Case Study: Bally embraces mail bonding to draw health club members

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Bally Total Fitness is pumping up its direct mail goals this year, hoping to garner about 10% of all its new health-club members from an estimated 9 million-piece drop.

That level of response would be double the percentage of last year's first mail effort, which was prompted by a desire by the TV-built brand to acquire new customers more cost effectively. In 1999, Bally sent out 3.5 million pieces.

The 2000 target amounts to almost 70,000 people, given that the fitness chain's 385 clubs across the country attract close to 700,000 new members each year.

The initial goal of the campaign, through Brann Worldwide, Chicago, wasn't only to get new members but to get "best customers," the customers who would "stay and pay," said Winnie Clark, Bally's assistant VP-direct and interactive marketing.

Bally's existing membership base provides the best template for finding these potentially profitable new members, said Jeff Jarrett, Brann's president of North American agencies, explaining, "We look at the current best customers and try to identify clones" based on demographic and lifestyle data.

The strategy has been to use a "toolbox approach" that tests and uses many different mailings -- with various copy, creative themes and discount offers -- to see what works best for each segment of the target, Ms. Clark said.

"We try to find which offer makes sense to which audience," she said. "We don't believe there's a one-size-fits-all offer that's going to be appropriate for everybody."

Although the campaign's initial goal was to determine the effectiveness of direct mail for acquiring customers, the continued focus will be on deepening customer relationships, Mr. Jarrett said.

"They wanted to prove that the business does clearly respond to direct marketing channels and does so efficiently," he said. "Going forward, it's going to be much more about continuing to increase the activation and retention piece of their business."

But direct marketing is only one part of an integrated ad effort that will continue to include mass media.

"I think for a retailer it's a more sophisticated approach," Ms. Clark said. "Let's combine the best of the retailer strategy, which is frequently television, with the best of the direct strategy. We have an ideal situation in that we can do both."

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