Comcast: Sending the same Failed Mail – it’s Comcastic!

This letter from Comcast arrived today. If it looks familiar, it is because it is almost exactly the same failed mail I covered earlier this month. The outer envelope is exactly the same as the first mailing – e.g. semi-blind outer envelope addressed to me “or Current Resident” – so I did not bother scanning it. The letter shown here has the same offer, layout, and body copy as the original letter. The only changes are the respond-by date and response phone number.

This suggests that the original letter was deceptive. The original letter stated … this special offer is only available until March 31, 2010.” However, it now appears to be widely available for at least another half month. There is nothing wrong with creating urgency by including a specific respond-by date, but stating that an offer expires by that date when in fact it does not is misleading when you plan a second mailing of the same offer. It erodes trust with your customer. An appropriate approach in the original letter would be “Please respond to this special offer by March 31, 2010.” or “To take advantage of this special offer, call 1-xxx-xxx-xxxx by March 31, 2010”.

It is generally not misleading to have a grace period after a respond-by date. For example, if want people to respond by March 31, you could accept responses until say, April 7, because some people read their mail late, don’t get around to calling, or delivery is delayed. What is misleading is when your urgency level suggests the offer is final but you send the same offer with a later offer expiration date.

Let’s assume for the moment that the offer in fact expires April 16 and assume that the rest of the letter is final. Even if the offer is available only for existing customers, including the word “customer” in the close is superfluous. The limitation of “only” does not apply to the availability but to the timeframe. An improved means of closing the letter would be “Hurry! This special offer is available only until April 16, 2010. Call 1-xxx-xxx-xxxx today.” If your manager or legal reviewer is directing you to emphasize that the offer is available only to customers despite having a disclosure, then replace “special” with “exclusive”.

Another Fail for Creative applies for the extra space in the closer between “until” and “April 16, 2010.” Someone did not check the spacing.

Of course, a basic Fail applies for repeating use of the same envelope and letter without material modifications. As explained here, if a recipient does not open or respond to the first letter, there should not be an expectation that the recipient responds to the second one using the exact same approach.

On a positive note, Comcast intelligently used a different phone number in the second mailing. This will enable adequate tracking of raw call counts for each of the two letters.

Learnings:  While it is productive to maintain a sense of urgency, do not mislead customers about when an offer expires. Proofread your grammar and every line in your communication. When resending the same offer, modify the creative from the original version. Track distinctly responses from each sales communication.


Improved communication to friends

Follow-up to my prior posting ... here is an improved version of the letter from Seven Acres I am sharing with the fundraising co-chairs. 

There are different directions the letter can go.  I took the approach this morning of maintaining the core messages from the original letter, adding some urgency to the need, and streamlining the text overall to render it visually palatable.  Specific changes include:
• Paragraphs are shorter, with text being left-justified.
• There is additional quantification, i.e. specific number of years and number of people supported over the years.
• Used a serif font, also to improve readability.
• Names of streets are removed to focus on the benefits Seven Acres delivers.
• The need for a friend is called out clearly with text underlining.
• The page specific for donations is mentioned specifically with a suffix of /friend. This way, people can go directly to the donation page and not get lost on the home page trying to find it. Seven Acres will need to work with it's internet support to set this up, but it should be easy for them.
• There is a time-based call to action rather than date on the letter. This provides some urgency to the request.
• Added a postscript.  This is a typical direct mail technique that has proven results. I reinforced the concept of Seven Acres, a way to learn more about it, and repeated the call to action to be a Friend.  I do not know if they offer tours, but it would certainly be a way to increase engagement among potential supporters.

The above represents text and layout.  Of course, the actual letter should be produced on Seven Acres letterhead.


Letters to friends should be easy to read

This solicitation for donations from Seven Acres is basically typical. It includes a branded outer envelope, request for money, simple response form and business reply envelope (not scanned).  The text of the letter talks to the history of the assisted living residence, the reason it is important to the community, and why the recipient should donate.

There are different ways to improve the content of the letter to improve persuasiveness, however I find myself motivated to write about simply the layout of the letter. The creative Fail is that the letter is hard to read. Simply put, it is not scanable.

• If you glance at the letter quickly, you will see two phrases: “Friends Campaign” and “Friends”. These are the words that are in boldface italics buried in the body copy. These are key words, but not the only ones a reader should take away from a request for money.

