Throughout the year, this column has looked at a number of different common marketing vehicles and discussed tools and techniques that can dramatically increase the response and success rate of promotions. In this column, we'll look at in-club promotions, with a specific focus on promotional letters for member referrals.

- An in-club promotion can be a postcard or a letter that is mailed directly to members or even something as simple as flyers or posters displayed in the club. Usually such pieces are designed to get members to buy an existing product/service or refer a friend to the club.

- Perhaps the most important thing to consider when designing an in-club promotion is the fact that the target audience consists of members. This has greater implications than the obvious.

- On one hand, members are more likely to open a piece of mail from the club. On the other hand, because of their familiarity with the club, they will tend to skim a letter or postcard quickly - unless it really gets their attention. And as far as posters or flyers posted in the club go, members become oblivious to these items after seeing them once or twice.

What does this mean? You cannot assume that just because a piece targets a member that you can disregard the steps to creating a successful marketing piece.

Perfecting Referral Letters
One of the most frequently used in-club promotions run by clubs worldwide is a referral campaign where members are given some sort of incentive to refer a friend who joins. Clubs generally promote these campaigns with displays and posters in the club, as well as sending members a letter that explains the program and incentives.

Since the mailing portion of this campaign is so important, let's dissect a referral letter and see how it could have been made more effective.

First, let's look at the headline. A headline accounts for 80 percent of an ad's effectiveness. The headline - which is the first thing the reader sees on the page - MUST grab the reader's attention, answering the question, "What's in it for me?"

Unfortunately, the first thing that readers typically see in letter promotions is the club's name and logo. This does NOTHING to engage the reader. Therefore, the first thing that needs to be done with letters going to members is to either change the stationary so the logo is at the bottom or simply use plain paper. Although this change is initially disturbing for club operators, they quickly adapt when they see better results without the cost of traditional letterhead.

Using Your Headline
Without the logo at the top of the page, you are now positioned to get the reader's attention right away. In our example, the headline is, "In Honor of Your Commitment to Us, ABC Health Club Is Extending a One Month Free Membership to Share With a Friend!"

This may seem like a good headline on the surface, but it does NOT answer the question, "What's in it for me?" for the member. In fact, many members might read that headline and think to themselves, "Yeah, in honor of my commitment to you guys, you now want me to bring in my friends to buy a membership. That's a heck of an honor!"

It actually isn't difficult designing a great headline from the current letter because it already contains information about what the members will get. A member will get a free T-shirt simply by having a friend redeem the certificate. And if the friend joins, the member will get $50.

The headline to this letter would have been much more effective had it read, "Here's an Easy Way for You to Get a FREE Club T-shirt AND $50 in Cash!" If you were a member seeing those words, it would probably get your attention.

Once you have the reader's attention, you have to maintain it throughout the body copy. Using strong subheadings helps to accomplish this. Subheadings are simply larger typefaced (or bolded) sentences that are centered on the page with spaces before and after to make them stand out.

The same rules apply to creating subheadings as they do when creating a headline - answer the "What's in it for me?" question. A subheading's purpose is to pull the readers through the body copy while educating them on the product or service, so by the time they get to the offer, they will want to take action.

Where Are the Subheadings?
The body copy of our example letter quickly loses the interest of the reader for a number of reasons. First of all, it uses no subheadings, allowing the reader to get lost in a sea of text. Second, it waits till the very end of the letter to tell the readers what is in it for them.

In essence, the format of the letter is inverted to what it should be. It should start with a discussion of the T-shirt and the $50 (this should have been mentioned in the headline), being honest with the reader as to why the club is making such an offer.

For instance, after teasing the offer in the headline, the letter should read, "That's right, ABC Club wants to give you a free T-shirt and $50 in hard cold cash, and I'm writing you to explain why. You see, although we traditionally run advertisements in the newspaper or do direct mail pieces, this time of year is not so effective for those methods of marketing. Therefore, we would like to reward you personally for introducing people to the club. Here's how it works..."

Next, a subheading should be used to bridge into the most relevant information to the members - the new entertainment equipment that will make their workouts more enjoyable. For example, a subheading that reads, "New, Cutting-edge Entertainment System at ABC Club Will Make Your Workouts More Enjoyable," would really jump out at the reader.

Finally, another subheading would bridge the reader to the information on the one-month free guest pass for a friend and the events happening throughout the month. For example, "FREE Guest Pass (a $59 value) Allows Your Friend to Try Out the Club for an Entire Month With Lots of Special Activities."

Once you catch the reader's attention with the subheading, the information contained in the sample letter can be used more effectively. Plus, it lets the readers know exactly how valuable this offer is to a friend ($59).

As one can see, with some simple format changes and appropriate subheadings, the reader is drawn through the entire letter, compelling him to take action.

Finally, let's talk about creating urgency within the reader. This letter actually did a good job by placing an expiration date on the coupon, but there are two other things that this club could have done with the coupon to increase its urgency effectiveness.

First of all, a value MUST be placed on every coupon a club puts out. Human beings respond well when they believe that something has a value, even more so when it has an expiration date.

Secondary Offer
Second, and perhaps a unique idea for most club operators, is to place a "secondary offer" on the coupon. A secondary offer is a way to get prospects to contact the club even if they are not interested in the primary offer. For example, in this case, let's assume a friend is not ready to come in for a free month. The club still wants a friend to call so a database of interested prospects can be created for future marketing opportunities.

One way to create a secondary offer with a coupon is to have the recipient call for some kind of free report. This "report" is really nothing more than a short article that can be put together with everyday information, yet has appeal to a consumer. Some of the best reports that can get the phones to ring: "10 Steps to Getting in Shape at Home," "The Real Truth About Weight Loss" and "Why People Eat Less but Gain Weight."

An example of a secondary offer for the letter in our example could be, "Even if you don't want to use this $59 pass, call today for a FREE report, `10 Steps to Getting in Shape at Home.' Limited to the first 25 callers." This statement could have generated even more prospects.

Although it may seem like a simple task, writing an in-club promotional letter that will have the maximum effect takes much time and effort. Creating an eye-catching headline, using subheadings throughout the body copy to keep the reader's attention, having a strong offer and secondary offer, and making sure there is urgency in taking action are all crucially important elements.

Next time you are going to spend hundreds of dollars to send members an in-club promotion, take a few moments to run down your checklist of how to create a marketing piece that works. It will pay off in both the short and long run!