October 24, 2021

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals”

-David Ogilvy

I spent the beginning of my career in marketing minimizing the value of research while maximizing the value of gut instinct. 

And the gut instinct I’m talking about wasn’t even mine–what did I know in my 20’s about gut instinct based on my limited experience and wisdom in direct marketing? 

I hitched my wagon to the gut instincts of my mentor, Marty Edelston (the founder of Boardroom Inc.,
 the company I helped him run for 34 years), who had the most instinctive (and solid) gut of anyone I have ever met. 

His instincts in terms of what our audience wanted were uncanny…probably because he was in sync with them completely…he was writing and selling to himself which is an enviable place to be for any entrepreneur. 

He was his audience which also saved a lot of time on “silly research.” 🙂 

What a treat that was to watch and I had a ringside seat.

As far as his “solid” gut, he was a multiple degree black belt in karate, he did 100 knuckle push-ups a day (or more) …so a “punch to the gut” to him is something he never felt…literally or figuratively. 

He didn’t need research to help him get there…just a solid workout regimen. 

He punched from his gut. 

Over time, while Marty and I both got older and wiser (he was always ahead of me in age and wisdom which makes perfect sense), I realized that he wouldn’t be around forever…and a little research could go a long way to ensure the longevity of the company. 

I’m not diminishing what I learned during my childhood in marketing from him…but today I am more of a research enthusiast than a skeptic…and yet because of my training from Marty, I also never fall into paralysis by analysis…and I always rely on my gut in every instance as well. 

But “relying on your gut” doesn’t mean you can ignore data. 

That is, my “research” is both quantitative and qualitative…and it takes place every day by “walking around on the outside.” 

This was even true during COVID…you can “walk around” on Zoom too. 🙂 

NOTE: In the P.S. I have an offer to walk (and talk) with you a bit more…please take me up on it…in the spirit of qualitative AND gut research. 

There are an infinite number of ways to get to know your students, customers and your “online (and offline) family” …with formal research, observation, ongoing engagement, lookalike models, reading what they write, listening to how they speak…all with the goal of delivering what they want when they want it… rather than delivering what you want when you want to deliver it. 

Sounds simple…and it is…but it’s not easy. 

You always need to find out what they are up to, what they need, what you can provide for them…and then how you can (over) deliver to them. 

My good friend Ryan Levesque, who invented “Quiz Funnels” and “The Ask Method” took what I am talking about below and put it on steroids…in a good way. 🙂 

I want to share with you today an excerpt from my book, Overdeliver, about how we did formal research at Boardroom…plus an additional story of when we abandoned formal research while “marketing to a niche of 30 million people.” 

And I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth. 

I never ignore research…I just modify it all the time.  

Excerpted and adapted from Overdeliver, Chapter 5:

I spent a good part of my career selling useful (and often lifesaving) health information to consumers. 

We started out selling general health books that were more encyclopedic, eventually niched down, and were then able to tap into some of the most powerful niches in health. 

Our successes early on were always thanks to simply knowing our customers yet we knew there was a real and present danger that if we went “too wide” with our subject matter all the time, we would look more and more like our competition and risk commoditizing our content.

Of course, the temptation to stay broad and appeal to everyone was tantalizing.

This story is about trusting your gut and collective experience, in addition to using research appropriately . . . and it’s about being able to break the rules of direct marketing because you know what the rules are in the first place.

It’s important to recognize when current circumstances are different, and then seize opportunities when they are staring you in the face.

Never forget the Picasso quote:

“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Over the early years of selling general health information, we started using a process that would be deployed before we launched any new book through direct mail called “The Q Test.”

The “Q” stands for questionnaire, though I have also heard these referred to as concept tests or simply new product surveys.

Whatever you call them, it is a scientific way to predict tangible results using quantitative research.

I learned this technique from direct marketers who had been using it for many years—even decades—before I discovered it, and before I had the good sense to use this kind of research too.

Here’s how we did it for our books:

First step: Write a blurb for a new book (or whatever product or service you want to sell).

We always made it exciting, but we also made sure it was a description that we could deliver on.

