Successful direct mail doesnt depend on fancy, four-color design or creative copy.
by Robert W. Bly
Mistake No. 1: Ignoring the most important factor in direct mail success.
Do you know what the most important part of your direct mail campaign is? Its not the copy. Its not the art work. Its not even the format or when you mail. It is the mailing list.
A great mailing package, with superior copy and scintillating design, might pull double the response of a poorly conceived mailing. But the best list can pull a response 10 times more than the worst list for the identical mailing piece.
The most common direct-mail mistake is not spending enough time and effort up-front, when you selectand then testthe right lists.
Remember: In direct marketing, a mailing list is not just a way of reaching your market. It is the market.
The best list available to you is your house lista list of customers and prospects who previously bought from you or responded to your ads, public relations campaign, or other mailings. Typically, your house list will pull double the response of an outside list. Yet, only 50% of business marketers Ive surveyed capture and use customer and prospect names for mailing purposes.
When renting outside lists, get your ad agency or list broker involved in the early stages. The mailing piece should not be written and designed until after the right lists have been identified and selected.
Mistake No. 2: Not testing.
Big consumer mailers test all the time. Publishers Clearinghouse tests just about everything...even (I hear) the slant of the indicia on the outer envelope.
Business-to-business marketers, on the other hand, seldom track response or test one mailing piece or list against another.
As a result, they repeat their failures and have no idea of what works in direct mailand what doesnt. A mistake. In direct mail, you should not assume you know what will work. You should test to find out.
For example, copywriter Milt Pierce wrote a subscription package for Good Housekeeping magazine. His mailing became the control package for 25 years. That is, no package tested against it brought back as many subscriptions.
The envelope teaser and theme of that successful mailing was 32 Ways to Save Time and Money. Yet, Mr. Pierce says that when he applied the same theme to subscription mailings for other magazinesScience Digest, Popular Mechanics, House Beautifulit failed miserably.
There are no answers in direct mail except test answers, says Eugene Schwartz, author of the book, Break-through Advertising. You dont know whether something will work until you test it. And you cannot predict test results based on past experience.
Mistake No. 3: Not using a letter in your mailing package.
The sales letternot the outer envelope, the brochure, or even the reply formis the most important part of your direct-mail package.
A package with a letter will nearly always outpull a postcard, a self-mailer, or a brochure or ad reprint mailed without a letter.
Recently, a company tested two packages offering, for $1, a copy of its mail-order tool catalog. Package A consisted of a sales letter and reply form. Package B was a double post-card. The result? A out pulled B by a 3-to-1 ratio.
Why do letters pull so well? Because a letter creates the illusion of personal communication. We are trained to view letters as real mail, brochures as advertising. Which is more important to you?
One recommendation I often give clients is to try an old-fashioned sales letter first. Go to a fancier package once you start making some money.
Mistake No. 4: Features vs. Benefits.
Perhaps the oldest and most widely embraced rule for writing direct-mail copy is, Stress benefits, not features. But in business-to-business marketing, that doesnt always hold true.
In certain situations, features must be given equal (if not top) billing over benefits.
For example, if youve ever advertised semiconductors, you know that design engineers are hungry for specs. They want hard data on drain-source, voltage, power dissipation, input capacitance, and rise-and-fall time...not broad advertising claims about how the product helps save time and money or improves performance.
Ive tested many mailings selling engineering components and products to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), says Don Jay Smith, president of the Chatham, NJ-based ad agency The Wordsmith. Ive found that features and specs outpull benefits almost every time.
Vivian Sudhalter, Director of Marketing for New York-based Macmillan Software Co., agrees.
Despite what tradition tells you, says Ms. Sudhalter, the engineering and scientific marketplace does not respond to promiseor benefitoriented copy. They respond to features. Your copy must tell them exactly what they are getting and what your product can do. Scientists and engineers are put off by copy that sounds like advertising jargon.
In the same way, I suspect that doctors are swayed more by hard medical data than by advertising claims, and that industrial chemists are eager to learn about complex formulations that the average advertising writer might reject as too technical.
