From the August 2007 issue of Entrepreneur

Brochures, catalogs, newsletters--they're all important direct-mail tools for entrepreneurs. But how can you create a campaign that really delivers? The most critical elements are your list, the package you mail and your offer. Get all three right, and you have a winning combination that will ensure the highest possible response rate and return on your marketing investment.

Choose Your List
Whether you're targeting consumers or business executives, know the important characteristics of your prospects, such as ages and job titles. And tell the list vendor exactly which of these selections you require. You can rent lists from:

  • List managers and aggregators: A reputable list manager can offer a variety of list options as well as tell you when the lists were last cleaned, how often they've been used and by whom.
  • Publishers: Many print publications, particularly business and trade magazines, rent their subscriber lists for direct mail. These can often be segmented by geographic requirements, the subscribers' job titles or SIC codes.
  • List brokers: Since most are compensated by a 15 percent commission directly from the list vendor, or they charge a fee for handling smaller list purchases, working with a broker to find just the right list can be fairly affordable.

When using your own in-house list, carefully segment it into groups with common characteristics. If you have multiple lists, check them against each other to remove costly duplicate mailings. You can mail as often as several times a month to your best customers.

Create Your Package
Consider the complexity of what you want to communicate and the unique needs of the recipients. And because frequency and affordability are important, don't be afraid to mix it up. You can kick off your direct-mail campaign with an in-depth, multipiece package, followed by a postcard, then a newsletter and so on. You should mail at least three times to a list before moving on. Additional tips include:

  • Use a sales letter--up to four pages--and brochure for complex messages, like the introduction of a new product.
  • Avoid printing teasers on the outside of the envelope because they can make your package look like junk mail.
  • Use stamps instead of metered mail to give your pieces a more personal look.
  • Print addresses directly on the envelopes. They are more likely to be opened than ones with address labels.
  • Create a "dummy" package, weigh it and check postal rates and regulations. Removing or adding one element can dramatically alter the cost of a large mailing.
  • Use dimensional mail (in a tube or box) to get high response rates from small lists of well-qualified prospects.

Make Your Offer
Though 1 percent to 3 percent is considered a good direct-mail response rate, only experience with multiple packages and offers will reveal your best possible rate. Make it easy for prospects to respond by giving them various ways to contact you. According to the Direct Marketing Association, nearly 33 percent of people respond to direct mail by going online. And use "involvement devices," such as asking prospects to put a sticker on the order form or check a box to order.

A great offer provides a real incentive and can be anything from a coupon or a guarantee to the promise of exclusivity. You won't know precisely what energizes your prospects without testing, so code every response mechanism and evaluate the list, package and offer individually until you have a winning combination.

Contact marketing expert Kim T. Gordon, smallbusinessnow.com. author of Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars: The Top 50 Ways to Grow Your Small Business. Her new e-book, Big Marketing Ideas for Small Budgets, is available exclusively from Entrepreneur. smallbizbooks.com.