It isn't every day a brand has the courage to completely change its media strategy. Especially when its tried and trusted method has been bringing in new members for more than 20 years.
Yet this is precisely what Which? did last year. The independent consumer advice organisation had been recruiting subscribers through its prize draw since 1981, but numbers were falling, from 655,000 unique subscribers in 2004 to 640,000 in 2005. Turnover was also falling - from £56 million in 2004 to £52.9m in 2005.
Examining its media strategy, Which? realised that by using its prize draw as its main recruitment method, it was in fact shooting itself in the foot, only reaching people who already knew it, who were, or who had been subscribers. "Which?'s list strategy had become self-refining. It was sending prize draw mailings to people who'd responded to prize draw mailings," says Mike Colling, managing director of agency Mike Colling & Company.
The organisation realised it was time for a rethink. "For a long time, Which? had very successfully used the prize draw to bring in new supporters," says Chris Gardner, Which? marketing director. "But the performance of that particular technique began to wane. We felt we could do better with the type of mechanism we used and find something that would remind consumers more of the brand."
But to recruit new subscribers, first it had to look at just who these people were and where to find them. Working with MC&C, which it had appointed across all its business in June 2005 after the agency had conducted Which?'s first mobile test that spring, it gave the agency the brief of finding a way to recruit subscribers and of developing a marketing message that more accurately reflected its brand values.
MC&C carried out a bespoke segmentation of the UK ?population. Historically, Which? had described subscribers in pretty vague terms such as "old and upmarket" or just as "subscribers of Which?", says Colling. To really understand the make-up of subscribers, MC&C set out to create a propensity model, rather than a lookalike model, to discover what made people subscribe. This, it was felt, would give more scope for improving Which?'s targeting.
There were three stages to this - a TGI cluster analysis to develop a propensity model, qualitative work among the major segments to confirm MC&C's initial findings, and more quantitative research into what made subscribers tick. From the work, MC&C came up with an audience consisting of four significant clusters defined by their propensity to subscribe to Which? (see Clever Stuff).
Armed with this new knowledge about its subscribers, Which? needed to rethink its strategy. Where it had relied upon its prize draw mailings to bring in new subscribers, it now wanted to offer something with more perceived value. Which? came up with the idea of offering free guides, such as how to get the most out of your PC, and how to buy holidays online, and broadband.
Crucially, though, Which? wanted to drive subscriptions, so the guides had to drive further action, too. "They show Which? has all this value to offer, tell consumers how to research and give guidance, but if you want to know what to buy, you've got to subscribe," says Colling.
Knowing that people came to Which? through their desire to research purchases, the organisation realised that it needed to find a way of reaching people at this particular moment. Broadcast media provided the way round this problem, with DRTV, press, inserts, doordrops, and some mail created by agency Watson Philips Norman.
"We'd got our heads to the point where we knew who we were targeting but if you're buying broadband, a guide is only relevant in the one week out of 52 that you're considering what to buy. In the press, on TV, or via an insert, we can run virtually a continual campaign at low cost - £4 to £5 cost per contact," says Colling.
Even better, the ads drive people to a free phone number to request the guides, giving Which? an opportunity not only to offer a trial subscription but to find out vital information about its potential customers which is then used to further inform its communications strategy.
It has been a dramatic change for Which?, but a huge success. "We've probably had in excess of a million people requesting the guides," says Gardner. "And we've recruited more people in a year than we had done for a long time to subscribe to the main magazine."
The new strategy has been a complete departure for Which?. According to Colling, where 90 per cent of its spend in June 2005 was in direct mail, a year on, this had fallen to 10 per cent. All its recruitment was tied up in the prize draw - now none of it is. And by using broadcast media, Which? has moved from reaching four million people a year to 40m. Its return on investment has also increased by 35 per cent in just a year.
"We've changed about every single variable in this and had a monstrous response. Targeting has gone from promotional to brand-centric. We've totally changed the media strategy so Which? has gone from just being seen by the people who received a mailing to being seen by everyone in the public domain. It's also totally changed way Which? interacts with consumers. It's no longer an impersonal mailing but the very personal human face of Which? on the phone," says Colling.
In completely changing its media strategy Which? took a big leap of faith, but it paid off.
To discover what makes someone likely to subscribe to Which?, MC&C ran a Target Group Index cluster analysis to map the UK population as a whole and develop a propensity model. From this, they learnt that what makes someone most likely to subscribe is their propensity to research products and services before they buy.
This quantitative research was followed up by qualitative work among the major segments to confirm MC&C's initial findings and then more quantitative research.
This gave MC&C an audience consisting of four significant clusters. "We had a good feel for the type of person we were recruiting and for how we might segment them but needed to do it more robustly," says Which?'s Chris Gardner. "Hence the segmentation work that involved not just trawls of data pools but qualitative work followed up by quantitative research that tied back into TGI data."
The two main clusters the work identified were Intelligent Researchers and Socially Conscious Inquisitors. The first group loves researching things, and are very particular about what they do before they buy something. The second also researches purchases but not to the same degree as the first group. "They do it more for the benefit of their family," explains Gardner. "They're more after the best buy, and tend to be quite involved in the local community and charities, and the group is biased towards middle-aged women."
The two other significant groups identified were the Prudent Traditionalists - a slightly older group more focused around financial issues, retirement and old age, and the Involved Technophiles, who are gadget-oriented but would turn to an organisation like Which? for help when looking for products outside their specialist area.