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Why keeping “control” creative intact is so crucial to effective direct marketing

People are always chasing the latest and greatest. The best of the best. That’s true in life. And in marketing. But how do you get a winner you can call your own — a unique piece of marketing that consistently delivers better results, more sales, and higher revenue? Rely on a “control.” It’s the disciplined, proven way to succeed in direct marketing.

What is control creative?

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a quick summary about what control creative is: It’s the most effective piece of direct marketing you have in the marketplace that promotes a product or service to a specific target audience. Time and again it performs at about the same level of response. That’s why it’s important to maintain the elements of its makeup (i.e., art and copy), offer, and format. The term started with direct mail, but it applies to any form of advertising that generates response, including digital display ads, Facebook ads, online video, TV, radio, print ads, and text ads.

Control noun
  1. The most effective piece of direct marketing currently being used to promote a product or service to a target audience.

Your control is like a best-selling car

Here’s an analogy that helps make the point. Say you’re a car manufacturer with a best-selling model that came about after years of R&D and millions of dollars of investment. This car model outperforms everything else you offer, hands down (just like a control creative). And every year, based on feedback from customers and dealers, you make minor tweaks and adjustments to continually optimize and improve — making it better than before!

But then someone in your company has the genius idea to completely do away with the best-seller and offer something totally new and untested in the marketplace. Sounds crazy right? Of course it does. And that would never happen in the automotive industry. They know the value of their investment and want as much return as possible.

That same thinking should apply to your marketing. Using the direct marketing control principle, you maintain a control as your benchmark creative (your best-selling vehicle, if you will). You and your agency spent countless hours on market research, strategy, and creative development — so why would you just scrap it for an unknown? You wouldn’t, and shouldn’t.

New is good — but it should be tested

Disciplined direct marketers know to always test and learn, test and learn — repeatedly! Some examples: Test your creative against new concepts with the same offer and components. Or use the same creative and just switch up the offer (the offer itself can be a control, too). Or keep everything the same and simply add an upsell component (e.g., a buckslip).

The point of all this is to see which formula generates the higher response rates, more leads, more conversions, etc. Quite often, the control stays on top. But, when you do find a new execution that’s better, stronger, and faster at moving the sales needle, the answer is simple: Roll out the winner and keep driving it home.

The reason you establish a control is to produce reliable, repeatable results. Then, you test against it — whether it’s testing creative concepts, copy, photography and art, components, or even offers. The end goal is to continually improve response rates and results.

If you change the control too much, then you muddy the water making it impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused the consumer to respond. Your marketing efforts turn into nothing more than a series of best guesses. Trial and error attempts to generate leads and sales. And that’s no way to generate the best return on investment.

Testing equals opportunity

You can discover many things when you test against a control, such as:

  • New ways to position a product or service
  • New messaging that dials up a key market differentiator
  • New offers that make the phone ring off the hook or the click-through rate go through the roof
  • New formats that engage targets more vis-à-vis creating more chance for response

The bottom line: Testing shows what works and what doesn’t. So your marketing gets more bang for the buck! When that happens, everybody’s happy: The client. The agency. You. Even the consumer.

Out-of-control marketing …

A long time ago, in an agency far, far away, I worked on an account that didn’t buy into the concept of a control. Every so often, we were tasked with developing all-new creative to be rolled out into the marketplace. We had some hits, some misses, and even some bombs, but in essence: We had a whole lot of questions left unanswered, and we experienced erratic ups and downs when it came to results.

The sales numbers were respectable enough, and we worked the campaign through several cycles. But many years later, I still wonder …

  • What if we’d put a stake in the ground with one of the winners and built from there?
  • What learnings and insights would we have gleaned?
  • How much better could the marketing have been?
  • How much higher could the sales numbers have gone?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

… Versus in-control marketing

Luckily not all campaigns are run like that, and I’ve been fortunate to work with many savvy marketers who “get it.” Controls matter. They set the stage for optimal response, sales, and ultimately, revenue. Because as you maintain and tweak your marketing messaging as appropriate (e.g., changes in product specs or market differentiators), the control grows into a crown jewel that outshines all other creatives. You get answers. What copy resonates more? What imagery attracts more? Which offer motivates more? Which format engages more?

And that’s the idea: More means better. Better response, better conversions, better sales. Ka-ching! Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re all doing this to make money, right?

When should you retire a control?

Simple answer: when it’s not working. In other words, eventually, many control creatives simply wear out in the marketplace and the metrics and the KPIs just aren’t cutting it — response rates continually dropping, not as many qualified leads coming in, and incremental sales aren’t meeting expectations. That’s when it’s time to retire a control.

But if you’ve been A/B split testing against it, you’ll likely have a new winning creative and that becomes your new control. Or you’ve identified strong elements that can be crafted by practiced direct marketing pros into a new high-performing control.

Stay with what you know. Go with what you learn.

The saying, “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” applies to direct marketing, too. Staying with a control creative and testing against it will continue to reveal secrets to help improve and enhance your marketing. But if you just go with your gut and constantly roll out new creative for the sake of having something new, your budget will be out of control. You’ll be spending money on creatives that may not generate the numbers — and you’ll have no idea why.

How do we know? Because at DMW, we built our reputation on a solid direct marketing foundation where the control is more than a creative. It’s the key to success. And in this business, that’s everything.

Looking to have more control over your marketing results? Call or email us today. Or visit the Services page to learn more about how we go beyond consumer engagement to influence purchase and create ROI.