That is, the book we would ultimately create (or buy the rights to) needed to match the blurb closely enough so that the test would be reliable.

Note: We actually had an outside research expert who wrote these for us and we affectionately called her our “Blurbologist.” There is an art to it.

Second step: Put together at least four to six new book blurbs to test against each other, sometimes doing as many as eight in a single Q test.

In “If you can’t make it, buy it,” I detail how we got to the six or eight titles which is a story in itself.

Third step: Select a universe from our previous book buyers to mail (or email), looking for a cross-section from our internal database of enthusiasts (e.g., multi-buyers who have also bought fairly recently and spent significant dollars with us).

That is, your absolute best customers, selected based on RFM which is outlined in Chapter 4 of Overdeliver.

Then we would mail approximately 2,000 buyers in three waves.

This was all done with physical mail, since we were also looking for direct mail responsiveness, but these days Q tests are done online just as easily.

The Three Waves of Our Q Tests

Wave 1: A postcard told the folks a survey was coming and we wanted their help.

Wave 2: The survey itself was sent, usually with a $1 or $2 bill attached, which encouraged them to participate so we could continue to bring them the best books in the future.

Note that this “ethical bribe” did not affect the truthfulness of their responses…just got them to respond in bigger numbers.

In the survey, after each blurb, there were only two possible responses for the respondent to check:

[ ] Would Order
[ ] Would Not Order

(There are many Q test formats that can have up to four responses: would definitely order, would probably order, would probably not order, would definitely not order. It’s much more effective to have only two options.)

Wave 3: A follow-up letter in an envelope reminding them to fill out the survey.

All waves were mailed first class, which although costly, guarantees deliverability, and it’s worth it.

If you’re Q testing by email, make sure you take deliverability and open rates into account so that you get enough responses to read the results accurately.

A subject line such as “we want your opinion” and then letting them know you want their help as a regular customer is the best way to do this.

But I have faith in your creativity with headlines and subject lines. 🙂

Using this methodology, we received what was close to the industry standard for response rates when Q Testing—between 40 percent and 50 percent.

Yes, that’s 40 percent to 50 percent, not .04 percent to .05 percent, or .004 percent to .005 percent.

And after the mailing was complete, we would be armed with 800 to 1,000 responses (which is about the number you should look for when Q testing, offline or online) that showed the comparative interest between titles.

Extrapolating that data, using some benchmarking from the past, meant we never launched a book unsuccessfully once we started Q testing.

It’s expensive and time consuming . . . and I know of no better technique to determine the best products and offers for your core audience.

You may not have as big a database as I had to select from but buyers are buyers and anything you can mail is better than nothing.

Of course, we eventually moved a lot of our surveys online, but it is harder to send a dollar bill through a phone line.

If you Q Test online I suggest you use other incentives, like free reports or discount codes for future purchases.

But I recommend that you still email in three waves.

There were very few things that would compel us not to do a Q test on a new potential book title.

But like I said earlier, there are always exceptions to the rules…

In one case, the exception was the epidemic of diabetes and pre-diabetes in the United States, an ailment that affects upward of 30 million people…and a book that landed on my desk unexpectedly at exactly the right moment.

We were handed an opportunity (sugar-free, of course) on a silver platter from a world-class copywriter, Jim Punkre, who had given up writing to build a company producing exercise and nutrition programs for Type 2 diabetics and pre-diabetics.

The 30-Day Diabetes Cure was a wonderful book and program that we felt could help hundreds of thousands of people—and it came with the outline for a direct mail promotion package from a seasoned copywriter we knew and trusted, who was available to write it immediately.

We also knew that diabetes was a topic of intense interest among our customers for general health books, and many diabetes-related headlines and lead materials were performing well in current promotions for many of those books.

However, despite being such a hot topic, we knew that if we Q tested a niche title on diabetes to a list of buyers who had mostly bought general health books in the past, there was a very good chance it would not get an acceptable response to make the cut and be developed as our next project.

Also, we knew that the book was geared towards those with Type 2 Diabetes and Prediabetes…and while folks who had the former knew it, those who had the latter were often unaware.

