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“The most successful advertisement in the history of the world” – analysed

The Wall Street Journal has been using this mailing to acquire subscribers for over 30 years. Drayton Bird calls it a “wonderful example of attention to detail, hard work and a real understanding of human nature”. Here Drayton explains what makes it work so well.

By Drayton Bird

Most of the highest paid copywriters in the US – where they pay more than anywhere else – specialise in subscription mailings, as I noted in a previous piece. I also noted that most UK publishers are more concerned about how little they need pay than how much they might make.

True, I am greatly biased towards getting paid more, but I have never seen anyone economise their way to success – and if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. A really effective subscription mailing is a pearl beyond price. But imagine having one that makes money for 30 years. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? So amazing that it repays a detailed analysis.

And that is why you may find it worth joining me in taking a detailed look at just such a mailing. Written by Martin Conroy for the Wall Street Journal, it first ran in 1974 or 1975 and has been running with very little change ever since. Regularly, being intelligent people, the folks at the Journal run tests to beat this mailing. They have never been able to.

So whatever they paid, it was cheap at the price. The authors of that admirable compilation Million Dollar Mailings (Bonus Books) call it the most successful advertisement in the history of the world. By 1992 it had generated over $1 billion in revenue. God alone knows how much that sum has increased to now.

Works in many markets

The example illustrated was sent to my PA, Denise, a decade ago. She got it because this mailing works in the US and many other markets – a good demonstration of the fact that in many fields, what works in one country often works with very little change elsewhere.

Sadly, I lack Mr Conroy’s talent. But having written to sell subscriptions and many other things for far too many years, maybe I can explain why this mailing works so well.

There are three main reasons

First, the letter (always the most important part of any mailing) is utterly captivating. Once you start reading, it is very hard to stop.

Second, the mailing sells what the publication will do for the reader, rather than what it is.

And third, the main incentive is very appropriate and well-described.

It is extraordinarily hard to induce people to start reading anything you write, let alone something that aims to sell. Here the incentive, featured in the two-sided leaflet, and the opening to the letter combine to do the job.

An incentive is not there, as many imagine, just to encourage a reply. It is also to encourage reading. You are wise to promote the incentive heavily and make it highly visible, which is done here. I shall return to the incentive later. First let us look at the letter.

Clever opening

The opening of the letter is so deceptively clever that I have often used it as an exercise in seminars.

Read those first six words. Then ask yourself whether they conjure up any sort of picture. For most people they do. If you read them again you’ll see that they actually tell you nothing whatsoever about the scene being depicted. Your imagination supplies the pictures.

This is a wonderful example of what they call nowadays, rather pretentiously, "interaction". More to the point it begins a story – man’s oldest form of entertainment, save perhaps cave drawings. A good story makes you want to know what happens next - and this does so admirably.

There are other things to be noticed: for the letter uses more than one well-judged technique. There is the element of surprise.

The difference between the average and the remarkable communication in any medium is often just that: something surprising that sparks further interest. The composer Haydn wrote a symphony called The Surprise. He said that every now and then he liked to make a loud noise to wake the audience up.

Here the surprise is of a particular kind. It is the sudden realization that while one man had done fairly well in life, the other had done far better. This provokes you – makes you wonder why. It makes you want to read on – which is all each sentence in copy has to do.

Solve a problem

This surprise is a variation on a very old theme: problem / solution.

We all have the same problem when we start out in life: we wish to succeed; but few of us know how. Unless you are a complete dullard, this will apply to you. Good mailings are only aimed at the likely prospect - in this case somebody who wishes to get ahead. We are not seeking dullards here.

There are several subheads in the letter - and they work very well. That’s because they tell the story for people who are skimming through the copy. They say things designed to capture your interest. Questions that call for answers - as in the first crosshead - are always a good way to keep people reading.

