Giving Your Prospect Choices May Damage Response

In face-to-face sales, you never say, "Would you like to buy this widget?" It's always, "We have the regular model widget, the deluxe model widget, and the deluxe model with the 25-year service contract. Which would you prefer?"

However, when you're writing a direct-mail package, giving prospects choices like those can backfire, resulting in lower response and profitability.

Here's an example taken from my experience …

Some 30 years ago, I wrote copy for the construction division of McGraw-Hill. This division sold cost-estimating manuals to architects, contractors, sub-contractors, and others through direct mail.

Results were down severely, and I had to get a new campaign out immediately. The previous manager gave two different manuals equal space in his DM package. One manual was for building contractors; the other for heavy construction (roads and the like). The manager felt that mailing one package to both types of prospects would save money and not affect response.

But his approach bombed.

My decision: I gave 95% of the space in the DM package to the building-construction manual when promoting to building-construction lists, and I offered the heavy-construction manual only as a check-off on the order form. I reversed this strategy when promoting to the heavy-construction lists.

Results: Response skyrocketed with that mailing … without making any major changes in the creative approach.

Here's another example of when offering too many choices can hurt results: In the magazine circulation arena, if you want to maximize response to new subscribers, you should not offer extended three-year terms along with the one-year offer. That's fine for conversions or renewals, but not for someone who's never experienced the magazine.

I'm working on a software mailing now. The client wanted check boxes for multiple users on the response form – but I won't take up precious space on the form to do it.

It's fine to mention elsewhere in the package that multi-user packages are available. But no PROSPECT is going to buy in bulk until he tries out the software personally.

Of course, if you're mailing to people who've used earlier product versions, it makes sense to offer the multi-user option.

So when does it pay to offer choices to first-time customers?

First of all, you should always offer the prospect a choice of HOW to respond to your offer – mail, fax, phone, and online. Even if you have a high-tech product, many prospects will prefer faxing their orders, and giving them that option can enhance response. If your product is totally Web-based, mail-ins and faxes may not be appropriate, but you should still have a phone-in option.

You should also offer multiple choices if you're a cataloguer or club marketer. There, the number of choices available correlates with response. More choices = credibility = higher response.

For example, if you are doing a mailing for a music club, you might think it's a good idea to eliminate 75% of the tiny-print list of the 100 selections in your introductory offer. Don't do it. The number and variety of choices is much more important than your words. This theory has been proven true and discussed in detail in Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail.”

The important point to take away is this: Sometimes – as in the music club offer – giving your prospect choices can help boost response. But in other types of promotions, if your offer requires your prospect to make multiple decisions in order to respond, you may be making the purchase decision too complex. In that case, he might not respond at all. So eliminate the choices.

[Ed. Note: Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct-marketing consultant and copywriter. In addition to working with a number of clients and their direct-response agencies, he writes a column for Inside Direct Mail. You can subscribe to his free e-letter at www.leemarcstein.com.]

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Published: January 9, 2007

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