• The paragraphs are full justified. This makes the text difficult to read. Only newspapers and legal documents should be full justified. A successful direct mail letter will have text that is flush to the left column, e.g. left justified.

• The paragraphs are too long, especially the opening paragraph. (Long-form paragraphs can be successfully used in letters, but not one-page letters.) Lacking a Johnson Box or some other attention grabber to open the letter, the opening paragraph should be no longer than 2 sentences or 2 lines. It could be as simple as “Your support is desperately needed to help the elderly here in Houston.” Or consider leveraging the friends theme: “Houston area elderly citizens need a friend. Will you please help?”

The issue of timing is minor but also relevant. The letter is dated “February 2010” however it arrived in home in mid-March. The date on this type of letter does not add value under normal circumstances, and loses value when it arrives much later than dated.

My recommendation to the generous Friends Co-chairs at Seven Acres is to pick up a copy of Breakthrough Fundraising Letters by Alan Sharpe.

Learning: Your letter should be easily scanable so the reader can quickly ascertain the purpose. When using a typical letter format, always left-justify body copy. Don’t overload paragraph length on a short letter.


If at first you don’t succeed, don't repeat the Fail

In January, I evaluated a solo mail package from a local contractor.  Two months later, the exact same package arrived. The only changes: the date and the stamp on the outer envelope is a bit more straight, the date on the top of the letter, and Mr. Briggs claims a 48th year of experience.

In addition to the several Fails for Creative listed earlier, this package likely has an additional Fail for repeating the same letter exactly the same way twice. Resending a letter months later with no changes is not a typical Fail – a good creative can be mailed over and over again. In direct mail jargon, an optimized successful direct mail package is called a “Control”. The Control package is proven to be successful by testing against other packages that have different offers or creative format. If one of the package with the alternate offer or creative garners more response, then that becomes the Control. In other words, the Control is the one to beat in terms of getting response.

However, a package that is used multiple times without proving it’s success rate is not a Control. It is simply doing the same thing over again and expecting a different outcome.

Learning: Modify your base letter once in a while and test against your Control package frequently to improve long-term results.

A bit late for this kind of relief

This low-end 1-color self-mailer from a mortgage company arrived on March 13, just a bit late to lock in my rate if the funding pool review was indeed due February 22. Easy Fail for Timing. Surely it does not take over a month for a standard rate letter to travel from Salt Lake City to a big city in Texas.

Learnings: Always allow adequate time for your mail to be delivered.  Use a respond-by date that is later than the anticipated in-home date.


A letter from the Central Bureaucracy!

In the animated series Futurama, there is a funny bit where a bureaucrat receives a letter from the Central Bureaucracy reading, “Attention, Hermes Conrad. You are about to receive a letter from the Central Bureaucracy." Three seconds later, a second letter arrives. The bureaucrat is shocked and exclaims, “Oh, my God! It's from the Central Bureaucracy!”
Hundreds of millions of Americans received a letter this past week from the American central bureaucracy informing them that they will soon receive a letter from the central bureaucracy. It’s Census time.

The letter explains that we will soon receive a Census form in the mail. It requests that we should promptly complete the form when it arrives so our community gets money from the government. (I was taught by my political science teacher in grade school that the purpose of the Census was to ensure that my state received the correct allocation of representatives in Congress. However, for the moment, let’s set aside the political discussion and consider this as a solo direct mail solicitation.)

The call to action is to complete a Census form. The reason to take action is to receive government money for programs I and my neighbors need. The reason to take action now is… well, we can’t take action now. Immediacy is lost. From a marketing standpoint, that makes this a Fail.

Presumably, the purpose of the advance letter is to improve the response rate of the upcoming Census mailing. However, someone who would not open the Census mailing envelope to come would also not open the envelope for this advance mailing. In other words, the advance letter is not worth the cost. If an advance mailing is necessary, use a postcard. It has a greater likelihood of being read by potential non-responders.

If a solo envelope mailing is really necessary, consider adding a bit of spot color to make the piece visually appealing, e.g. not look like it arrived from a central bureaucracy. Color the Census 2010 logo in blue or even knock-out white over black if production cost is a concern.

