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Imagine if you went to the door of a private club, rapped on the door three times, and were confronted by a bulldog of a doorman who demanded proof of membership. You explain that you're really not a member, but you've got this great cufflink-and-tie-clip set that you know the members would love, and you only want a few minutes inside to share your wonderful product with them. Chances are, like in a Daffy Duck cartoon, the slamming door would smash you flat in the face.
So you retreat behind a rock to develop a different strategy for getting inside. The next time you walk up to the door, you're arm-in-arm with a club member who describes you as a business associate he would like to introduce to the other members. You're ushered in, the member introduces you to others and tells them about your product . . . and you sell quite a few cufflinks and tie clips.
There's a message in this scenario for the direct mailer who wants to get solicitations past the "doorman," the assistant/secretary/receptionist who stands between you and your prospective buyer. Have the mailing sent from someone totally separate from your business-a surrogate-so it's not immediately identifiable as a solicitation. Then, once it's under the nose of the decision maker, the letter's writer endorses your product or service.
Regular readers will remember I brought up this approach in my March 1996 column, referring to it then as the "Trojan Horse" that sneaks your promotion through the gates of the "enemy" (the junk-mail tossing receptionist) to the intended recipient. Readers responded so well to this approach, I thought I'd give it another go when an appropriate situation came up. And, sure enough, Darlene Sturman, a Yardville, New Jersey, entrepreneur who wrote recently, has just the kind of marketing problem this technique might solve.
Sturman co-owns Aquariums 'R Us, an aquarium sales and maintenance company specializing in businesses such as doctors' and dentists' offices and restaurants or the reception areas of other companies. She's been sending some low-key sales letters to promote her services to her prime markets, and results have been dismal. Judging from Sturman's letter, it's pretty clear the mailings are getting stopped at the receptionists' desks. "When I make follow-up calls," writes Sturman, "the screener usually says, 'He or she will call if interested.' "
So let's talk about how to get past the screener with a compelling surrogate sales pitch to the target audience.
Doctor To Doctor
To her credit, Sturman already accompanies her letters to her target audience with a sheet of three substantive testimonials. But my idea, of course, is to make her entire sales presentation a testimonial. That is, I would make arrangements with one of her existing doctor or dentist customers to send a letter written on his or her letterhead on Sturman's behalf. (By "arrangements" I mean offering the surrogate a year's worth of free aquarium maintenance in return for his or her endorsement-if the promotion proves to be a winner.) Here's how the letter would start off:
"Have you ever had a goldfish 'assistant'?
"I have, and I recommend it.
"I'm referring to the aquarium full of goldfish I have in my waiting room that truly 'assists' me in making little patients more relaxed . . . and easier to deal with when they get into my chair.
"This has been my experience with the great aquarium I had set up by a woman named Darlene Sturman of Aquariums 'R Us.
"I'm writing this letter on her behalf because I'm convinced an aquarium is a great patient-soother and living artwork combined . . . and therefore I told Darlene I'd be happy to help her spread theword about her services." (See the complete letter in the "After" illustration above.)
If Sturman was writing to a restaurateur, I might recommend a letter from another restaurateur and Sturman client-under the restaurant's letterhead-that started this way:
"Dear Fellow Restaurateur,
"Have you ever served up tigerfish?
"I recommend it . . . it brings in customers.
"I'm referring to an aquarium of tropical tigerfish or other varieties to draw attention in your restaurant. Parents love the one I have because it keeps the kids occupied and out of trouble while we're preparing their food. And, of course, kids love it because it's fascinating and fun.
"Frankly, I love it because the kids don't bang silverware, tip over glasses and run through the aisles nearly as much as they used to before I got the aquarium.
"So, because I have had this very positive experience with an aquarium, I agreed to help the woman who sold it to me (and also maintains it) spread the word. Her name is Darlene Sturman . . . ."
There you have two examples of the possibilities of getting a customer to do your selling for you by way of an endorsement letter. Whether you are in the aquarium business, sell auto parts or have a computer consulting company, you can improve response to your direct-mail solicitations with a surrogate sales letter. It's also key that the letter be mailed in an envelope with the surrogate's business name on it because if, in this case, it showed the Aquariums 'R Us logo, it would defeat the whole purpose and get tossed in the recycling bin without even being read.
You might even type "For Georgia Wagner Only" in the bottom left-hand corner of the envelope to keep the screener from automatically ripping open the envelope if he or she typically sniffs out every piece of mail. I wouldn't use the traditional "Personal and Confidential" because if the letter is really not of a confidential nature, it will anger the reader.
The smartest way to test the idea of a surrogate-written letter is to compare it with a traditional letter approach. In direct marketing, this is called an "A-B split." You take a portion of your mailing list and send out a letter written by you-labeled with a small "A" in one corner-and then, to an equal number of names, mail a letter written by a surrogate, with a "B" printed in one corner. When people start responding, ask them which letter they received-A or B. After getting several responses, you'll get an idea of which letter did best, and you'll mail the winning letter to future prospects.
In Sturman's case, I'd recommend she take the time to improve her current letter a bit to give it a little more intrigue and a better chance before testing it against the endorser-written letter. To that end, I'd suggest she change her headline to read, "The Anesthetic in Your Waiting Room." It should also be positioned farther away from her letterhead than the current headline is. The revised letter would start,
"How can you calm kids down before you work on them?
"More and more dentists are revealing that their secret weapon is . . . an aquarium . . . ."
I'll bet my money the surrogate's letter will win. But, if no surrogate is willing to be party to this promotion (which could happen), Sturman will still have a solid letter to help her fish for new business.
Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter and welcomes submissions to this column, although he regrets he cannot answer each individually. For information on his new manual, Creating Successful Small Business Advertising, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to"Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry viaCompuServe at 73150,132 or America Online at Jerry 228.