Acing a paper test

Paper represents more than 25% of a cataloger’s budget, notes Michael Carton, director of print production for New York-based AGA Catalog Marketing and Design. So when catalogers are seeking to cut costs, paper is often an area they look at. Yet the right paper is a crucial element in persuading recipients to leaf through the book. Paper that’s too gray or allows too much bleed-through of the images on the opposite side won’t show the merchandise to its best advantage. And paper that’s perceived as too flimsy or thin might lead prospects to believe that the products themselves are of inferior quality. “There’s a direct connection between brand and the quality of the paper,” says Sarah Fletcher, creative director/president of Charlestown, RI-based consultancy Catalog Design Studios. That’s why you should test before making any changes regarding your paper choice.

“The only fair paper test I’ve done is a true A/B split, where you print half on the normal stock and the other half on the alternative stock,” Carton says. “That gives you a true representation of how the consumer will see the paper, as opposed to one demographic from one part of the country that may see it one way while another demographic from another part of the country will see it another way.” Catalogers that print fewer than 50,000 books, he adds, could also try testing the alternative stock in stages, perhaps starting by mailing it only to best customers.

When testing paper, Carton continues, you should try to keep all other variables constant. In other words, don’t also test alternative covers and special promotions while testing paper stock. And don’t test on a clearance catalog or a special edition. “You want it to be one of the core books,” Carton says.

And if possible, says Janie Downey, president of Cumberland, ME-based production consultancy PublishExperts, conduct the test within one season, such as the spring or fall selling period. The reasoning is the same as that of an A/B split: You can measure the response to the new paper from all kinds of shoppers — those that may purchase only from the first catalog they receive in the season to those who wait until the day before Christmas to buy.

Testing paper from the beginning of one selling season to its end can be a big risk — if response to the new paper falls significantly, the top and bottom lines can take quite a hit — but Downey says the information learned from a test conducted the right way is worth it. “Running paper tests is a big commitment,” she explains, “but if you only test for a short period of time, you run the risk of making a decision that in the long run may affect your business in a way you did not anticipate.”

A few years ago, Oshkosh, WI-based gifts and housewares cataloger Walter Drake tested a coated, domestic sheet in a 40-lb. stock against its regular 34-lb. sheet by conducting an A/B split of its approximately 3 million-name mailing list. “I’d say for a test like this, the most important thing is having enough quantity so that you’re confident that you can make a decision, especially when you’re increasing costs,” says Walter Drake’s former vice president of marketing and merchandise Tim Littleton, now senior vice president of marketing and merchandise for Dallas-based Chef’s Catalog.

When running tests of its paper, Walter Drake would never test less than half of its mailing list. But Littleton says that the ideal minimum number of test catalog recipients depends on how many customers the cataloger can afford to send the test book to (a pricy endeavor if the sheet is more expensive and the outcome uncertain) and how confident the cataloger wants to be of the result, as determined by a statistical calculation called the confidence interval. This calculation allows a cataloger to say, Given X number of customers receiving the test catalog, we can be Y% confident of the accuracy of the result. At Walter Drake, the company required that it be 95% confident of the results, with a 2% margin of error — standard figures for a confidence interval. (A number of software programs and applications can help you calculate a confidence interval.)

When testing paper, proper communication with your printer is essential. “We took extra care in communicating as specifically as we could,” Littleton says of Walter Drake’s paper tests. “The key is to have very specific bindery instructions when the catalog is being bound and ink-jetted so that you’ll be able to get a valid read.” That means coding the catalogs with a key, so that there will be no mixups separating the test books from those printed on the old stock. Similarly, you must make sure that the mailing list tapes your printer receives clearly denote which customers should receive the catalogs printed on alternative stock and which should receive those printed on the usual paper.

Testing before the test

Speaking of printers, before you can test the paper on your customers, you must test it with your printer. The printer needs to determine if the paper you’re considering is a so-called qualified paper: “something that we will run on our presses,” says Bill Orndoff, vice president of materials management for Waterloo, WI-based printing company Perry Judd’s. A paper is considered qualified only when it has been test-fed through the presses without production problems such as a buildup of fibers causing the coating to come off on the machinery.

Orndoff says that such quality concerns are most often a consideration when the test paper comes from a new paper manufacturer or after a paper company closes a mill for repairs and reopens with the paper created on updated equipment.

If a cataloger that was printing on a 60-lb. #3 sheet from a commonly used manufacturer wanted to test a 50-lb. #5 from the same mill, that would likely be no problem, Orndoff says, because those papers would have been running through his presses, and those of most other printing companies, for years. But if “it’s a very new paper that has just come off a new machine from New Zealand, we will have to do a quality test on it before we will agree to run it,” he says. The printer wants to avoid a worst-case scenario in which a test rollout is printed with such poor quality that it needs to be disposed of before ever making it out the door to customers. “We can’t replace 1 million lbs. of paper that quickly in today’s market,” Orndoff says.

Downey suggests requesting a test roll, which the printer can put on at the end of one of its regular print runs, sometimes at a discounted price. She says the test roll will sometimes rule out the alternative stock before it ever reaches customers, based on, say, the way the colors are reproduced on the new paper.

Narrowing your options

Now that you know how to conduct a paper test properly, how do you decide what paper to test? Obviously it all starts with your goals: Are you trying to save money? Improve catalog response? Put forward a more upscale brand image?

That said, there are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • If possible, select paper light enough so that your catalog doesn’t exceed 3.3 oz., the limit for the U.S. Postal Service’s flat piece rate, says Lois Boyle, president/chief creative officer of Mission, KS-based catalog agency J. Schmid & Associates. “When getting over 3.3 oz, we highly recommend that they look at lighter options or a lower grade.”

  • If your catalog has 30 or fewer pages, Boyle says, opt for paper of at least 70-lb. weight. “It’s not for printing quality but for the old droop factor,” she explains. “Otherwise the catalog feels too much like a flier.” Catalogers with smaller books who would like to make a change to a lower-weight paper might consider a 70-lb. or 80-lb. outer wrap and a 60-lb. paper for the interior pages.

  • Remember that if you use anything lighter than a 45-lb. stock, Boyle says, you may see problems such as color bleeding and image see-through.

  • To convey an image of top quality, consider using a gloss rather than a matte paper. “With gloss,” says Catalog Design Studios’ Fletcher, “the ink sits up better on the paper, so the catalog becomes a better-looking piece.”

  • Get samples of catalogs printed on the stock you are considering. Ideally you want to see samples of catalogs that sell the same kind of merchandise as your own, says Kathy Johnston, vice president, creative services for J. Schmid & Associates.

Allan Share, president of Minnetonka, MN-based New Life Systems, which sells supplies to beauty and spa professionals, keeps a file filled with the catalogs of his competitors. Since at least one of his rivals usually is using the same paper that Share wants to test, the comparison gives him an idea of how his book would look on the stock. Keeping track of his competitors’ paper choices also helps Share make sure that his paper is neither appreciably poorer nor more lush than that of others in his merchandise category.

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