By Susan J. McIntyre
The Catalog Doctor™

Susan J. McIntyre, Founder

PATIENT: "Doc, you've been around the block a few times in the catalog business. In all that time have you come up with any overarching guidelines that can help me out in my business?

CATALOG DOCTOR: "Hmmm...I realize that there are guidelines that I use so much they've become an unconscious part of my thinking. Here are 11. I hope they're as helpful to you as they've been to me over the years."

1. Prospecting costs money. Get over it.
Looking for the silver bullet that gets new customers who are profitable the first shot out of the box? Sure that used to happen ... 30 years ago. But not today. Times have changed. Today, look for a 1-year+ breakeven or profit. Prospecting is still a good investment, but it is an investment.

2. You can't predict test outcomes.
What's worked for one company won't work for another. What worked 5 years ago won't work today. After more than 3 decades I have a very high good-guessing rate, but I can't guess right every time. Test, don't guess.

3. Prioritize what you test.
Testing can get expensive. People will have all kinds of ideas about what they'd like to test. But it doesn't make sense to test everything. Takes too long, costs too much. Look for which tests could make the biggest difference in sales and profits. Rank test ideas by what looks likely to increase sales the most, reduce costs the most, or contribute the most to ROI. Prioritize by the top ranks and forget the rest.

4. The message "Save this catalog, it's the only one you'll get this year" does not work.
No one has ever succeeded in cutting their mailing frequency because they told customers to "Hang onto this catalog for a year..." and then customers did. Almost none will. Instead, mail as frequently as you can manage, depending on how many catalogs each customer segment "earns" from your company.

5. More pages get more sales. But those new pages don't necessarily pay for themselves.
Study your square inch reports closely and ruthlessly shrink images that don't pay for their catalog space. If products have already been shrunk to the maximum, just as ruthlessly toss them out altogether. A good rule of thumb is that each page you add will deliver around 40% of your current sales-per-page. But WATCH OUT! Don't count outlier products in that average sales-per-page or you'll be way over-estimating potential sales from adding new pages (I've seen products that deliver 30%, 60%, even 80% of a catalog's sales!). Once you've estimated potential sales, you can decide if the cost makes those pages worth adding.

6. Don't let emotions get in the way of sound business decisions.
You may not let emotions get in the way, but many people around you will. Here's how to cope. First, don't argue — instead, tell them what's really good about their idea. They'll see you're supporting them, which will make them open to discussing the idea more. Then, once you sense they're relaxed and open, bring up their goals. Explore how their idea links to their goals. Then very calmly and unemotionally explain why that idea or decision (that they want) probably won't achieve their goal (that they also want). This way, they'll view you as being supportive of their goal…that is, you're on their side. That technique will work part of the time. The other part of the time, accept that poor decisions will get implemented.

7. Everyone thinks they can write copy.
People don't often second-guess the design because people know they're not artists and so can't jump in and show how to do it better. But everyone uses words, so practically everyone thinks they're an expert on copy. A true bad example: one manager wanted to call a tea that the catalog offered "self-drinking". Huh? (She said that was a good phrase because the tea tasted so good that you didn't need to add milk or sugar.) Copywriters get really frustrated with the constant rewriting efforts by non-writers. Some comments do clarify or solve problems the copywriter couldn't have known about, but most need to be quietly trashed. A good copywriter is an artist. Let him/her do their job.

8. Models sell products better ... except in two instances.
First: models distract from food. Both people and food produce strong emotional reactions in customers so those two emotions compete with each other, taking attention away from the food that's for sale. Second: models can be a negative when the catalog's demographic is so broad that the wrong model type will cause the customer to unconsciously think "oh, I'm not like that person, and therefore that entire product line is wrong for me."

9. Last minute changes need triage.
If a last-minute change won't affect sales but will jeopardize the print schedule, or rush the proofreader, skip it. Remember, a missing comma after the "and" or an extra space outside the period may drive you crazy, but customers do not notice that style rules have been violated. And remember, last-minute changes mean rush proofing, which can lead to disastrous errors. If a page has already been approved, don't risk unintended errors being added or accidental reversions to a prior edition (it happens!). Fix non-essential changes next time to satisfy yourself in the long run, but skip them when deadlines loom.

10. Every few years do a No-Test Test.
That is, Nth-segment your list into two groups but mail them identical catalogs with identical offers. A No-Test Test will let you see the effect of random probabilities. You'll often see what appears to be a statistically significant difference between the two (identical) test arms. That random probability factor can help you better assess actual results of "real" tests. No-Test Test results will also help you and your team better understand why you should test at least twice before rolling out, because testing a second time will help eliminate the random probability portion of the results.

11. Ogilvy was right. About almost everything.
Trends change, people don't. Read David Ogilvy's Ogilvy On Advertising for the principles (ignore the dated art and copy trends) then apply those principles to today. Give it a read. Best case is that you'll improve your marketing. Worst case is that you'll be vastly entertained.

First published in ROI magazine Jul/Aug 2014 © 2014 Susan J. McIntyre