From the December 2010 issue of Entrepreneur

As someone who writes about marketing for a living, I have to come clean. I hate my mailbox.

For one thing, it's one of those apartment-style slots that fills up in two days, forcing me to impose on neighbors to tend it like a tank of tropical fish while I'm gone. But even more annoying is the stuff that fills the mailbox. Bills, of course, but also the most aggravating collection of direct mail offers and solicitations that I would never in my life succumb to. Whole, thick catalogs from companies vaguely affiliated with vendors I once bought from, years ago. Invites to subscribe to magazines at a "professional discount," and appeals to renew before the subscriptions run out in a mere six months. And credit card offers. (Is anyone still rising to this bait?)

The small stash of mail I'm interested in goes with me. The rest of the slurry is emptied into a shopping bag by the front door. And it's always full.

Basically, mail marketing leaves me cold. And if we were still living in the age of McMahon and Tate (the ad agency in TV's Bewitched, remember?), that would be an insurmountable obstacle. Luckily for you and every other business trying to reach new customers, the range of options for targeting me as a prospect today goes far beyond the mailbox.

Here are a few of the offers I've responded to in recent months:

I was in an airport lounge waiting for a flight and decided to use the GateGuru iPhone app to see what services were nearby. (OK, I was in the mood for one of those Auntie Anne's soft pretzels.) I opened the app but got stopped by a roadblock in-app ad offering me a chance to check in at my location and, if I was one of the top check-in leaders for that month, to win a $100 JetBlue gift card. I knew the chances of my winning were slim because I wasn't planning much travel. But playing along beat sitting around and trying to ignore the CNN Airport Network. If I get another solicitation from JetBlue on my smartphone, I'll probably take it. And if they ask me to sign up for fare alerts, I just may be a few steps closer to doing so.

A friend re-tweeted an invitation to a movie-themed event held at a local hotel here in Chicago, where location filming for Transformers 3 was recently completed. At the event, I was asked--along with maybe a thousand other people--to submit my business card, have my photo taken with Optimus Prime's smaller brother, sample some brands of vodka and sign up to be notified when the movie opens. I did it in the spirit of fun and to get the photo, and I won't be shocked to get an e-mail alert in 2011 for a movie that usually wouldn't grab my interest. I might even go.

I'm no car buff, but my serviceable subcompact is from the previous decade, so I'm in a sort of a pre-buying mode and noticing cars on the street more. I also noticed a TV commercial from Toyota's Scion for a new online driving game, "Take on the Machine," that uses augmented reality. I downloaded a printable steering wheel marker, pointed it at my webcam and drove a new tC coupe around a futuristic city for 15 to 20 minutes--weeks before I'll be able to do the same in a 3-D version. I also took note of a dealer locator feature on the game site. When the car hits the showrooms, I may very well check into a real-life test drive. And carmakers and dealers are happy to have someone like me thinking about their products when I'm poised to make a decision.

I'll be writing in more detail about generating leads in coming issues--about the tricks and traps in trying to reach out to consumers who don't yet have a relationship with you. But the basic message is that in this age of conversational marketing, the path from lead to sale has gotten a lot longer and more complicated. The offers above aren't as direct as a mail solicitation, or even an e-mail from a rented list. But they worked on me whereas those other efforts never do.

Feel free to e-mail me at entmag@entrepreneur.com with your own stories of lead-gen offers that worked on you or worked for your business. But--no letters, please.