I recently listened to a talk given by Joseph Sugarman, founder of JS&A and widely recognized as one of the greatest mail-order marketers of all time.

JS&A is the company that sells those Blue Blocker sunglasses you see advertised on TV and in magazines. And, by the way, the glasses really do protect your eyes from harmful UV rays . . . as long as you don’t mind the fact that they also distort the colors of everything you look at.

Anyway, during the talk, Mr. Sugarman mentioned that he often tested three or four different ads for the same product . . . and in some cases as many as 10 different versions!

“Typically, nine of the ads would fail but one would work spectacularly well,” said Mr. Sugarman. “The profits from that one ad would more than cover the losses from the other nine.”

Do you do that . . . create multiple ads and then test them to see which one works best? Or do you — like most small businesses — create and test just one ad . . . or one postcard . . . or one e-mail . . . or one sales letter or direct-mail package?

If so, you are significantly reducing your odds of getting a winning promotion.

The reason is that not all promotions work. In fact, most don’t. Maybe one out of four promotions is a winner. And that’s being optimistic.

Jerry Huntsinger, a well-known fundraising copywriter, once told me, “Nine out of 10 of the things I do don’t work.” The same results that Joseph Sugarman often had.

But let’s stick with the “one winner out of every four tests” figure for now.

Based on those odds, if you run just one ad or mail just one version of a sales letter, your chances of hitting a winner are only one out of four . . . and the odds are 75% that your marketing effort will bomb.

What commonly happens is that a small business decides to “try” direct mail by sending out a poorly written, amateurish letter or postcard . . . and when they get no responses, proclaim that “direct mail doesn’t work.”

Tell that to Nightingale-Conant . . . or Boardroom . . . or Publishers Clearinghouse . . . or Day Timer.

On the other hand, if you create and test four different ads or four different versions of a sales letter, the odds are in your favor that at least one will work and be profitable for you.

My rule of thumb for improving direct-marketing results is this: Look at what the big players undefined the successful direct marketers undefined are doing. And do what they do.

And the one thing every successful direct marketer has in common is . . . they test. A lot.

What do they test?

Headlines . . . outer envelopes . . . direct-mail formats . . . copy approaches . . . sales appeals . . . mailing lists . . . prices . . . offers . . . guarantees . . . terms . . . anything with the potential to generate a big lift in response rates. Or even a small one, for that matter.

Does all this testing make sense?

On one such test, a marketer increased response to an e-mail marketing message by 50% . . . just by changing the subject line.

In another test, a software company increased orders from a direct-mail package tenfold . . . simply by varying the wording of the offer.

And a computer school doubled the response rate to its newspaper advertising when they added the offer of a free career booklet.

Does all this testing make sense?

You bet it does!

Imagine . . . just by changing a few words on a piece of paper or a computer screen, you can double your sales . . . revenues . . . and profits.

If there’s another area of business that gives you that kind of leverage, I’d like to hear about it.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business.)

Bob Bly

Bob Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant specializing in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has been hired as a consultant by such companies as Sony, Chemical Bank, J. Walter Thompson, Westinghouse, and Prentice-Hall. Bob is also the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books), Targeted Public Relations, Selling Your Services, How to Promote Your Own Business, and Keeping Clients Satisfied. A phenomenal public speaker, Bob will share with you how easy it is to start your own business. Whether you’re ready to quit your job or are just looking to make a little money on the side, you’ll want to hear Bob’s advice.

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