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Summer 2003 Postcard Power!

Here’s a quiz: You want to invite your best customers to a customer-appreciation event. How do you get the message out?

A display ad’s not the answer: It addresses too broad an audience. And email is big now, it’s free, and many retailers are using it with good results. But if you’re not set up with your customers’ email addresses—and their OK to use them—that won’t work. All right, how about something in between, tried and true, targeted—and cost-effective? How about good old postcards? Postcards mailed to your best customers, say your top 20 percent ranked by total purchases over the past year?

Great idea! Postcards should be part of your advertising arsenal for this reason: They reach targeted audiences more effectively—and less expensively—than flyers or lengthy sales letters. “Postcards are especially effective when your sales are flat or falling and you need a way to perk things up,” says Sarah White, a consultant at Third Wave Research, a marketing firm (Madison, WI). Postcards also reinforce the message you’re communicating through other media such as display ads or websites. They create an “echo effect” that resonates in the customer’s mind.

Okay, then. You want to mail postcards. But how do you do it so that they look good, get read, and pull customers in? Try these tips from marketing pros:

Keep it simple. “Postcards are perfect if you have a fairly simple message to convey,” says David Ehrlich, president of Track Marketing Group (Alexandria, VA). Bear in mind that you have room for only a short headline and perhaps 100 words of text. That’s enough to throw a spotlight on a simple theme—but no more. Simple messages include:

  • Save money! Act now!
  • Come to our evening party! [or seminar, workshop, preview, etc.]
  • Come see our new merchandise!
  • Just in! [describe new merchandise]
  • New extended hours.
  • Special offer just for our loyal customers.
  • Bring this card to enter our free drawing.

While a simple message is vital, it’s also true that postcards can be part of a larger effort to communicate more complex information. “Many times, the postcard will be the first step in a sales process,” says Ehrlich. “Don’t try to complete the sale with just the card.” Instead, invite the recipient to call or come in for more information.

Tip: To see if your message is simple enough, ask a friend to look at your card for just 10 seconds and then tell you what the sales statement is.

Make it compelling. Your message has to be simple, but it must also be a show-stopper. It has to have an attention-getting element, says Burton M. Nudelman, president of Nudelman & Associates, a retail management consultancy (Portland, OR). “It could be a photo, a headline, or some strong wording in the title,” he says. “But without one, you’re wasting your time.” Half your recipients won’t look at the postcard at all, he says, but you still need to concern yourself with the 50 percent who do. “Your message needs to hit them on the head.” Compelling messages include:

  • Save money.
  • Get more out of life.
  • Service from an experienced staff.
  • Benefits of being a loyal customer.
  • Act now! This offer ends on [date.]

As in the last example, deadlines can further prompt action. Phrases such as “This Week Only” encourage the recipient to bring in the card right away, rather than stick it on the refrigerator for “later.”

Use words in the headline that catch the eye and lead to your compelling message. Powerful words and phrases include “Free,” “New,” “Don’t Wait,” “For Loyal Customers Only,” “This Week Only” and “Private Sale.”

Time your mailings. Your postcards will be more effective if you time the mailing for maximum impact and reinforce a larger marketing effort that’s already underway. “Look at your calendar and decide which promotions you want to reinforce with a postcard,” says Sara Johnson-Bewley, owner of Hill Shepherd Design (Killbuck, OH). “Then plan six weeks back from that time to get the postcard designed and into the mail.” Holidays, of course, are another way to take advantage of strategic timing, as is a change of season.

Call for action. You want the customer to do something, or you wouldn’t be mailing the postcard. “Every postcard should contain a call to action,” says Ehrlich. “What do you want the recipients to do? Don’t be subtle about the next step.” So make sure you state that action step in a simple sentence, and make it your postcard copy tag line. Here are examples of actions you want the customer to take:

  • Come to your location.
  • Fill out a survey.
  • Send an email.
  • Make a phone call.
  • Play a game.
  • Bring a friend.

Tip: Create a coupon to convey a simple, compelling message, and call the customer to action at the same time. “Postcards make great coupons,” says Ehrlich. “They promote action and bring customers into your store to buy.”

Spruce it up. Your recipients get lots of mail, so make your postcard stand out by using great graphics. “Your card needs to be attractive, physically and emotionally,” says Ehrlich. “You need something that grabs the recipients, or they’ll throw it out.” One great eye-grabber is full color. “Color almost always outperforms black and white,” he says. “That’s not to say that black and white won’t work, but it has to be very well done to grab attention.”

Good pictures help, too. You might have a beautiful image on one side of the card plus a strong headline that ties into the sales message on the other side. Keep in mind that many people look at the address side of the card first. So you need an eye-catching graphic there—perhaps a black-and-white cartoon that reinforces the message and somehow echoes the color graphic on the other side. And always include your logo.

Finally, use the largest card you can (within postal guidelines). While the post office sells cards measuring 3 1/2 x 5 1/2, you can mail 4×6 cards at the same rate. “A bigger card will give your mailing more impact,” says White.

Tip: Don’t overlook the color photos available from most printers. Good stock photos can add professionalism as well as interest to your postcard, and may not be as costly as you might think, even for short-run mailings.

Mail to the right people. The best message won’t “pull”—bring in customers and generate sales—if you mail to the wrong people. “Using the right [mailing] list is critical to response,” says Ehrlich. Since postcards are great for getting more business from current customers, most advertising experts advise using your “house list” first. How do you create a house list? By asking every customer (whether they bought or not) to sign a guest book or fill out a slip giving you their name, address and, as options, phone number and email address.

You can go even further with that information, if you want, by building a detailed database of your customers purchases and wants. With that information, you can tailor your mailings to them. “We’re seeing more retailers move toward personalization of their mailings,” says White. “Each piece comes out customized with slightly different messages and pictures, depending on what customers have purchased in the past.” While customizing has long been prohibitively expensive, today’s low-cost computer printers mean you can customize your mailings even for short runs.

Or you can rent lists by zip code and/or demographic details. For example, you can send regular mailings to everyone who lives within a mile or two of your location. Basic lists are often available from the local chamber of commerce, newspaper, or other organizations. Or you can contact a list broker (check the phone book) and order lists by one or many criteria (known as “selects”) such as age, gender, income, family status, and more. Note: Lists rented from list brokers are for one-time use only.

Tip: As you experiment with different lists, track your results by “coding” the postcard above the address. When customers bring the cards back to your store, you can note which list they were on.

Mail regularly, and be consistent. Mail on a regular basis, especially to your house list, to keep motivating your customers and telling them what’s new. If you make each message compelling, they’ll learn to pay attention and even look forward to your cards. It often takes more than six times to get through to someone, says Ehrlich, so mail on a regular basis. If you don’t want to go to the trouble or expense of creating and printing a new card for each mailing, one option is to send the identical card several times, perhaps a month apart. Of course, this works only if the message and action step are fairly “generic,” something like “New shipment! Bring this card for 10% off!”

And be consistent—it pays. Create an “echo effect” by using the same colors, types of pictures, and types of message time after time. “Once you develop a winning look and feel, stick with it,” says Ehrlich.

Act now!

“A well-designed and targeted postcard promotion can zoom right into your target [customer's] life and propel them to take action,” says Ehrlich. By using these tips, you can put together a winning campaign that brings customers in, encourages their loyalty, and generates sales. That’s postcard power.

Linda Saracino

Saracino has been a freelance writer and editor for 18+ years.

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