Pushing the Envelope: Astronauts, Assumptions, and Direct Mail Testing

pushing the envelopeIn the movie The Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager and his fellow test pilots assumed the early astronauts were wimps because they weren’t truly in control of their space crafts.

Test pilots, on the other hand, were forever “pushing the envelope” – using sheer skill and daring, they forced their planes to perform to their maximum capabilities and beyond, preferably without crashing and burning.

Direct mail marketers are also forever “pushing the envelope” (sorry!), but driving results in direct mail is not just a matter of skill. Human nature is unpredictable, even unknowable. Campaigns often crash and burn because there are no absolutes.

As Claude Hopkins sagely observes in Scientific Advertising:

“There are many surprises in advertising. A project you will laugh at may make a great success. A project you are sure of may fall down.…None of us know enough of peoples’ desires to get an average viewpoint.

”In the old days, advertisers ventured on their own opinions. The few guessed right, the many wrong….

“Now we let the thousands decide what the millions will do…. When we learn what they buy, we know what a million will buy.”

There you have the essence of why repeated testing is so essential. The savviest marketing guru is still only one person, and generally not a mind-reader.

But experiments with crowdsourcing and the groundbreaking conclusions reached in the book The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki, 2004) show that the masses generally know what will work far better than any one individual.

And unless you’re converting at 100% for a penny per customer, you can always improve your direct mail piece, your mailing list, or your offer. And you will be repeatedly surprised to learn what works and what doesn’t.

There are large tomes filled with data about testing: the hows, the whys, the wheres, the whats. There are dozens of permutations, hundreds of methodologies, thousands of analyses that can be undertaken. Rent a new mailing list. Change your lift note. Add a lift note. Remove your lift note. Brighten your brochure. Change your offer. Change your slogan. Increase your font. Decrease your font. Use handwriting fonts. Use sticky notes with handwriting fonts. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Or perhaps ad nauseum.

All of that is beyond the scope of any blog post. But one of the most interesting chapters in Scientific Advertising talks about the value of information gathering for any campaign.

This can be as easy as reading all available research on your product and/or the people who use it. It can be as complicated as surveying 10,000 programmers for their input on Linux vs. Windows. It can be as strenuous as weeks of slogging through muck, interrogating ranchers about manure spreaders. Make it as simple or as difficult as you like, but the knowledge gained is inevitably invaluable.

And then you test your new-found knowledge. And you test again. And again. Because you know what they say about assumptions. And any assumptions you are making about your customers are likely wrong.  

Just as I think we can all agree that Chuck’s assumptions about the wimpiness of astronauts were wrong.