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Basics Prevail When It Comes to Direct Mail (Part 1)

Aug 18, 2007
Despite postal increases, paper price increases, regulations tightening for security and machineability reasons, direct mail is still the most effective way to reach a defined large scale audience, build sales and brand awareness, and move units. It is direct, it's accountable, it's relatively predictable and efficient, and it can be tested and refined to maximize results.

For those just entering the arena of marketing, and for some seasoned professionals who are stuck in a rut or have been cornered by their corporate circumstances, sometimes it's best to return to basics to boost response, for the keys to success are often there in plain sight.

The tenets set forth here are merely guidelines - there are no "rules" in direct mail, except those imposed by the postal system. Some of the greatest successes occurred because someone broke the "rules," and approached something from a different angle. Direct mail is a game of dollars and details - execution details can spell the difference between success and failure.

An increase of $200 in expense can also yield many thousands of yield dollars, if spent in the right place. But you don't need years of experience or thousands of campaigns under your belt to put together an effective basic campaign that gets results. If you stick to the basics and grow from there, you'll rarely go wrong.

1) Keep It Simple - a highly complex integrated multi-media offer may work, but there is far more that can go wrong. The more elements you integrate, the greater the chance that something will not perform up to expectation. If the chance exists for you or your vendor to get confused, think about how easily the recipient will be. Stick to a simple offer, a straightforward response device, and a good simple tracking system. Use as many "standard" components as you can, including standard-size #9 return envelopes.

For letter packages, standard size pages are very comfortable for most people, and with some careful design decisions will be the least expensive, compared to off-size, out-size of unusual shape pages. Number 10 envelopes are the most widely machineable size, but you can make them stand out in the mailbox with over prints, teaser lines, unusual colors, kraft and other mock-immediate envelopes that don't affect machinability.

With regard to sizes, be sure in the design phase that your mailing follows the "Gosinta" rule (I said there are no rules, but this is a pretty easy guideline to meet), that the response device "Goes In To" the reply envelope cleanly, without a lot of folding or manipulation - you don't want your recipients to have to be expert origami craftsmen to send you back your reply device! I don't know how many packages I've tried to reply to that the reply coupon was too long for the #9 response carrier, or just a shade too tall to let it close cleanly. Be sure the designer checks carefully. All this is an effort to keep it simple for you to produce and track, and easy to respond to for the recipient.

2) Keep Your Priorities Straight - Focus on what will provide the greatest gains, in order. First priority is the list. The most spectacular offer, with copy that is pure poetry, designed by Michelangelo won't pull if it goes to the wrong audience.

The List - Spend your time and money on getting the best list, in the cleanest form possible. A good clean list saves waste, it reduces production costs, it boosts response all by itself as a percentage of outgoing mail, and can make or break your mailing. Clean the list, standardize and update the addresses, merge/purge gang or compiled lists and get your final outgoing data in its purest form, and the battle is half won. Even the cleanest list of the wrong names won't help, so do your homework and take careful stock of your selects.

If you're using exclusively in-house lists, take your cut of the database carefully with logical query selects to target the audience most closely, based on your profile of the ideal customer. If you're using rented lists, merge/purge priorities are extremely important, and your list processor can work you through the options to get you exactly what you need. If you're using compiled lists, select excessively, until it hurts - when it doubt, throw it out. Compiled lists are the least reliable, the lowest mailability level, simply because of the nature of the process.

The Offer - The next priority is putting together a price, a process and a product that will instantly and compellingly appeal to the target audience. What that means is that when the recipients read your offer, it should seem almost too good to be true, certainly too good to ignore. Your design and copy can set this up by creating expectation for the value of your product, but the offer in black and white, the "What You Get, for What It Costs" is the kernel of your mailing, and will help crystallize all the other elements for the reader - it's the bottom line for the mailing.

The offer should be clear, concise, straightforward and logical. Copy can come from other angles and other motivators, but the offer should at least make sense and pass the "sniff" test. "A" should yield "B" in a very recognizable form, or the recipient will get confused. It should also be unequivocal - if you ask the reader to make a choice, they will - none. They should only face one choice, to buy! Make it easy to respond, and they will - if the reader has to jump through a lot of hoops to return the response device, you'll lose a great percentage of them.

That's not to say that the response device shouldn't be engaging - generations of sticker mailings and scratch-off tickets have taught readers that there's some mystery to the offer and the action engages the reader, then response will increase, for certain audiences. In an era of "To respond, visit our website," making it easy has never been more relevant.

The Copy - Tell the story you need to tell to be compelling and to engage the audience. In letter packages particularly, there are lots of accepted truths about copy, its focus, its length and other parameters, that may or may not be valid. The most valid one seems to be, "copy should be as long as you need to tell the story." That holds pretty well as long as it's used within reason.

The copy length must also be appropriate for the audience demographic - a three-page letter is unlikely to engage teens or time-starved college students, with short attention spans and MTV instant reward mentality. It might work extremely well with seniors, who have the time, attention spans and language skills to understand, appreciate and be engaged with long stories leading to a conclusion.

Copy should be persuasive, and lead the reader down the path to the purchase. That doesn't mean it can't appeal to the reader's various emotions, including greed, envy, loneliness, self-esteem, lust or others. Emotional motivators rule the day, but the format and the pathway for the reader should be logical and discernable, and keep the audience's attention long enough to get to the pot of gold at the end.

A Word About Copy - Copy should contain Benefits, not just Features. Copy that is benefit-laden puts the reader in the position you want them in - one where their problem, real or perceived thanks to you, is solved. Benefits show them how the product or service will solve the problem, through example - features leave the problem-solving to the reader's imagination - if they don't connect the dots from your feature description to the benefit to them, you lose them. Features describe the product, benefits show what the product does for them. Do for you is better. Benefit laden copy sells, and that's the object of the game.

All these guidelines (and there are many more not represented here) are intended to help you produce and mail to your intended audience successfully and profitably. The less you spend on postage, wasted list names, rejected mail, producing unnecessary components that don't boost response, the more money you can spend on mailing package that pull, building revenue and enhancing sales volume. Mail is a game of efficiency/return trade-offs - make the right decisions, and you'll get back more than you could have imagined. Get it wrong, and you're throwing money down a hole. Nobody gets raises and bonuses for that, do they?
About the Author
David Poulos, Chief Consultant at Granite Partners has been offering marketing guidance to firms for over 25 years. Specialties include non-profit marketing and full-scale strategic marketing campaigns. He can be reached at http://www.granite-part.com, or 410-472-4570.
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