The personal feel of the letter being signed by the director is positive, as is the closing postscript repeated in several languages prominent to the area. Given the information on the landing page, though, the call to action in the postscript should read, “Go to 2010census.gov for more information” rather than, “...for help completing the form when it arrives.” As of March 11, it is unclear on the Census landing page where to find help to complete the form. (However, it is clear where to find Dora the Explorer.) Thus, a second Fail. Perhaps the link will gain more prominence when the forms actually mail – if the Census team has made a plan to do so.

Lesson: If your call to action does not involve an immediate response, consider whether the vehicle will be cost-effective. When you mention a Web page in your direct mail, be sure that the landing page directly and seamlessly aligns with the stated reason for the recipient to go online.


AT&T & Comcast: Two Bundles, One Impersonal Fail

Fail: Creative
These two solo mail cross-sell packages recently arrived at the same home a couple days apart from each other. The recipient has Comcast for cable service and AT&T for landline phone service and internet. This person has a different company for mobile phone service.

The letter from AT&T is stamped. The return address on the back includes the company name and logo. The letter inside also includes the logo and is addressed personally to the recipient.
I reviewed fails of a similar creative package from AT&T -- selling multiple products in one letter and other creative missteps -- but what AT&T does right with their mail is they recognize the value of their brand, leveraging their customer relationship, and addressing the relationship. Since my review of AT&T's second fail, AT&T improved the letter creatively by personalizing the signature and reinforcing a call to action in the postscript. Overall, the letter feels personal.

The strong aspects of AT&T’s letter highlight the Fails from Comcast:

  • The envelope return address does not include the company name. This is often referred to as a “blind envelope”, because the recipient is blind to the identity of the sender until the mail is opened. It is a common and sometimes sensible tactic in an acquisitions mailing. However, the postage indicia includes the company name. If Comcast truly intended to have a blind mailing, then the postage indicia could have used a permit number -- or better yet, use a stamp. The result of an incomplete use of this tactic is that the outer envelope is a double-fail: one for not including Comcast in the return address when mailing to a current customer (he would have opened it anyway), and a second fail to including it in the indicia. This suggests that Comcast believes it’s brand equity is negative but is not willing to take a couple extra steps in production to completely cover up it’s brand name.
  • The envelope is addressed to the recipient “or current resident”. This suggests that Comcast lacks confidence in the qualify of it’s customer list, Comcast was not concerned about production quality, or this was a mass mailing without considering who might already be actual customers.
  • The letter is impersonal. It is not addressed to the customer, it is addressed to “Dear Customer”. It does not recognize what services the customer has with Comcast. In this case, the recipient believes he already has Digital Preferred Cable but after reviewing his Comcast bill, he is not sure.
  • The offer is incomplete and potentially misleading. For example the bundle of Digital Preferred Cable & High-Speed Internet is $79.99 for 6 months. What is the price after 6 months? Based on the text in the disclosure, my guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of $135 - $150. That does not appear to be a way to “Cut down on your household bills!”
  • The tone of the letter is promotional but with needless self-bluster. Phrases such as “we are pleased to offer you” do not add value to the communication. To my knowledge, only the Queen of England has the privilege to refer to herself in the first person plural. Also, being pleased to offer something has no benefit to the customer. (Given the long-term price for the bundled services, perhaps Comcast is pleased because they are offering a potentially bait and switch price.) The letter is signed by “Comcast Houston”, an inhuman corporate entity.
Lesson: You cannot build a personal relationship by being impersonal. It is important not only to know your customers, but to address them personally as customers. Communicate to them as people and persuade them that you want to address their needs.


Did Al Edwards' Direct Mail Fail cost him an election?

Fail: Creative  

Here in Texas, State legislator Al Edwards lost the Democratic primary this week.  In the run-up to the primary election, his postcard mailers touted his Democrat credentials but often included messages about not repeating the same mistake.  I do not know the history around him and his primary opponent, Boris Miles, nor do most voters in the district.  That gets to the point of this Fail -- being off-message in an election.

There is a great deal of anti-incumbent sentiment in the voter community.  Even though the race is for state legislature, a message of "Lets not make the same mistake again" appeals to that group.  For an incumbent to use it is at best strange and at worst destructive.  Perhaps this postcard is part of the reason why he lost.

Politicians are like businesses.  They have their own brand identity, recognized style, and mental associations.  Most recognize this and strive to either play on or transform their brand to varying levels of success.

Learning: Fully think though your message, your audience's knowledge of your brand, and the relevance of the message.