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As I was flying back from the east coast on Southwest Airlines, as usual I pick up the latest copy of Spirit magazine to see what’s interesting as we wait until I can open my computer and do something else.  It occurred to me as I was perusing that there were very few ads that had either a direct response mechanism, or at least some kind of tracking mechanism to validate the performance of the ad.

The Test

So I decided I would do a study: count every single ad and see which had a) direct response mechanisms; b) tracking mechanisms; or c) nothing at all.  Even when I stopped in Nashville, I went and purchased the latest copy of Entrepreneur magazine and did the same study so I could compare the results.

So, let’s first define the three basic types of ads:

Direct Response – this type of ad has a mechanism to entice the prospect to learn more about the product or service, or to purchase.  Examples would be a tear-sheet to mail in for a free something, a link to a website with a promo code, a cut-out to bring in for a discount, a link to a form to download something, etc.

Tracking Mechanism – this type of ad does not have a promo or direct response mechanism, but has a special 800 number or URL so they can effectively track the responses from the ad.  The URL mechanisms are fairly easy to spot, but the 800 numbers are not.

Branding – this type of ad has no direct response mechanism and no noticeable tracking mechanism.  They simply are there to generate brand awareness to the company/product/service.

Now, knowing these basic parameters, there are some caveats:

1. Brand awareness ads have their place in the world.  Because I get excited about measurement, I would love to see all ads of all types have a direct response or tracking mechanism, but it is not always feasible.  As long as the company knows exactly how much they are spending on “brand awareness” and has at least tested turning them on and off to see the relative impact, I’m OK with them.

2.  While some ads may not have a direct response or tracking mechanism, they could have had a place on their web sign up form with a “how did you hear about us” field.  I think these are generally ineffective since you never know if the person was guessing or simply picking anything just to get through the form faster.  If you are running ads in multiple publications simultaneously it is nearly impossible to track the performance of them, so you might consider running ads one at a time to see what the relative increase in performance is compared to when you run nothing.

The Results

The results of the test may or may not surprise you, but the use of direct response or tracking mechanisms in print advertising is largely missing.  Many of the hotels and casinos were guilty of most of the branding ads in Spirit magazine, while in Entrepreneur magazine, it was the franchises.  Collectively, less than 25% of the 125 total ads had either a direct response or tracking mechanism.

The Awards

Based on all of the 125 ads, here’s what we’ve come up with:

Best Direct Response Mechanisms has an excellent campaign where they are giving 30-day free trials if you enter a special promo code.  Their ad in Sprit magazine had the code “spirit” and in Entrepreneur they had the code “entrepreneur”.  I have also seen them using this on their tv spots as well.

Airport Parking has a pretty good ad that offers 1 day free, and then asks for an email for the 2 days free offer.  The sales associate scans the barcode which indicates which offer and which publication it came from.  It could be a little clearer that you do actually need to cut this out and bring it in to the retail center.

Kaplan University has a great example of a tear-sheet that you mail in to get a free book.  If you don’t want to mail this in, you can call the 800 number (which I am sure is specific to the campaign) or go to the unique URL.  I like this one a lot because in the form it also has a referral mechanism where it asks if they can contact a friend on your behalf.

Least Likely to Succeed

IBM – First, this ad is way too busy, and it’s rare for people to actually read an ad these days.  I didn’t think the readers of Entrepreneur were the IT-type, but I could be wrong.  Then, if you want more information on this “offer” you go down to this small box where it has a long URL, or an 800 number where you are required to remember (or write) down some long string of characters.  Not too convenient, and I would suspect they could have a conversion problem on their hands.  Why not just “ENT409” for Entrepreneur Magazine, the April 2009 edition?  Nope.  6N8AH14A was better.

Comcast had an interesting ad that hooked me with the fact that I might be “stuck in an old phone contract that doesn’t fit” (which I’m sure many of us are), and then drew my eyes to the red strip where I thought I would find some direct response mechanism.  Nope.  Gotta go way back up to the top right corner to get a website and phone number.  This could have been so much better…

Most Confusing

The Parking Spot folks, similar to the Airport Parking guys up top, had a similar offer to save 20% at any of their “spots”.  Problem was I did not know or understand that I am supposed to cut this out and bring it in to the retail office.  Way down in the bottom right corner there is a “For cashier use only” which indicated to me that it was a coupon – other than that, I didn’t catch on.

Biggest Waste of Money

Now this ad was weird.  First, I guess I don’t understand the butterfly concept, but more ironically, I had to “search” for this search company’s contact info.  And I actually thought the name of the company was “Search Marketing” – that would be a blunder if people went to Google looking for “search marketing” and came up with their competitors.  My point is that the number and website (calls to action) are buried in the text that no one reads anyway.