'But How Do You Know?'
The inquiry started out along the lines of asking about what I like (we’ll get to my thoughts about that in a minute), but when rephrased it prompted what I believe is a more useful question: “How do you know?”
How do you know what creative to test? How do you know which offer to try? How do you know which concept to give a shot? How do you know?
The flip answer is you can’t know absolutely. Fundraising doesn’t come with 100 percent certainty on the front end, however much we’re able to judge success and failure down to the most minute of variables once a campaign’s returns are complete. But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot you can know going in, information that helps you pick contenders more wisely than the “eeny-meeny-miney-moe” method.
So ask yourself these questions.
Do you like it?
Your answer to that question, whatever your personal reaction is, should always be, “It doesn’t matter if I like it.” Like is irrelevant — you can love a piece of creative or a concept more than you love your own children, but that doesn’t mean it will work. You’re not mailing a 10,000-piece test to yourself, so how you would respond personally shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not to green-light it.
This advice to toss what you do or don’t like aside goes not only for you, but also for everyone else on whose behalf you may be badgered into assuming a mantle of bias (read: anyone who simply endures your direct-marketing program and secretly or not-so-secretly thinks it’s an offense to good taste and dignity).
As dismissive as I may be of whether it’s “liked,” I encourage you to spend a lot more time contemplating giving a thumbs-up to something that prompts an immediate, “I hate it.”
Why? Because hating it means the idea is provocative. And when something sparks that strong a reaction, it could also incite donors to respond — and not necessarily negatively. Explore the basis of your reaction, and consider getting over it — at least for the purposes of a test. Because that thing you hate just might pay off bigger and better than you considered.
In those cases, you might be served best by adopting what one of my favorite account executives of all time started doing when presented with creative he couldn’t stand. After seeing other concepts and offers he really disliked end up performing better than anything else tested, in the future he’d grin and announce enthusiastically, “I hate it! How soon can we get it into the mail?”
Who’s doing it?
Contrary to what your parents told you, this is one case where it does actually matter if “everybody else is doing it.”
Sure, it’s great to be a pioneer and identify the new-new thing and be the first one in the mail with a fancy new format or a nifty new premium. But that isn’t a cheap proposition usually, and if you have a limited testing budget, you don’t have a lot of expense money laying around to blow on one really pricey gamble.
Unless you’re confident the offer (or something very similar to it) is mailing regularly in rollout quantities, it’s probably best to
resist the allure of the shiny and remember that silver bullets are only real in werewolf and vampire movies.
One exception: If the offer was mailed in big quantities in the past and you’re thinking about giving an old, gray mare another chance to be everything she used to be, bump this idea from the bottom to the middle of the pile depending on the cost of a test and how many tests of new creative you have allotted for the year.
Finally, maybe your best answer is not, “No, never,” but instead, “Not right now.” Given a little time, “everybody” could be making it less risky and more affordable for you to try.
Are you just a little bit scared?
Scared is good, as long as you’re only slightly uncomfortable and not terrified. First, it means you’re alert and aware — both good things when a lot of money is at stake.
Being uneasy means you’re not proof positive that nothing bad can come of testing this creative, and there’s at least a tiny chance it could turn out to be a stink bomb instead of the future grand control you hope it will be a decade from now.
Creative that makes you a little twitchy means you’re not falling into the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” testing pothole, and you’re making your test budget count for something meaningful, even if it’s to learn that “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t work for you.
If you have to suck up a taste of fear, relish it because it means you haven’t made a fatal error and revised the new creative into oblivion, turning it right back into your comfortable, old control. Because really, what’s the point of testing that?
Did you kick the tires?
If what we do as fundraisers is both art and science — and I believe it is — then the worthiness of new creative can’t be considered in isolation. “How do you know?” when it comes to new offers, copy and design can’t be answered meaningfully without due diligence on the numbers side, particularly at both extremes.
Assume the new creative performs as poorly as the worst thing you ever tried. Plugging in what you know testing it will cost, how bad does your worst-case scenario bottom-line net (loss) look? Can you live with it?
Now do the opposite. Let’s say the new creative does far better than the most successful thing you ever tested. Are you ready, willing and able to roll out with it? How immediately? There’s nothing more pointless than discovering you have an amazing new supernova performer but you can’t do anything with it.
Have you done the pirouette check?
A lot can happen between the concept pitch and final execution, and not all of it good. The creative gets junked up, and the “more” that’s piled on weighs on it like an anchor and can sink the test.
As a last checkpoint with new creative, my choice when in doubt is to err on the side of less is more, especially with teasers and inserts. Like Marilu Henner’s character in “L.A. Story” when she advised, “One of the first things I always teach my clients is about the point system. You should never have more than seven things on. You know, like your earrings count for two points, those daisies count for three points. But the best thing to do is, right before you go out, look in the mirror and turn around real fast, and the first thing that catches your eye, get rid of it. I mean, I had this thing in my hair before I left, remember? And I pulled it right out, ’cause as soon as I turned, gone! Marilyn Monroe did that.”
I’m guessing your package is probably better off without that thing in its hair, too.
How will you execute it?
Creative by committee usually means a slow and painful death for what began as a promising idea, not to mention it leaches the will to live from all involved. A compromise here, a compromise there, and next thing you know the creative is unrecognizable, not something anyone wants to champion anymore. When that happens, do the strategic and financially prudent thing. Pull the plug on the package before you spend a penny on production.
Otherwise, when you’ve asked and answered all of these questions to your satisfaction and you’re leaning more pro than con, and when you’re confident it won’t get killed during execution, then …
… well, that’s when you’ll — as much as you can — know.
Kimberly Seville is a creative strategist and nonprofit copywriter. Reach her at email@example.com