Going (Less) Wild
In fall 2002, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, which each year sees 1.4 million visitors pass through its gates and mails close to a million direct-mail appeals, felt the need for a direct-mail face lift.
The membership appeal the zoo had been mailing was a two-color effort, with a photo on the carrier of a little girl giggling as a chimpanzee looks back at her through a window.
“Their control was not in line with what we’d seen with other response rates for zoos across the country,” according to Jessica Harrington, vice president of direct response at Schultz & Williams Inc., the creative services firm the zoo hired to orchestrate its direct-mail redo. “We work with a lot of zoos, in addition to other nonprofits, and it just wasn’t hitting the benchmarks that we’d established for our other clients.”
Schultz & Williams put Creative Director Laura Esposito on the job. In addition to sub-par response rates, the control the zoo was using when Esposito took the reins was “very dated looking.”
“[It was] kind of jumbled, and there were a lot of pieces that were only printed on one side,” she says.
Enlisting new lists
Traditionally, the L.A. Zoo primarily had mailed to donors on conservation and California state parks lists, and on lists for animal supporters and nature lovers.
Compelled by drooping response to the zoo’s mailings and skeptical of being able to successfully convert donors to members, Schultz & Williams enacted a list change, targeting families with children under age 12, specifically those who buy through the mail.
The zoo focused on lists for catalogs for baby and toddler merchandise and maternity wear, and magazines such as Parents, Parenting and Your Big Backyard. Additionally, it exchanged lists with other local attractions such as the California Science Center and the city’s aquarium.
Says Becky Zahrly, director of membership and annual giving at the L.A. Zoo: “Boy, as soon as we started honing in on the children’s lists — which seemed kind of obvious — our results really came up.”
Testing the waters
Having zeroed in on the
target market, Schultz & Williams developed several different test packages — two-color, four-color, larger pieces, some with brochures, some with traditional inserts, some focusing exclusively on big openings and events at the zoo, and some linked to seasons — and tested them through the spring
and into fall 2003.
The results were surprising, says Zahrly, who thought for sure that a 6-inch-by-9-inch, four-color test mailing with a photo of a tiger on the outer did a great job capturing the L.A. Zoo’s beauty.
But it was a very basic, value-oriented, two-color, No. 10 mailing with the teaser, “Join The L.A. Zoo Now and SAVE! With this special Limited-time offer,” and a simple illustration of a giraffe that beat the prior control and two other tests. This winning effort rolled out in 2003.
Called the “value package,” it emphasizes the value of a family membership that, for a family of four, pays for itself on the second visit to the zoo. The No. 10 giraffe mailing includes an 8.5-inch-by-13.75-inch form with a perf-off reply at the top and letter at the bottom; an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch member-benefits insert; a 3.5-inch-by-8.5-inch, four-color buckslip promoting the plush zoo animal premium; a 4-inch-by-7.5-inch driving-directions insert; a 3.5-inch-by-8.5-inch, double-sided lift note listing more members-only benefits; and a BRE with an illustration of a koala bear with, “THANKS for your support!” written below. The control it beat used similar elements — an 8.5-inch-by-14-inch letter/reply, an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch benefits insert, a map with driving directions, a smaller insert and a BRE.
In addition to pulling better response, the two-color mailing is cheaper to mail, largely because of its economical use of space and the decision to swap out the pre-paid, No. 9 return envelope it had been using with an unstamped BRE.
Whereas in the past the zoo realized a loss with its membership appeals, Zahrly says using this mailing for its largest campaign of half a million pieces in March resulted in expenses of $262,000, with revenue at about $320,000.
The response rate on this control, Harrington adds, is holding steady at 1 percent, with an average gift of $60, with which the zoo and Schultz & Williams are pleased.
Messaging and other changes
Aside from the new lists, messaging was the most dramatic change made to the zoo’s direct-mail approach. According to Esposito, the previous control had more of a support message that emphasized helping the zoo grow, change and add new exhibits. Schultz & Williams strengthened the mailing’s message, moving from one that focuses on the need to support the zoo to one that highlights member benefits and exclusive, members-only experiences.
