Current Issue
Published on July 16, 2001

Get the most out of direct mail

It's so easy to waste money on direct mail that many companies make it almost a daily practice.

Conversely, direct mail can be one of the most efficient, cost-effective marketing vehicles available. Even when e-commerce is exploding, every marketing plan should include a direct-mail component in order to communicate a company's message. If you want proof of the power of direct mail, just notice how Internet companies rely on direct mail to promote their Web sites.

The major issue with direct mail is to get the most from the investment. Here are 25 questions to ask that can help improve the performance of your company's direct-mail program.

Does the mailing create the right impression? If it looks like junk, this is the impression it will create when it arrives. Apply the highest standards of judgment to how the mailing looks. Don't settle for ``just get it out the door.'' Ask yourself, would you be impressed if you received your own mailings? Would you take them seriously?

Is every letter fully personalized? Of course you can get by with ``Dear Valued Customer,'' but not if you want to make an impact. Dear Ms. Roberts, Dear Mr. Martinez or Dear Tom makes a far more personal impression. There is no excuse for failing to personalize letters whether they are to customers or prospects. If you want to convey the message that you offer personal service, start by being personal with your direct mail.

Does the mailing have eye-appeal? If it isn't interesting on the outside, it won't get opened, and if it isn't appealing on the inside, it won't get read. Your mailing is in brutal competition with dozens of other pieces for attention. Stand out. Use color. Make the package interesting by enclosing two, three or even four pieces.

Does it touch the reader's emotions? If it doesn't, don't bother sending it. Your mailing must grab the reader. Make sure the reader will feel left out of a good thing by failing to respond to your offer.

Does it tell a story? Describe for the reader how you solved a customer's problem. Tell what happened and talk about the customer's reaction to your solution. Stories are a powerful way to bring your message to life.

Have you used testimonials? Credible testimonials are powerful persuaders, particularly today when businesses can't afford to make mistakes. But use only real people and identify them completely. No anonymity and no initials. Readers see through such deceit. And be sure to get permission and a signed release from those providing testimonials.

Is the mailing memorable? Just another letter in another dull envelope won't do. Make it fun and interesting. If the reader remembers the mailing, your company will be remembered, too. The chances of a positive response increase.

Is the mailing different? One mailing arrived in a box containing inexpensive binoculars with a card that read: ``Take a closer look at our special offer.''

How many times have you used you? The magic word in direct mail is ``you.'' Talk to the customer and talk about the customer. Avoid the temptation to boast about your company, products or service. Talk directly to the reader about what the reader wants to hear. It's what the customer wants that's important in a direct mail presentation, not what you want to say or sell.

Are the sentences short? Use short, punchy sentences. Keep them simple and clear. Anything complicated only confuses the reader. Sentences can have one or two words. Remember, be direct.

How long is your message? Keeping a letter to one page is acceptable if that's what it takes to tell the story. But don't be afraid of long letters-three, four or five pages-if they're interesting and compelling.

What action do you want the reader to take? Most direct mail fails at this crucial point. Do you want the reader to buy, call, make an appointment or welcome a salesperson? Have a very clear picture of the action step and build the mailing around this objective.

What's your offer? The goal of a mailing is gaining a response. There must be a meaningful offer to move the customer to action. Here are words that stimulate an immediate response: free, limited offer, respond by this date to receive discount. Without an offer, there is no urgency for the customer to act.

Have you included a guarantee? Customers are cautious today and want guarantees. Mostly, they want to feel that you stand behind what you sell. What the customer is looking for is total satisfaction. If it's a product, offer a money-back guarantee.

Are you talking with the reader? Direct mail fails because the language is stilted, cold and impersonal-it pushes the reader away (from you). Be warm, conversational and friendly. ``Talk'' your direct mail.

Are you still using labels? The laser printer has made address labels obsolete even though they continue to be used on regular business envelopes. Direct imprinting is the standard for everything-including newsletters.

Are you going first-class? Postage, that is. There are situations when bulk-rate is acceptable. At the same time, first-class postage (and ``overnight'' on certain occasions) creates the impression that the mailing was directed to the recipient-personally. Whenever possible, go first-class. And with presort software, the cost of mailing first-class is cost-effective.

Are you getting inside the reader's head? Does the mailing really focus on and deal with what the customer wants to accomplish or does it dwell on what you want the customer to buy? The only way to keep the reader's interest is to make sure you fully understand the reader's needs.

Do you test your direct mail? Before rolling out a mailing of 5,000 or 50,000, try 1,000 to 5,000 to determine the response. Better yet, try two or three approaches at one time and make comparisons. Vary the message, the offer, the graphics and so forth.

Are you repetitious? You should be! The key to direct-mail success is repetition. The goal of direct mail is to catch readers when they are ready. If you're there, you get the business.

Are you targeting your mailings? Avoid the broad-brush approach at all cost. It's not necessary and it wastes money. Tailor your message to smaller and smaller segments. It's the best way to convince readers that you understand their specific needs and what is important to them.

Is it easy for the reader to respond? Offer the reader a selection of ways to respond. An inexpensive, toll-free number lets customers act quickly-when buyers are ready. Ask the customer to come in and see you.

Did you enclose a response form? It may be a postage-paid Business Reply Mail card or envelope (don't even think about having the customer pay the postage) or fax-back form (if you are mailing to businesses).

Make it easy for the customer to respond by imprinting names and addresses on your response card. If you are using a fax-back form, either place it at the bottom of the letter or use a separate form that is imprinted with the customer's name and address.

Have you given the customer a coupon? An interesting, value-creating coupon will help make your offer tangible-it's something readers can hold in their hands. Use a coupon to give customers dollar-amount discounts. Avoid 15 percent off because customers can't measure the offer.

Also, create urgency by indicating an expiration date. Numbering coupons can create additional value.

Have you ended with a P.S.? Believe it or not, the P.S. is often the first part of a letter that's read. It's the reader's way of cutting to the chase. Use the P.S. to restate your offer-``Act before Feb. 20 and receive a free....''

Use these questions to review your present direct-mail programs and to make response-building improvements for future mailings.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass.

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