In short, the copywriters real challenge is to find out what the customer wants to know about your productand then tell him in your mailing.
Mistake No. 5: Not having an offer.
An offer is what the reader gets when he responds to your mailing.
To be successful, a direct-mail package should sell the offer, not the product itself. For example, if I mail a letter describing a new mainframe computer, my letter is not going to do the whole job of convincing people to buy my computer. But the letter is capable of swaying some people to at least show interest by requesting a free brochure about the computer.
Make sure you have a well-thought-out offer in every mailing. If you think the offer and the way you describe it are unimportant, you are wrong.
A free-lance copywriter friend of mine ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal that offered a free portfolio of article reprints about direct mail. He received dozens of replies. Then he ran an identical ad, but charged $3 for the portfolio instead of giving it away. Number of responses that time? Only three.
Here are some effective offers for industrial direct mail: free brochure, free technical information, free analysis, free consultation, free demonstration, free trial use, free product sample, free catalog.
Your copy should state the offer in such a way as to increase the readers desire to send for whatever it is you offer. For example, a catalog becomes a product guide. A collection of brochures becomes a free information kit. A checklist becomes a convention planners guide. An article reprinted in pamphlet form becomes our new, informative bookletHow to Prevent Computer Failures.
From now on, design your fulfillment literature with titles and information that will make them work well as offers in direct mail. When one of my clients decided to publish a catalog listing US software programs available for export overseas, I persuaded her to call the book The International Directory of U.S. Software, because I thought people would think such a directory was more valuable than a mere product catalog.
Mistake No. 6: Superficial copy.
Nothing kills the selling power of a business-to-business mailing faster than lack of content.
The equivalent in industrial literature is what I call the art directors brochure. Youve seen them: showcase pieces destined to win awards for graphic excellence. Brochures so gorgeous that everybody falls in love with themuntil they wake up and realize that people send for information, not pretty pictures. Which is why typewritten, unillustrated sales brochures can often pull double the response of expensive, four-color work.
In the same way, direct mail is not meant to be pretty. Its goal is not to be remembered or create an image or make an impact, but to generate a response now.
One of the quickest ways to kill that response is to be superficial. To talk in vague generalities, rather than specifics. To ramble without authority on a subject, rather than show customers that you understand their problems, their industries, and their needs.
What causes superficial copy? The fault lays with lazy copywriters who dont bother to do their homework (or ignorant copywriters who dont know any better).
To write strong copyspecific, factual copyyou must dig for facts. You must study the product, the prospect, and the marketing problem. There is no way around this. Without facts, you cannot write good copy. But with the facts at their fingertips, even mediocre copywriters can do a decent job.
Don Hauptman, author of the famous mail-order ad, Speak Spanish Like a Diplomat!, says that when he writes a direct-mail package, more than 50% of the work involved is in the reading, research, and preparation. Less than half his time is spent writing, rewriting, editing, and revising.
Recently a client hired me to write an ad on a software package. After reading the background material and typing it into my word processor, I had 19 single-spaced pages of notes.
How much research is enough? Follow Blys Rule, which says you should collect at least twice as much information as you needpreferably three times as much. Then you have the luxury of selecting only the best facts, instead of trying desperately to find enough information to fill up the page.
Mistake No. 7: Saving the best for last.
Some copywriters save their strongest sales pitch for last, starting slow in their sales letters and hoping to build to a climactic conclusion.
A mistake. Leo Bott, Jr., a Chicago-based mail-order writer, says that the typical prospect reads for five seconds before he decides whether to continue reading or throw your mailing in the trash. The letter must grab his attention immediately. So start your letter with your strongest sales point.
Some examples of powerful openings:
Some time-tested opening gambits for sales letters include:
Know the hot spots of your direct mail packagethe places that get the most readership. Those include: the first paragraphs of the letter, its subheads, its last paragraph and the post-script (80% of readers look at the PS); the brochure cover, its subheads and the headline of its inside spread; picture captions; and the headline and copy on the order form or reply card. Put your strongest selling copy in those spots.
