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Fall 2000 Direct Mail: Avoiding Seven Deadly Mistakes

Direct mail, even budget-conscious efforts, can net impressive increases in sales when they’re done right. But advertising consultants say that retailers make common mistakes in their direct-mail promotions. And these mistakes render the marketing effort costly and ultimately worthless. Here’s a look at the seven most common—and costly—mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

1. An impersonal sales pitch

Retailers insert their usual store brochures into envelopes, send them “scattershot” to everyone, stuff the mail boxes and hope for the best. Here’s why that doesn’t work: Of all advertising media, only direct mail can create an intimate communication with the customer. Successful advertisers take advantage of direct mail as the best way to cement ongoing relationships.

“Make your mailing piece as personal as you can,” says Brad Lehrer, president of Brad Lehrer Designs (Bronxville, NY) and winner of the 1995 American Graphic Design Award. “Relate as much as you can with the interests of the recipients. From a design perspective, Lehrer says, “the idea is to avoid having your mailing look like a direct-mail piece. Make it look like a one-to-one communication.” In other words, make it look personal.

How? First, don’t use boring white mailing labels. “Print addresses right on the envelope,” says Lehrer. “Better yet, use handwritten calligraphy if your mailing announces some special store event.” He says, “When people see that their address was generated by a computer ‘mail-merge’ program, they drop your mailing right into the garbage.”

Also avoid the common white “business” envelope. “Stay away from the usual white envelope, unless you have a graphic that explodes from the paper and attracts the eye,” says Joe Shansky, president of Shansky Works, a direct-mail design firm in Barrington, RI. Pick an attractive, off-white paper to stimulate interest. Shansky also suggests using an envelope that’s a size different from the standard business variety, as long as it conforms to Post Office regulations. The variant size helps your mailing stand out from the crowd.

Even better is to use something out of the ordinary. “Try mailing tubes,” Shansky says. “They’re so different that they create curiosity. They make people want to open them.” Cassette-tape mailers serve the same purpose, Shansky says. People are intrigued by the prospect of listening to what you have to say.

Personalizing your mailing continues to the last minute. Thinking of slapping on postage in the form of bulk-mail stamps or boring indicia to save money? Here’s why that won’t work: Bulk-mail postage in any form screams “junk” mail. “Use real postage stamps,” says Jeff Berner, director of Jeff Berner Creations, an advertising agency in Dillon Beach, CA. “Tests show they increase response. Because so much direct mail is automatically considered junk, real postage stamps make a favorable impression.” It’s not only more attractive, but it makes the mailing look much more like a true “personal” letter, which people do open.

All this personalization pays rich dividends. “People remember your personalized mailing,” says Robert Imbriale, president of Classique, an advertising firm in Commack, NY. “Next time they decide to shop, they think of your store.”

Bonus tip: Imprint a message like “A special offer for our regular customers” on the front of the envelope to emphasize the personalized, exclusive nature of the offer. (But check Post Office rules for where not to place it.)

2. An unfocused message

“We’re here, and this is what we sell.” That’s a typical impersonal message, and it gets an unfortunate response: right into the trash bin. Worse, your recipients are irritated at having their mailboxes cluttered with general sales flyers they could have picked up anytime at your store. And they’re annoyed with even having to look at it to see that they don’t want it. Instead, make them want to read your message.

How? Always give recipients a reward for opening your mail. That reward should be a focused message—an solid, attractive offer—with a real benefit for the customer. “You need a clearly defined offer if your mailing is to draw customers,” says Imbriale. Here are some ways to focus your message:

  • Introduce a new department, item or service.
  • Announce a special event—a reception for your best customers, or a special sale on certain popular items.
  • Enclose a coupon for a discount (preferably a dollar amount off rather than a percent off) good for the next 30 days.

Announcements like these generate a lot of attention, says Imbriale. They add spice to your direct mail recipe and motivate customers to act.

Bonus tip: Focus your message further by restating your offer in bold type at the top of your sales flyer.

3. Open-ended offer

“You can increase your direct mail success tremendously by adding a sense of urgency to every mailing,” says Ivan Levison, an advertising consultant in Greenbrae, CA. How? Put a deadline on the offer, like these:

  • Hurry! This sale ends on (date).
  • Respond by (date) and receive a gift worth —free!
  • The first 50 customers receive a (name of gift)!

Without this sense of urgency, recipients are likely to park your mailing on a shelf, where it stays forgotten and eventually gets tossed. But with a deadline, they know they have to keep it handy and take action, or lose their advantage.

