Tours de force

Given its tagline, “Extraordinary Tours for Extraordinary Women,” you’d expect everything about the WomanTours catalog to be, well, extraordinary, including the creative. To get an outsider’s take, the Rochester, NY-based cataloger of cycling vacations for women has gamely wheeled in for a creative review. Our critiquers this month — Charlene Gervais, president of Chicago-based agency The Chicago Catalog Group, and New York-based consultant Glenda Shasho Jones — reviewed WomanTours’ 2006 edition. Here’s what they had to say.

CHARLENE GERVAIS

A woman willing to embark on a two-month cross-country bike trip is undoubtedly determined, fun-loving, and energetic. The front cover of the WomanTours catalog should reflect the adventurous spirit of its market, while making would-be adventurers comfortable with the concept. Instead it shows a dark landscape photo that doesn’t invite me to open the book, let alone to take a trip.

On the bright side, the logo and the tagline do an excellent job of conveying the company’s purpose, though they should be supplemented with the company’s phone number and URL.

On the opening spread we find the energy that is missing from the cover. The main photo shows WomanTours president Jackie Marchand triumphantly hoisting her bike overhead in a field of sunflowers. This winning photo shares the space with a less engaging, busy shot. The poor layout creates awkward white space, lessening the main photo’s impact. I would have committed to the sunflower photo 100% — it’s that strong.

The opening letter, like much of the copy inside the catalog, is excellent, addressing who goes on the trips and why, as well as calling out some new offerings. The table of contents next to it could be improved by color-coding the trip categories (“East,” “West,” Cross Country”) and the corresponding sections throughout the catalog.

A preplanned biking tour is only as good as the people who organize it, and the first five pages of the catalog are dedicated to informing the reader that WomanTours is the right company for her. I think this is a good move. Although it could probably be condensed, the copy is thorough and convincing. More information, such as FAQs and an overview chart, appears in the back of the book. I would combine all this information in the same place or at least reference it in the table of contents, where it is currently omitted.

There is no segue from the information section to the tour listings. I didn’t even notice the description of the first tour until I had looked at the catalog four times and really started to read. The tours themselves also blend together throughout the book. Sometimes photos and background colors cross the gutter, visually tying together two unrelated trips. I’d suggest treating each tour independently and avoiding those crossovers to avoid this confusion.

Other improvements that could help the usability of the tour pages:

  • The type handling is monotonous. Use formatting to call out sections and direct the reader. For example, bold font treatments could be used for headings (date, length, location, price) that repeat from tour to tour for quick comparisons and easy navigation. This would also serve to break up the tall columns of copy and separate information into more-digestible chunks.

  • Trying to read blue type against that dark purple background is more work than a bike tour across Hawaii. In fact, the color palette in general has a heaviness that implies hard work. I’d lighten the colors throughout.

  • The photo captions that “profile” the people in the photos are wonderful, helping the reader identify with past participants. But the captions are contained in obtrusive purple boxes over the photos. Tone them down, and let the photos shine.

  • Caption all the photos in the book. People read captions, and captions are an opportunity to draw them in.

  • The stock photography is disconnected from the tour shots. The quality is inconsistent, and without captions, the pictures could be confusing. Are people going to see these horses, bears, and eagles on their trip? If so, caption it accordingly. If not, replace the photo with something relevant.

  • Lose the low-res photos (such as the highly pixilated group shot on pages 4-5) and enlarge the photos that can take it.

Finally, we come to the back cover. Here is an opportunity to inform and sell that’s wasted on an unnecessarily large mailing panel and a photo of bikers on an unattractive cement pier. Use this space to tempt the recipient: Feature a popular tour here, and direct the reader inside for more information. At the very least, use the space to sell the company, with energetic photos and testimonial copy.

Overall, the WomanTours catalog does a pretty good job of selling the company and its product through copy and photography. Improve the usability and interest, and watch the sign-ups start rolling in!

GLENDA SHASHO JONES

It’s probably true that it’s harder to sell a service than a product. WomanTours faces that challenge. It’s not selling an item; it’s selling an experience. As such, it’s dealing with a more complex emotional component.

Catalog buyers react to the basic tenants of catalog shopping, particularly issues of comprehension, pacing, and relevance. Unfortunately for WomanTours, many of these attributes are lacking in this catalog. Fortunately, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to make a lot of improvement, quickly.

FRONT AND BACK COVERS

We say it a million times: The cover is where people are looking as they decide whether to keep the catalog or toss it. We want the front and back covers to get recipients into the catalog. To do this, these pages have to work hard.

  • WomanTours should have its logo at the very top, for maximum punch. Its tagline is good, although I have to admit that one could glance it and think that “extraordinary” means “special needs.” It might be worth a bit of brainstorming, development, and research to come up with a better line.