Mistake No. 8: Poor follow-up.
Recently a company phoned to ask whether I was interested in buying its product, which was promoted in a mailing Id answered. The caller became indignant when I confessed that I didnt remember the companys copy, its product, its mailing, or whether it sent me a brochure.
When did I request the brochure? I asked. The caller checked her records. About 14 weeks ago, she replied.
Hot leads rapidly turn ice cold when not followed up quickly. Slow fulfillment, poor marketing literature, and inept telemarketing can destroy the initial interest that you worked so hard to build.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself about your current inquiry fulfillment procedures:
Dont put 100% of your time and effort into lead-generating mailing and 0% into the follow-up, as so many mailers do. You have to keep selling, every step of the way.
Mistake No. 9: The magic words.
This mistake is not using the magic words that can dramatically increase the response to your mailing.
General advertisers, operating under the mistaken notion that the mission of the copywriter is to be creative, avoid the magic words of direct mail, because they think those magic phrases are cliches.
But just because a word or phrase is used frequently doesnt mean that it has lost its power to achieve your communications objective. In conversation, for example, please and thank you never go out of style.
What are the magic words of direct mail?
Free. Say free brochure. Not brochure. Say free consultation. Not initial consultation. Say free gift. Not gift.
If the English teacher in you objects that free gift is redundant, let me tell you a story. A mail-order firm tested two packages. The only difference was that package A offered a gift while package B offered a free gift.
The result? You guessed it. The free gift order in package B significantly out pulled package A. Whats more, many people who received package A wrote in and asked whether the gift was free!
No Obligation. Important when you are offering anything free. If prospects arent obligated to use your firms wastewater treatment services after you analyze their water sample for free, say so. People want to be reassured that there are no strings attached.
No salesperson will call. If true, a fantastic phrase that can increase response by 10% or more. Most people, including genuine prospects, hate being called by salespeople over the phone. Warning: Dont say no salesperson will call if you do plan to follow up by phone. People wont buy from liars.
Details inside/See inside. One of those should follow any teaser copy on the outer envelope. You need a phrase that directs the reader to the inside.
Limited time only. People who put your mailing aside for later reading or file it will probably never respond. The trick is to generate a response now. One way to do it is with a time-limited offer, either generic (This offer is for a limited time only.), or specific (This offer expires 9/20/01.). Try it!
Announcing/At last. People like to think they are getting in on the ground floor of a new thing. Making your mailing an announcement increases its attention-getting powers.
New. New is sheer magic in consumer mailings. But its a double-edged sword in industrial mailings. On the one hand, business and technical buyers want something new. On the other hand, they demand products with proven performance.
The solution? Explain that your product is new or available to them for the first time, but proven elsewhereeither in another country, another application, or another industry. For example, when we introduced a diagnostic display system, we advertised it as new to U.S. hospitals but explained it had been used successfully for five years in leading hospitals throughout Europe.
Mistake No. 10: Starting with the productnot the prospect.
In my New York University copywriting workshop, I teach students to avoid manufacturers copycopy that is vendor-oriented, that stresses who we are, what we do, our corporate philosophy and history, and the objectives of our firm.
You and your products are not important to the prospect. The reader opening your sales letter only wants to know, Whats in it for me? How will I come out ahead by doing business with you vs. someone else?
Successful direct mail focuses on the prospect, not the product. The most useful background research you can do is to ask your typical prospect, Whats the biggest problem you have right now? The sales letter should talk about that problem, then promise a solution.
Do not guess what is going on in industries about which you have limited knowledge. Instead, talk to customers and prospects to find out their needs. Read the same publications and attend the same seminars they do. Try to learn their problems and concerns.
Too many companies and ad agencies dont do that. Too many copywriters operate in a black box, and doom themselves merely to recycling data already found in existing brochures.
For example, lets say you have the assignment of writing a direct-mail package selling weed control chemicals to farmers. Do you know what farmers look for in weed control, or why they choose one supplier over another? Unless you are a farmer, you probably dont. Wouldnt it help to speak to some farmers and learn more about their situation?
