Going ‘New School’: Harvard Medical School Leaves its Stuffy Reputation in the Dust
Harvard University, including its medical school, carries an established and distinguished reputation. The classic, old-school images of the professor wearing a sweater vest and smoking a pipe or the young, poised student who speaks with perfect diction come to mind. Unfortunately, that same stuffy, serious reputation came through in the Harvard Medical School’s direct-mail campaigns.
For years, the heralded medical school sent a very plain package to prospects for its Harvard Health Letter newsletter. It was precisely what one would expect from Harvard: a straightforward outer envelope that used its name to do the selling. Nothing flashy — actually, it was the antithesis of flashy.
With a target audience composed of mostly consumers 50 years old and above, this format made sense. Plus the package was very successful — so successful, in fact, that no test came close to beating it for 12 years.
A radical overhaul
Historically, Harvard was reluctant to stray too far from such a successful control, especially one that represented the ideals of the medical school. However, like every direct mailer, Harvard continued to test to find ways to increase response.
Nothing seemed to work, until freelance copywriter Ken Scheck decided to shake things up. According to Donna DeWitt, vice president of circulation marketing for Harvard’s Consumer Health Publishing Group, Scheck developed a new concept for the mailing.
“Ken really wanted to write provocative copy to get people interested in what was inside,” DeWitt says. “He wanted the copy to sizzle. He had done it with other clients and had success, so he came to us with a new test. He wanted to do something completely different.”
Instead of the old, plain view, Scheck designed an outer envelope that resembles an aggressive marketer rather than a respected medical institution. It plays off the quick-fix advertising that often exists today, with the phrase “If anyone suggests you take the ‘health’ supplement named inside … just say ‘Not on your life!’ SAYS WHO? The doctors at Harvard Medical School, that’s who!” on the front, along with teasers of what is inside, highlighted by the “FREE ISSUE AND 2 FREE GIFTS — OPEN NOW!” offer.
That’s not all the outer offers, as its back poses questions that prospects might not know the answers to (the answers are, naturally, inside).
The inside is equally colorful. The unorthodox letter begins not with the salutation, but with bullet-point health questions that truly engage the reader. An invitation-style card is included with the question, “Should you call the doctor? — getting prospects to open what turns out to be a letter with more information.
Rounding out the package are a bonus report offer with a history of the Harvard Medical School and the newsletter, a voucher reply form, and a small pamphlet with “26 HEALTH REVELATIONS YOU NEED TO KNOW NOW … from the doctors at Harvard Medical School!”
“The copy is more provocative than anything Harvard has done before. It really teases people throughout to get them to keep looking further. There are a number of ‘Ah-ha!’ moments for them,” describes DeWitt, who adds that Scheck really did his homework, including finding information this demographic should know but might not — such as which supplements they shouldn’t be taking.
Convincing the top dogs
Because the effort was a far cry from the typical Harvard mailing, getting it approved was no easy task. According to DeWitt, many of the editors were taken aback by this very “unHarvard” piece. However, she and her marketing colleagues were able to persuade the editors and board members to go out on a limb.
“We were already feeling the pressure and competition of the marketplace and the Internet. We told them, ‘It’s a test. We’ve got to do this. This is a great copywriter. Let’s give this a shot.’ Ken had had some successes with us before. He had a good track record. They swallowed their reservations and said, ‘Go with it,’” recounts DeWitt.
Becoming the control
In 2004, the mailing was sent out, and the results were staggering. The prior control had faced many a test in its 12-year run, and each time, it won easily. Not this time. The test garnered a 60 percent lift in response.
“We were totally stunned,” DeWitt says.
So stunned, in fact, that Harvard decided to stray from the norm yet again.
“Usually, when we test a package, we then send out an expansion test,” DeWitt shares, “but the results were so phenomenal we took a chance and said, ‘The heck with the expansion test, it’s the new control.’”
It was the biggest boost in response over a control in DeWitt’s time working with Harvard. The provocative test became the control at the end of 2004, and it hasn’t been topped since.