Bonus tip: “Print the deadline on the face of the envelope,” says Levison. “This is one way to get recipients to open the mailing and read what’s inside.”

4. Insufficient information

Just what is it about your offer that’s so great? Fortunately, direct mail gives you room to describe it in detail. Other advertising media—radio, newspapers, television—limit your time and space to a headline and a few descriptive words. “With direct mail, you can go into detail, really selling and building rapport, and getting your message told completely,” says Rebecca Dominguez, director of strategic services at Sparks Direct Marketing (Seattle). How? Give details.

  • Describe the benefits of the merchandise or service you’re advertising.
  • Give the reason you’re making this offer now instead of six months ago.
  • Include customer testimonials—comments from other customers about your offerings. (Indulge! Newspaper ads and coupons just don’t have space for these gems.)
  • Upsell: show how the customer benefits from other merchandise or services that build on your specific offer. (Radio and TV spots don’t give you time for upselling.)

Bonus tip: This is a good time to remind old customers of new offerings. “Even your regular customers don’t realize you sell other things and have other services,” says Dominguez.

5. Omitting a sales letter

“Always send a sales letter,” says Imbriale. “It’s the part of the package that gets the response.” Recipients usually read the sales letter first, so it’s vitally important that the letter states the benefit up front—and on top.

How? Put a headline at the top of the sales letter, stating the benefit. “Some businesses don’t like headlines,” says Steve Veltkamp, president of Biz (Port Angeles, WA). “But 80 percent of the power of the sales letter is in the headline. It should state a benefit, or a solution to a problem that the recipients have,” he says.

Bonus tip: No room for a sales letter in your self-mailer? Put a brief “Note from the Manager” on an upper corner of the flyer.

6. Broad, untargeted audience

“Your direct mail package has to be targeted,” says Imbriale. You have to aim a specific message at a clearly drawn target. “Trying to speak to the whole world”—and convince them to buy from you—just won’t work.

The mass media aren’t good for this approach. Newspapers, radio and television can be great for advertising to broad market segments. But you would be wasting money if you use these media to target your ad to a specific group. Direct mail, on the other hand, has the unique ability to zero in on specific, narrowly defined customer groups.

Whom do you target first? Your customers. By far, your best prospects for new sales are the people who have already bought from you. “Start a list of your current customers,” says Dominguez. “In-house lists are gold mines. We are constantly amazed at the number of companies who overlook this.”

You can expand beyond your current in-house list, if you wish, by purchasing names from a direct-mail brokerage. “One of direct mail’s major advantages is the way it can target with laser-like precision,” says Dominguez. “Suppose your store gets customers from a five- to 10-mile radius. It’s a waste of money to advertise beyond those parameters.” But choose a list carefully to avoid wasting money. It’s easy to end up with names outside the neighborhoods, zip codes or other criteria you’ve targeted.

You can choose among other demographic data for targeting your mailing. “You can also zero in on specific incomes, married people, single people, or people with children. Mailing-list brokers will help you select the best list,” says Dominguez.

Bonus tip: Invite your regular customers to “bring a friend” for a free gift when they visit your cart or store. It’s a great way to acquire new customers—and to add new names to your in-house list.

7. Infrequent mailings

“Out of sight, out of mind.” A single direct mail piece is soon forgotten—assuming it registers in the recipient’s consciousness in the first place. Mail frequently to regular customers to keep them coming back. If you wait too long between mailings, you lose momentum: customers forget about you and move on to other stores. “Your competitor might send something in the meantime.” Part of your success, he says, is being the one who is there with the right offer at the right time. In short, direct mail success comes from planned repetition.

How? The secret is to maintain a regular schedule of mailings. Some consultants advise mailing to regular customers every six weeks. “We see companies attempting one-shot advertising all the time,” says James Yates, president of Sparks. “They mail once to their target market, sit back, and wait for the money to pour in.”

This is based on the belief that anybody who is interested will respond immediately. That simply isn’t true. “Any salesman will tell you that,” says Yates. “The same goes for direct mail… Most companies can afford to use direct mail to efficiently uncover serious prospects.”

Regular mailings aren’t necessarily expensive. “Simple postcards and self-mailers will do,” Veltkamp says—they’re “great media” for keeping current customers happy by telling them about special sales and events.

Bonus tip: Your regular mailings won’t irritate customers if each message includes a valuable new offer.

Sometimes knowing what not to do can put you ahead of the game. Target your direct mail, avoid the seven mistakes, and see just how profitable this tried-and-true marketing tool can be.


Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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