April 11, 2020

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

                                                                                -David Ogilvy

Please don’t interpret Ogilvy’s warning about ignoring research as “paralysis by analysis.”

Research is critical but it also needs to be used with other things in your arsenal.

And no matter how long we are sequestered in our homes, there is never an excuse to stop “walking around” (i.e. researching) as it pertains to marketing.

There are so many opportunities to get to know your students, customers and your “online family.”

Whether you do it through email, social media, forums, Amazon book reviews (for example), you have to do it regularly whether there is a pandemic or not.

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

The guidelines I will share with you today about research (via surveys) are excerpted from Overdeliver…and the additional story about a niche of 30 million people might seem like I am a dangerous general in Ogilvy’s eyes—but please read between the lines.

I am not ignoring research…just modifying it.

That is, I believe in research (and you should too)… but never forget to also use your accumulated knowledge (from walking around) to give you additional knowledge that allows you to use your “gut” as well.

(And I have a little more “gut” now given many more trips to the refrigerator these days 🙂 )

The formula of “Dream plus Optimism plus Measurement” (as represented below by the three marketing people in weighted sacks at the bottom of a polluted river) should also be divided by “Gut”:



From Overdeliver, Chapter 5, on “Offers”:

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

Although we had gotten started selling general health books that were more encyclopedic, when we niched down, we were able to tap into one of the most powerful niches in health. But we didn’t start there.

Our successes early on were always thanks to careful research, since we knew there was a real and present danger that if we went too wide all the time, we would look 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.

This epitomizes that 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: the Q test. Here “Q” stands for questionnaire, though I have also heard these referred to as concept tests or 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 that the test would be reliable.

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.

Third step: select a universe from our previous book buyers. We were looking for a cross-section from our internal database. Then we would mail approximately 2,000 buyers in three waves. The participants in the survey were some of our best customers, based on our RFM analysis. 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. 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 e-mail, 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.

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, marketers 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 bench marking 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 a 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 use this methodology online I suggest you use other incentives, like free reports or discount codes for future purchases. But I recommend that you still e-mail 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 affected 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 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 only 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. 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. Our friend and world-class copywriter gave us a gift with his diabetes book and eating 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. 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 logic, instinct, and courage.

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 the research and your gut both being important because of the constant notion of walking around on the outside (quarantined or not):

“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 arefinished.”

This from the man who read The National Enquirer along with scholarly journals on the future of space travel. With some fiction (other than the Enquirer) mixed in.

And once you know your particular market, that plus everything else you know about society will give you the research formula for success (and I will repeat it here):

Dream plus Optimism plus Measurement Divided by Gut

And always walk and talk regularly with your online (and offline) families.

The exercise will do you good.



P.S. A good friend and mentor, Jeff Walker (yes you can have a mentor who is younger than yourself!), recently sent information  to his online family from Franz Wiesbauer, who is reaching out for support for his mission to train 1 million health care providers to learn how to use a mechanical ventilator.

He’s a very special guy—he was profiled in Jeff’s bestselling book Launch—and I wanted to see if anyone in this online family could help him.

Many of you touch doctors, nurses and hospital workers who could take advantage of Franz’s free courses and training—or maybe you can take advantage of them yourself.

Please send these links to anyone and everyone you know who could benefit.

We need more hands on deck right now—big time.

Here’s his site.

And here are all of his courses that he is offering free to hospitals who are caring for COVID 19 patients.

From Franz:

“Our courses are some of the best in the industry. We are fully accredited and highly commended by the British Medical Association. ICU docs and nurses are going to get sick and rookies will be put on the frontlines. We need to make sure that they know how to use a ventilator correctly.”

Please help.

Once again his site: https://freeventilatortraining.org/

And his free courses: https://www.medmastery.com/course-library

P.P.S. And here’s another interview for you from my adventures this past week.

It is an interview I did with the smartest guy on book publishing in the world, Reid Tracy of Hay House, on “Overdelivering in crazy times…and not so crazy times.”

While it is focused on what folks can do with their marketing during this COVID 19 crises, I believe, like research, it is more broadly focused on being proactive in challenging times…and good times.

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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