Spring 2006

Unlike mass advertising, which creates awareness and casts
a wide net, direct mail gives you pinpoint targeting ability and
(if your campaign is effective) generates
an immediate, tangible reaction on the part
of the recipient.

8 Steps to a Successful Direct-Mail Campaign

Direct mail, for those of you without mailboxes, is unsolicited advertising or promotional material sent to an individual through the mail. Unlike mass advertising, which creates awareness and casts a wide net, direct mail gives you pinpoint targeting ability and (if your campaign is effective) generates an immediate, tangible reaction on the part of the recipient—complete and mail a reply card, call an 800 number, visit a website, or (better yet) buy the product or service the mailing describes.

The use of direct mail gives you the opportunity to deliver a powerful, personal message to your customers and prospects. What's more, its success is measurable. A stack of reply cards or a pile of credit-card orders are proof of a successful mailing.

So, what makes a mailing work? Ask a variety of direct-mail experts and you'll get a variety of answers. In general, however, a successful direct-mail campaign follows these eight basic steps.

1. The Strategy
Your direct-mail package should not be written or designed until a strategy has been determined. What makes a strategy effective? Agreement on a clearly defined audience (your mailing list), the objective of your campaign (to find new customers? win back old customers? update existing customers on a new product or sevice?), an understanding of your product or service, a knowledge of the marketplace (what your targeted audience needs and wants), your key message, your offer, your call to action, and your follow-up process.

2. The List
Lists, quite simply, make or break a direct-mail campaign. According to NetReal.com, "The best offer in the world—if not targeted to the right audience—will fail." The most common mistake is to spend too little time and effort upfront when selecting—and testing—lists.

There are three major categories of lists: compiled lists, which are gathered from directories, phone books, credit files, and other sources; direct response lists, which are made up of individuals who have responded to direct mail in the past; and in-house lists, which are the names of customers your company has already done business with.

For best results, find lists that include people who recently bought something similar to your product or service, and in your price range. Be sure to test a number of mailing lists on a small scale. Once you've found an effective list, you can then roll out your full direct-mail campaign.

3. The Creative
Employ a concept that convinces your prospect to open the envelope, read the contents of your package, and take action.

Use teasers, headlines, and visuals. Use benefit-driven copy and kick the letter off with a powerful, compelling sentence or short paragraph. For consumer mailings, your approach can be as colorful or promotional as you like, as long as it's suitable for your audience. When writing to professionals, high-level executives, or the wealthy, however, conventional wisdom dictates a more subdued approach.

4. The Offer
An offer is your special deal, or what the reader gets when he responds to your mailing. NetReal.com reports that "the second most influential factor in determining the success of a direct-mail campaign is the offer." Successful direct-mail packages sell the offer, not the product or service.

Make your offer hard to resist, free of risk, and
—if possible—free of charge. Offers should tie into the product or service you provide, as well as the theme of your direct-mail piece. Mention your offer both early and often. And put a time limit on your offer, when possible, to get the reader to take immediate action.

5. Features vs. Benefits
One of the rules of direct marketing is to "stress benefits, not features." That is, instead of describing the merits of your product or service, tell the reader how your product or service will benefit him.

But in B2B marketing, features often deserve equal (if not more) time. Engineering and scientific marketplaces typically don't respond to benefit-oriented copy. Therefore, an effective mailing in such a marketplace would provide specs, not broad-based advertising claims.

6. Ask for the Sale
Despite an intriguing envelope teaser, a compelling offer, and a well-written package, if you forget to ask for the sale, your entire campaign could bomb. Be sure to build in a strong call to action, which stresses the main benefits, restates the offer (and how taking advantage of this offer will benefit the reader), explains how to respond (providing as many response mechanisms—reply card, phone, email, and website—as possible), and includes any response deadlines.

7. The Follow-Up
Hot leads soon turn cold, so follow up quickly. Don't put 100% of your effort into a lead-generating campaign and 0% into the follow-up. Your follow-up process must build on the initial interest your mailing sparked.

8. Remain Visible
Once you have their attention, keep it. Mail to your list of prospects and customers often, and make sure your mailings will be of value to them.

"If your sales process involves a long lead time, it's a smart move to plan and budget for a series of mailings to the decision maker and key decision influencers," MarketingProfs.com reports. Of if your product or service is less complex, you might consider mailing the same piece
—to the same list—over and over. According to MarketingProfs.com, "If your sales letter or direct-mail package is generating an acceptable number of orders or leads, don't hesitate to mail it again and again .... The average person is exposed to well over 500 sales, marketing, and advertising messages every day." How can you be sure that your mailing even registered on their radar screens?

Furthermore, things change. Decision makers come and go, and companies that once had no use for your product or service might now need it very much.

A note of caution, however: Should you decide to use repeated mailings, make sure you don't mail too frequently. As with most aspects of direct mail, testing is the best way to determine the optimum approach.

Sources: Wilson Zehr, "When to Test Direct-Mail Pieces," NetReal.com, March 14, 2006.
Ernest Nicastro, "How to Win Over the Man in the Chair: Salesmanship, Repetition, and Direct Mail," MarketingProfs.com, March 22, 2005.
M.L. Hartman and Matthew W. Staudt, "Three Key Ingredients to Effective Direct Mail," MarketingProfs.com, January 24, 2006.

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