Read, talk, and listen to find out whats going on with your customers.
In his book Or Your Money Back, Alvin Eicoff, one of the deans of latenight television commercials, tells the story of a radio commercial he wrote selling rat poison. It worked well in the consumer market. But when it was aimed at the farm market, sales turned up zero.
Mr. Eicoff drove out to the country to talk with farmers. His finding? Farmers didnt order because they were embarrassed about having a rat problem, and feared their neighbors would learn about it when the poison was delivered by mail.
He added a single sentence to the radio script, which said that the rat poison was mailed in a plain brown wrapper. After that, sales soared.
Talk to your customers. Good direct mailor any ad copyshould tell them what they want to hear. Not what you think is important.
Mistake No. 11: Failing to appeal to all five senses.
Unlike an ad, which is two-dimensional, direct mail is three-dimensional and can appeal to all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Yet most users of direct mail fail to take advantage of the mediums added dimension.
Dont plan a mailing without at least thinking about whether you can make it more powerful by adding a solid object, fragrance or even a sound. You ultimately may reject such enhancements because of time and budget constraints. But here are some ideas you might consider:
Audiocassettes. In selling summaries of business books recorded on cassette, Macmillan Software Co. sent an audiocassette in a cold mailing to prospects. The cassette allows the prospect to sample the books-on-tape program. I would have said, Too expensive. But inside information, and the fact that I got the package twice, tell me its working for them.
Do you have a powerful message that a company spokesperson can deliver in dynamic fashion to your audience? Consider adding a cassette to your package.
Videocassettes. Some companies are taking the idea one step further and mailing videocassettes cold to prospects. Again, thats expensivebut successful in many instances. One company I spoke to got a 30% response to such a program. And in telephone follow-up, they learned that 95% watched the tape.
Pop-ups. Chris Crowell, president of Essex, Conn.-based Structural Graphics Inc., says pop-ups can increase response up to 40% when compared with a conventional flat mailing. You can have a pop-up custom designed for your mailing or choose from one of many stock designs available.
Money. Market research firms have discovered that enclosing a dollar bill with a market research survey can increase response by a factor of five or more, even though $1 is surely of no consequence to business executives or most consumers. Has anyone tried using money to get attention in a lead-getting industrial mailing?
Sound. Have you seen the greeting cards that play a song when you open them because of an implanted chip or some similar device? I think that certainly would get attention. But as far as I know, no one has used it yet in direct mail.
Product samples. Dont neglect this old standard. Enclose a product or material sample in your next mailing. We once did a mailing in which we enclosed a small sample of knitted wire mesh used in pollution control and product recovery. Engineers who received the mailing kept that bit of wire on their desks for months.
Premiums. An inexpensive gift such as a slide guide, measuring tape, ruler, or thermometer can still work well.
One recommendation and warning: A lot of us, including me, need to be a little more imaginative if we want our mailing package to stand out in the prospects crowded mailbox. At the same time, we must remember that creativity can enhance a strong selling message or idea but cannot substitute for it. As copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis, president of Communicomp in Plantation, Fla., warns, Cleverness for the sake of cleverness may well be a liability, not an asset.
Mistake No. 12: Creating and reviewing direct mail by committee.
Do you know what a moose is? Its a cow designed by a committee.
Perhaps the biggest problem I see today is direct mail being reviewed by committees made up of people who have no idea (a) what direct mail is; (b) how it works; or (c) what it can and cannot do.
For example, an ad agency creative director told me how his client cut a three-page sales letter to a single page because, as the client insisted, Business people dont read long letters.
Unfortunately, thats an assumption based on the clients own personal prejudices and reading habits. It is not a fact. In many business-to-business direct mail tests, I have seen long letters outpull short ones sometimes dramatically.
Why pay experts to create mailings based on long years of trial-and-error experience, then deprive yourself of that knowledge base by letting personal opinions get in the way?
Here are some things you can do to become a better direct-mail client:
Because nobody can argue with results.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.
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