by Dean Rieck, direct mail copywriter
One of the most challenging and exciting of all direct response assignments is attempting to beat a control in a head-to-head test. But how do you actually do it? How do you go about creating a winner? 
Here’s my 7-step procedure, based on proven problem-solving methods. It’s great for direct mail, but it can work for any ad in any medium. 
1. DEFINE your problem. Formulate every control beating effort as a problem to be solved. Put the problem in writing. Be specific. If your company thrives on sales leads, and good leads have dried up, your problem is a lack of good leads. Write “The problem is that our current direct mail package is not generating qualified leads for our salespeople.” Without a specific problem, you’ll never arrive at a specific solution. 
2. EXPLORE your resources. Gather information about your problem. Collect samples, promotional literature, press releases, competitor information, memos, testimonials, articles and reviews, marketing reports, everything. Read and ask questions. But don’t make any creative decisions yet. 
3. ANALYZE your control. Look at the control by itself and in context with all past tests. How does it measure up creatively? Look for fundamental problems. Run a diagnostic check against proven principles and techniques. 
Then look at the numbers — response rates, conversions, ROI, cost per customer, etc. Arrange tests chronologically or by response. Do you see a pattern? What has worked and what has not? Why? 
When your analysis is complete, formulate your Hypothesis. This is a statement that summarizes what you believe the real problem is and what — in general terms — should be done about it. For example: “The sponsorship acquisition package is getting a good response and has beat out all contenders, but the ROI is still unacceptable. The package must be made more cost efficient while maintaining the current response and conversion rate.” 
4. PAUSE. By now, your eyes are bleary and your brain is numb. It’s time for a break. Set everything aside and do something else. Take a walk. Golf. Eat lunch. Anything. The break will allow your brain cool off, to sift and organize information subconsciously. 
5. CREATE your ideas. Now it’s time to come up with some ideas. How you proceed will be determined largely by your analysis of the control. 
If the control is excellent, it may be doing all it can do. So, your best bet is to brainstorm fresh ideas and take a different approach to beat it. If the control is merely good — the category most controls will fall into — there’s room for improvement. Look for something to change about the current control to improve results.
If the control is bad, toss it. Start from scratch and create something new. It’s safest to use a proven formula, to go back to basics. (Caution: A control can only be a control if it has won in tests. So, a “control” that shows poor technique or low numbers may indicate faulty testing or other serious problems.)
6. EVALUATE your ideas. Go over the ideas you’ve generated. Weed out all but the best. If you don’t like anything, or think you can do better, go back to creating for a while. When the deadline gets close or when you stop generating useful ideas, move on. Choose the single best idea you have. This is the one you will develop.
7. ACT on your best idea. Plan how to make your idea happen. Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them. Be ready to sell your idea to others. Expect hesitation or even resistance: “We’ve never done this before.” “I wouldn’t respond to this.” “It won’t work.” “This isn’t very creative.” 
Doubt is a natural and inevitable feeling as you arrive at the moment of truth. Don’t let it stop you. Only testing will prove what works. So, GO FOR IT!

—Source: Dean Rieck is a leading direct mail copywriter. For more copywriting and selling tips, sign up for Dean’s FREE direct response newsletter and get a free report, 99 Easy Ways to Boost Your Direct Mail Response.