“We shifted the copy toward, ‘Here’s the great value in it for you,’ of spending family time, of spending less than you would spend at other entertainment attractions in Los Angeles, and just really focusing more on what’s in it for the prospective member rather than why you should support the zoo,” Esposito says.
The letter is rife with copy extolling the many membership benefits, which include free, unlimited admission for a year; exclusive members-only viewing of the sea lion cliffs; free guest passes for friends and extended family; a free subscription to Zoo View magazine; and free or discounted admission to more than 130 zoos and aquariums nationwide. These
benefits appear again at the top of the benefits insert.
Focusing on these exclusive experiences and the insider’s view members enjoy is basic, Zahrly says, but people really seem to respond to it.
Schultz & Williams also wanted to make more use of the space on each element in the mailing. The reply displays the ask on one side and an option to order a gift membership on the back. The letter is double-sided, and the lift note promotes a members-only, free, after-hours zoo event on one side and holds a message from the zoo director on the other, telling prospects, “how vital your membership support is during this major surge of growth and improvement.” This message, Esposito says, was added to give the support message a place in the mailing and boost returns.
Tweaks along the way
“A zoo is a living, growing thing,” Esposito says. What this means in terms of direct mail is an ever-changing, ever-updated direct-mail control.
“We’re continually updating it with the events that are coming up, any new animal births, new exhibits that open,” she says. “We’re also trying new premiums.”
The zoo has tested its current “Plush Zoo Animal” offer against two free tickets on the zoo’s safari shuttle, but the stuffed animal has won out as the premium of choice; it plans to test the zoo animal against a T-shirt in the near future. The zoo also has tested the inclusion of a four-color premium insert, which beat packages that didn’t contain it.
Similarly, on the reply device, the prices for membership levels — Couple, Family, Keepers’ Club and other — are crossed out and replaced by the $10-off discounted price. According to Zahrly, the zoo tested the flat $10-off rate versus a 10 percent-off offer, and flat discount was the winner — even though 10 percent off is a greater value for the higher levels.
“It’s more tangible to see the $10 off with the strike through,” she explains, adding that the zoo is considering testing a $15-off offer.
A zoo of challenges
Changing the mailing and trying new things is important for the zoo not only because it’s “a living, growing thing,” but also because of the competition the L.A. Zoo faces.
“We’re competing against the San Diego Zoo and also in this market when you think about where people are going to go with their family entertainment dollars, we have Disneyland and Universal Studios, and we have so much here,” Esposito says.
Another challenge the zoo faces is the amount of time it takes to construct a new exhibit, which makes it difficult to promote in direct mail.
“Right now we’re building the exhibits for our elephants and our gorillas and also a species called the golden monkey,” Zahrly says. “I would love to be able to say this will open in October and the elephants will open next March, but I just can’t get a firm answer on that. It could be two years past when they hope that it’s going to open. So we have to be really loose in our language when we promote these things.”
With this package, Schultz & Williams took that challenge and capitalized on it, creating a package that, due to its focus on value rather than on one event, new exhibit, new animal or season, is more evergreen than those it was tested against, Harrington believes.
As the zoo grows and changes, so does its general marketing mix.
“Their look is evolving,” says Esposito, noting that the zoo’s street banners, print advertising and billboards all tie into a new exhibit.
Zahrly hopes to work this new, branded look into direct-mail efforts.
“Our zoo doesn’t have a huge budget for advertising, but there’s some general-market advertising that goes out, and I really would like to be able to tie into that so folks see those same images in their mailbox.”
While tweaks and changes are on the horizon for the L.A. Zoo, everyone, especially Zahrly, is pleased with this mailing and conscious of the vital role it plays in membership development at the zoo. According to Zahrly, the zoo has reached an all-time high of more than 66,000 household memberships.