We felt it would be hard to express that in a “blurb” in order to gauge interest in the book.

So now it was time to break the rules.

I suggested that we should bypass putting this one into a Q test and just launch it.

I was willing to take this risk because our window of opportunity could close by the time we got our results.

Not only could we lose the copywriter’s availability, but being a niche product, the Q test results wouldn’t necessarily give us an accurate picture of the market’s attitude to the topic even though it was one of the scariest health trends in the market at the time, and consumers needed lots of information.

This was a situation where understanding the history of the niche might have been more powerful than anything we could have learned from additional research.

This was an offer we had to make immediately.

I have made many errors over the decades I’ve been doing this marketing stuff, and jumping into this project without Q Testing was risky.

Fortunately, it paid off. We jumped on the opportunity by getting into the mail quickly, and we never looked back.

We sold hundreds of thousands of books of this title.

Jim Punkre gave us a gift with his diabetes book and diet program, and it proved to be one of the best launches ever in the category.

The topic is still going strong for health marketers everywhere because unfortunately the epidemic has only gotten worse. We were doing our part to reverse that trend.

Looking back on this incredible success, I’ve often wondered if I would have broken the Q test rule had I not known how important this topic was to our audience. I doubt it.

But isn’t that one of the beauties of experience?

Direct marketing success comes from accumulated wisdom, perpetual curiosity, unbridled optimism . . . and of course, being a slave to your numbers and measuring everything.

We were lucky on that launch, but it was luck created by experience and having played by the rules enough to know when to break them.

Sometimes that’s how the best offers are created.

I encourage you to go with your gut once in a while when you have strong anecdotal evidence or information you trust about a marketplace or topic.

Even though direct marketing is such a numbers-driven business (which is what I love most about it), there is still room for adding your logic, instinct, and courage (additional words for your “gut”).

Horizontal verticals (i.e., big topics in niche areas) like the diabetes epidemic don’t come along often. But I believe that if you are always thinking niche first, these opportunities have a much better chance of showing up.

Even if you never get to have a horizontal vertical in your career, being number one in any niche—especially if it’s a niche you are passionate about—will almost always beat being one of many in a crowded, noisy marketplace that also has many impostors.

In addition, with direct response marketing, where everything is measurable and containing your costs is always part of the equation (since everything has to eventually pay out), there is no such thing as a “failure.”

It’s either a breakthrough or it’s education.

You win or you learn.

A classic quote from Gene Schwartz hammers home both sides of this story regarding research and gut both being part of the marketing equation.

“You cannot lose touch with the people of this country, no matter how successful or potent you are; if you don’t spend at least two hours a week finding out where your market is today, you are finished.”

Walk (and talk) regularly among your online (and offline) families, your students, buyers, prospects and suspects.

The exercise will do you good.



P.S. We just completed the second Breakthrough Advertising QuickStart Bootcamp where we went deep on the “persuasion maps” that Gene Schwartz created for us in his classic Breakthrough Advertising.

And throughout the calls we kept coming back over and over again to the importance of “the list” (a.k.a. the “market,” the “media,” the “who” for your message).

In my world, “my list” is you…my online family.

And while I have spoken and connected with many of you over the years (through lively email correspondence, on Zoom through Titans Xcelerator, in person at a live event, online during events hosted by others), there are still so many of you who seem to enjoy reading my emails who I have never connected with…so…

…can I meet you this week (maybe even today?) through my own version of a Q Test?

I didn’t hire a “Blurbologist” but I created a short questionnaire/survey because I want to know how I can make my Sunday emails as valuable to you as possible.

To that end, I’m going to be sending you a short survey this week.

I’m planning on sending you three emails. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Three waves! 🙂

And if you take the survey on Monday, you won’t get any more emails from me about it the rest of the week.

Then again, take the survey right now (here) and I won’t bug you again until next Sunday with another edition of my blog. 🙂

And of course, there’s an ethical bribe involved…much better than a $1 or $2 bill…but you will need to click here and fill out the survey to find out what it is.

I love writing to you every Sunday…now I want to make these posts even more useful to you based on your input.

Thanks for your support always and your input in advance. I really appreciate it.

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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