two subject lines battling each other:

l Last chance to order for Mother’s Day is this Thursday, so make your move now.

l Last chance to order is this Thursday.

The first one has 64 characters, 78 including spaces. The second has 32 characters, 38 with spaces. The argument for each is valid, experts notwithstanding: The longer one is a total rationale. The shorter one is easily read and can be expanded in the first sentence of text.

Results: The longer version-and note the imperative-won by slightly more than 8%.

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