The paragraph after that crosshead is a masterpiece. What it does is very simple. It gives the reader excuses. It explains that the reason for any lack of success they may have is nothing to do with them. It’s not because they lack ambition, are idle or stupid. It is because they lack one essential ingredient: knowledge; and this will be supplied by the Journal.

Variety important

Notice how the length of the paragraphs in this letter varies. This is important: variety is the spice of life - and writing.

The third paragraph after that first crosshead includes the phrase "and this is why I am writing to you". Simply telling people why you are writing to them will increase response. One of my clients in New York took the trouble to measure how much the difference is. The answer was between 20 and 25%.

Good writers can often break the rules. One rule is that the most important word in the English language is not ‘free’, but ‘you’: because that is what you are most interested in. This is why most good letters use the word ‘you’ (and variants) more often than, ‘I’ and variants. But of course this letter does not use the word ‘you’ until after that crosshead. The part before is telling the story.

It is not until after the second crosshead – Europe’s global newspaper – that we start to describe what we are selling.

I recall, many years ago, that my first effort at selling subscriptions was an ad for a publisher, VNU. I can’t say it was all that brilliant but it did offer benefits rather than simple information. It got ten times as many replies as the publisher’s previous efforts. I met him years later when I was writing a column for a magazine he ran. I asked him why VNU never used me again. He said that they couldn’t believe how well it had done. The logic behind this escapes me, but having got to know the publisher in question I think I know the real reason. He is one of the most indolent people I have ever met.

Notice that at the bottom of the page the paragraph is split so that you have to turn over and find out more.

A strong close essential

After the first paragraph and a little description at the top of page 2 the letter reverts to selling hard – and in fact much of the page is devoted to trying to persuade the reader to reply.

Many – I would say most – letters fail because they have a week close. Towards the end of the copy far too many writers become perfunctory and casual. They are probably so delighted to have had any idea at all that the business of selling goes out of their minds. However, many good writers actually write the order form before they write anything else. I don’t do this myself. But I do make a great effort to get people to reply.

In this letter most of the latter part of page 2 is devoted to selling the incentives - and there are three: the 15% discount, a colour map and a Guide To Understanding Money And Investing.

Then the letter draws to a close with a well-managed reference to the story with which it began, and a repetition of the proposition that knowledge and how to use it are keys to success.

Finally, there’s another clever touch: pointing out that knowledge alone is not enough. In this way, any suspicion that we are claiming too much for what is, after all, just a newspaper, is removed.

Notice that the letter is not signed by a minion – a marketing executive, perhaps, but the publisher. The more senior the signatory, the better the response tends to be. It is more flattering to the reader.

And after the signature, just when you thought it was safe to come out, there is a PS – which research shows is, on average, the most recalled part of any letter - because people turn over to see who signed it.

Hard working incentive leaflet

Notice, too, that there is a close date. You have to reply in time to get the incentives. People do so because they don’t want to miss something good.

Many years ago, I wrote in my book Commonsense Direct Marketing that "Men fear to lose as much as they hope to gain". I was only half right, because I have since learned that men probably fear to lose more than they hope to gain. In a fascinating book called The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki analyses how sporting coaches make decisions. He concludes that many lose games because of this negative attitude. It has just as great an impact on most of the decisions we make.

Incentives are of two kinds: those that appeal to most people – luggage, pens, watches, and the like – and those that single out a particular kind of prospect. Wherever possible I prefer the latter.

The two-sided leaflet that describes the main incentive is very colourful – so that you can’t miss it - with lots of copy extolling its virtues.

Far too many people imagine that a throwaway mention of a few free vouchers or a free pen is enough to get people to want the incentive. But if something is free the natural thought of the recipient is that it must be worth nothing.

Therefore you are wise to sell the incentive and do so just as hard as you sell the main product. Your objective should be to make it sound so wonderful that you’d be happy to pay good money for it. You have to work hard, and do a complete selling job.

This mailing, from start to finish, is a wonderful example of attention to detail, hard work and a real understanding of human nature. I wish I could write half as well.