Pushing the envelope in the wrong direction

I was rifling through my day's mail last week when I came to a #10 envelope with an all-caps teaser reading: 'IMPORTANT EDITORIAL SURVEY ENCLOSED. YOUR PROMPT RESPONSE APPRECIATED.' I immediately decided that I wasn't interested in anything to do with an editorial survey for some unknown operation, whether my prompt response was appreciated or not, and prepared to chuck the unopened envelope into the recycle bin.

I was rifling through my day’s mail last week when I came to a #10 envelope with an all-caps teaser reading: ‘IMPORTANT EDITORIAL SURVEY ENCLOSED. YOUR PROMPT RESPONSE APPRECIATED.’ I immediately decided that I wasn’t interested in anything to do with an editorial survey for some unknown operation, whether my prompt response was appreciated or not, and prepared to chuck the unopened envelope into the recycle bin.

But, in the process, I happened to turn the envelope over and saw that the back flap featured the logo of a magazine to which I subscribe. Normally, that wouldn’t have stopped my turning it into waste, because I figure they have the bucks to pony up for a focus group and shouldn’t expect me to render my opinions gratis. But for some reason that day I opened the envelope and peeked inside.

As Gomer Pyle would say, ‘Surprise, surprise, surprise.’ The first copy that caught my eye was the headline of the letter. It read: ‘RENEW NOW AND SAVE 65% OFF THE COVER PRICE!’ The second thing I saw was a renewal reply device. There was nothing about an important editorial survey that I could see without pulling all the components out of the envelope.

Feeling tricked, my initial inclination was to tear the contents into shreds and send the unread pieces back in the postage-paid envelope. For the sake of this column, however, I invested the time to read the letter.

Paragraph number one was about renewing my subscription. As was paragraph two. Same with three. And, yes, paragraph number four was as well. Only in the last paragraph did the publisher bring up the subject that had been the centrepiece of the envelope’s face.

There are at least three things wrong with this kind of approach to renewals. First, indicating on the envelope that your renewal mailing is really about a survey can result in innumerable recipients chucking it unread, never learning that they need to renew their subscription in order the maintain their current intake of reading material. The second problem concerns those who are prepared to lend a hand by answering the survey: They soon find themselves not stroked for agreeing to an altruistic act but, instead, suckered into reading a sales pitch. The third problem is that both types of audience, once they realize they’ve been hoodwinked, are likely to feel anything but warmth towards a publisher they’ve supported for at least the past year.

Of course, you can also be overly upfront, as it appears Toronto Life was in a renewal notice it recently sent to a subscriber who became so irate she contacted me. They sent her a notice with ‘CREDIT GRAM’ emblazoned on the envelope in 74 pt type.

The notice inside makes it sound like she had requested a subscription renewal but not paid for it. (Even if that were true, you don’t go shouting ‘Deadbeat’ to the world if you ever hope to attract the subscriber or her influence circle in future.) However, according to the subscriber, the publication renewed her without permission and then embarrassed her publicly for not coughing up the required 18 bucks.

She said in her note to me, ‘TO Life sent this [package] as a way to get us to renew our subscription – except our neighbours get the impression that we have credit problems. The F___ers!’ (I presume the expletive was in reference to TO Life’s renewal staff and not the neighbours.)

So how should you renew a customer? Follow the lead of my car insurer. The package sent to me this month had an envelope teaser reading, ‘Your insurance is due for renewal. Please open today.’ No intimating that the package only contained a questionnaire about car safety. No threatening me with debtor’s prison if I didn’t cut a cheque that day. It just told me the honest score: that my insurance was about to expire. So I said, thanks for telling me, here’s the money.

The eyes are the windows of the soul. An envelope is the figurative, if not also the literal, window of your mailed missive. Let the real message shine through and your renewal rate will reflect customers’ level of satisfaction with your product or service. Say something on the envelope that’s misleading or causes embarrassment, and you can prepare to kiss customers goodbye as they tear up your package, shout expletives and become ex-subscribers.

Bob Knight of Knight & Associates subscribes to numerous magazines because he hates to feel periodically deprived. When not reading them, he creates or critiques direct marketing, integrated and e-campaigns. So, unless you want to embarrass him with a Credit Gram or trick him with a survey, feel free to contact him at b_knight@telus.net.