Direct Mail Marketing Advice

by : David Poulos

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.

3) Get It Opened - You can have the greatest package on the inside, but if it never gets opened - no sale. Pick a format that creates intrigue, mystery, or curiosity, and your package will at least get opened. Teaser copy on the envelope is just one way to do this. Others include colored outer carriers, formats that look like invitations, formats that look like express envelopes from various well-known third-party carriers, formats that look like telegrams, repositionable notes posted on the outside, the now famous "You May Already Have Won!" stamp, and the words FREE and URGENT still have great appeal and are quite powerful if used correctly. Whatever direction you choose, it should be harmonious with the offer, the contents, and the brand of the sender company.

If you got a sweepstakes envelope from Hershey's chocolate selling a record club, you'd be a bit confused - those three components don't meet with your brand awareness of those companies - you've not heard of Hershey's having a sweepstakes, and you've never associated Hershey's with music, and you've not heard of record companies holding a sweepstakes - they don't add up, and you'd probably throw the package away in confusion. Align the format, the teaser and the action you want and good things happen.

4) TEST, TEST, TEST - the most powerful component of direct mail is that you can see if your package works before you mail it in large quantities. Testing of offers, lists, packages, teasers, colors, prices, copy, and other components of the package is the scientific weeding out of ineffective portions and replacing them with effective ones until you maximize results. Testing is performed much like a scientific experiment - a blind study involves a pool of recipients with a common characteristic, splitting them evenly into sections, and applying all the same attributes to each except the one you want to test.

You level the playing field and test the variable or combination of variables you wish to adjust. The easiest and most productive is a single-variable test - usually testing lists, or offer, even price. In a list test, he same package goes to a number of different list segments or selects in small quantities, and you see which one returns the most.

Offer tests involve taking a larger list segment that is highly homogenous, and splitting it randomly, and sending a different version of the offer in the same package to each segment. You can test offers, carriers, price, formats, copy, benefit focus or other single attributes this way, with great effectiveness. The single variable tests give you a quick read on the audience.

Price testing this way allows you to judge where the price curve is for that product to that audience. Testing 6-7 prices on the same product will give you a chartable curve in response vs price, and you should select the price at the top of the curve as the "winner" of the test - that price is the highest amount of money people will be willing to pay for the product without negatively impacting response or sales volume.

All this testing helps you home in on the essential components of the package, and tells you which ones work, and what's extraneous. The adage linked to this type of winnowing is that you want to "test the Cadillac, and work back until you're mailing the Volkswagon Beetle."

5) Believe the Numbers - All this testing is going to give you a great deal of data to read and interpret. If you've conducted the tests fairly, accurately and precisely, then you have good solid data that you can reliably use to make decisions. One of the biggest errors you can make is to not believe or trust your data - numbers really don't lie, unless you've made them, by shading the tests in some way - changing quantities, adjusting lists by throwing in odd segments you've seen work well before on similar packages, only applying those to one test and not the control, etc.

There is an art to properly interpreting test data, and only experience will teach you those nuances and shades of meaning that make the difference between a moderate responder and a star.

6) Cleanliness is Next to . . . Success! - Good, clean lists are critical to efficient, profitable mailing. In today's climate of rampant postal increases, and shared effort for fewer discounts, you need to make every name count. There are any number of mechanical, computerized process to which you can subject your lists to boost it's "mailability." Genderization, address and zip+4 standardization, accuratized salutation, suppression and appending with the National Change of Address File (NCOA), Deceased file, Do Not Mail file, and other suppression cleaning will reduce your overall mailing volume a bit, but it will sharpen your focus on the target audience and reduce waste. Remember, you only pay for those that you actually mail!

The other key component of your list work involves working with the merge/purge report to focus your list properly. If you've rented a basket of lists, all with similar selects revolving around a tight target audience, chances are you have some overlap and some repeat names. Getting rid of those duplicates, and keeping just the names you paid the least for (and the inverse, jettisoning the one's you paid dearly for), can save you money and make your mailing more profitable.

The pricing model that drives this efficiency is the "Net Name Arrangement," meaning you only pay the list owner for the names you keep after the merge and purge of duplicates. Work closely with your list processor and they will set up the computerized sorting process to purge the expensive duplicates and keep the cheap ones. The merge purge report is a powerful tool in many other respects as well, and learning to read one is an invaluable skill to develop.

7) Talk To The P.O. Early, Or Repent At Your Leisure Later - The key partnership you need to develop prior to doing any mailing is one with the Post Office. Before you rent a list, before you print a thing, before you write a word, create a basic idea of what you want to mail, take it to your local Bulk Mail Acceptance Center, and ask to speak with the Postmaster. He or his Direct Mail Specialist will review your mock-up with an eye toward size, color and contrast, required permits, proportion ratio, weight, and a host of other parameters that will give you some options on paper stock, size, and other issues to provide you the maximum discount allowable and save you money.

The less effort the post office has to expend to drop your mail, the lower your prices go. Many large printers who specialize in printing direct mail components have a postal expert in-house, and some even have an acceptance station within their plant, complete with its own postmaster/inspector. They can help you get your mail prepared properly for maximum discount. By getting them involved early and making sure your mail conforms, you'll avoid the possibility of having produced and delivered your mail to the post office only to be turned away as undeliverable. Why roll the dice?

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?