The not-so-secret weapon
When asked why this package has been so successful, Scheck proclaims, without hesitation, “The outer envelope. That’s it. It’s the outer envelope.”
To elaborate, Scheck says the outer was so successful because of its relevance. It really grabbed the audience’s attention because supplements are very popular, and the readers want and need to know if the supplements they are taking are safe. His research — thoroughly reading the newsletter as well as scouring the news — allowed Scheck to engage readers with topics that are important to them.
It also helps to have the Harvard name backing his copy, Scheck freely admits. He continues, “The most important thing about writing copy is arousing interest. Make people think, ‘Hey, I need to know what this is going to tell me,’ and then convince them further on in the letter that you’re telling them about a source. I use the word source rather than magazine or newsletter because people think, ‘I already have too many magazines; I have too many publications … I don’t need another thing to read.’
“I focus on the information and the message that this is information they won’t get anywhere else and absolutely need to know because maybe this supplement you’ve got in your medicine cabinet is going to turn your teeth purple or make you hair fall out. You ought to know this. If it’s the doctors at the Harvard Medical School telling you this, it makes it even better.
“Working on the Harvard product gives you a strong level of authority and trust that’s assumed rather than having to state the credentials. You just say the words Harvard Medical School and its authority is unquestioned. It makes the job much easier.”
The proof of the outer’s success is in the pudding. The 60 percent lift in response speaks for itself, but that’s not the only thing proving its worth. In today’s health culture, supplements are all over the place, with many people taking them on a regular basis, and highlighting supplements on the outer really touched a nerve with prospects. According to DeWitt, a number of people called to find out what the supplement is that they’re not supposed to take. That proved the copy caught their eyes and got them inside.
Once inside, the contents offer further information on the topics displayed on the outer. Scheck again used strong, informational copy to keep the prospects reading, but the really intriguing aspect lies in the reply form. Spouting out, “YOURS FREE! A sample issue of the HARVARD HEALTH LETTER and two FREE reports!” follows the prototypical direct mail model.
However, the reply form takes a left turn in the way it engages the prospect. Instead of simply sending a typical reply, Harvard offers its prospects the chance to say “yes,” “maybe” or “no” with stickers. A “yes” and “no” sticker system is nothing new. Many marketers do the same to help engage the prospect in the mailing. But the “maybe” sticker is very unique, and may address the guy who does not feel comfortable paying for a subscription at this time but would like to get more information. That way, he can get everything the newsletter offers new subscribers without an obligation to buy, DeWitt explains.
Too good to be true?
Certainly, there must be some things that have needed tweaking over the years, right? Surprisingly, very little has been altered from this mailing since its inception. Other than periodically updating medical information to reflect what’s newsworthy at the time, the only other change in this control has come in its size.
Originally sent as a jumbo (9-inch-by-12-inch) package, the campaign has shrunk to a 6-inch-by-11.5-inch jumbette envelope, due to the postal increases. But the increases didn’t catch Harvard by surprise and, as a result, it already knew what size would work best.
“With this last increase, it didn’t work for us financially to mail the jumbo package,” DeWitt shares. “We started testing smaller formats prior to the increase. We knew which size was going to produce the best results for us before the increase. But we had to change the size because there was no way we were going to be able to continue to mail the jumbo package.”
The decrease in size has certainly affected the results. The smaller size produces a smaller response rate, according to DeWitt, “But when you look at that and the cost of postage, this package makes sense for us.”
Naturally, Harvard continues to test against this control, including back-testing the old control and jumbo packages, but time and time again, it proves to be the strongest of the bunch. If it wasn’t for a little change in philosophy and a leap of faith, it might have never even seen the light of day.
“This package was a real departure for us,” says DeWitt, who fought to push it through. “When it was going through the approval stages, I certainly can’t say it was met with no resistance. But I’m glad we took a chance on it. It’s been more successful than we could have hoped.”
Joe Boland is Target Marketing Group copy editor. This article originally appeared in the May edition of FS sister publication Inside Direct Mail.