  • Although the front cover photo is beautiful, it isn’t as compelling as it could be. I wonder what it would look like with two or three riders along the fence in the distance, to let you know “you can be here.”

  • From a marketing point of view, this cover can work harder. It could list some pieces of key information or special offers. I’d love to see an offer that says something like, “Book 6 months ahead and save 10%.”

  • I’d also put the toll-free number and the Website address on the cover because they are calls to action; they tell people that this catalog is selling something.

  • The back cover doesn’t do much of anything. This frequently viewed page is a great opportunity to highlight a new or best-selling trip, even if more details are listed within. A mini-version of a full-page trip presentation for the back cover could include headlines, trip information, a summary box, and the map.

COPY

The biggest opportunity throughout this catalog is improving information comprehension — specifically, making it easier to get more information more quickly. There are several ways to do this:

  • Organize the information better. Right now everything reads as one big block of copy, separated by paragraphs. This catalog needs to help readers see highlights and key facts “at a glance” before they decide to go into the detail. WomanTours can accomplish this using heads, subheads, bullets, and other organization tools.

  • Improve type fonts and presentation. Achieving a higher level of comprehension is a critical consideration, especially given that the average age of the WomanTours customer is 55. For starters, all the typefaces in the catalog are sans serif. It would be helpful to use a couple of different fonts to differentiate editorial copy from selling copy.

  • There also seems to be too much space, or leading, between the lines of text. This much openness actually reduces comprehension.

  • Use color and reverse type sparingly. Color is a strategic element. WomanTours uses too much color on its backgrounds, which makes type harder to read. Also, the use of color and reverse type dramatically cuts down on comprehension and often takes your eye away from what you want the reader to see: the drama of the trips.

PHOTOGRAPHY

So much of the photography in this catalog is beautiful and compelling, but you find yourself wondering where you are or what relevance it has.

  • Photographs need captions. Descriptive information that addresses the trip, the trail, the location, would add appeal and relevance.

  • Choose relevant, engaging, and properly sized hero shots. In some cases the photos are simply too big and lacking in relevance. This is the case on page 9 with the brown bear or page 6 with the eagle. As beautiful as the shots may be, they look like stock photography and take up a lot of room. I’d much rather have various shots, all with captions, that we learn were “taken by Jane Doe on her New Zealand trip.”

EDITORIAL PAGES

A big opportunity for WomanTours is in the treatment of editorial or informational pages:

  • Make them easier to read. Heads, subheads, questions, answers, bullets, checklists, captions, editorial blocks — all will help put a mass of information in digestible form.

  • Wouldn’t it be great if the opening spread contained a letter from the founder? It’s such a differentiation point, especially as she’s a biker herself. Also, the question “WHY WomanTours” should be answered on page 2 rather than page 4; it might be the information that a prospect needs to get her into the catalog.

  • Page 2 is also where readers expect to see a call to action (“Call now to book your trip!”) as well as other pertinent ordering information (“It’s best to plan a trip at least three months ahead, but call now or check our Website for last-minute trips!”). Page two is the place to present your guarantee as well.

  • Tighten up. I’m a fan of getting to the product sooner than later. While WomanTours may need more information up front than the average cataloger, I still think page 5 is too long to wait to get to a tour. About 75% of the first four pages is dedicated to photography. Some of this can easily be minimized.

  • The table of contents can be consolidated to half its size, and the frequently asked questions could be designed to make more of an impact as a spread rather than spread across three pages as they are now.

  • The trip details chart on pages 32-33 should be cross-referenced at the bottom of the table of contents. The FAQs on pages 29-31 should be referenced after the questions on page 2, for people who have more questions.

SELLING PAGES

WomanTours currently depends on a lot of minimally styled copy and big photographs to sell its offerings. With this approach, it’s easy to gloss over the catalog and dismiss it, because digesting the information is too difficult. This can be corrected by using a variety of techniques:

  • Any catalog that has as much information as WomanTours should develop copy and type strategies that work hand in hand to improve comprehension and support marketing goals. In this case, I’d recommend use of black, bold type to make the subject or theme of each trip easy to determine at a glance. I’d also use headlines and subheads, differentiated by size, with the latter describing the former. Testimonials could be set off with italics or quotation marks.

  • Adding distance meters or topography to the maps could depict the trips better.

  • Key information about the trip, currently in color type, would stand out better in a lightly tinted box using black type. Italic type should be avoided, as it’s harder to read.

  • Give the reader a quick visual (in addition to words) whenever possible. It will provide design relief, add interest, and aid comprehension. This might apply to rating the fitness level of a trip (easy, moderate, high), the average miles per day, or the average temperature, for instance.

Implementing some of the recommendations in this critique will surely help this wonderfully targeted business get more mileage out of its catalog!

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