Direct mail encompasses a wide variety of marketing materials, including brochures, catalogs, postcards, newsletters and sales letters. Major corporations already know direct-mail advertising is one of the most effective and profitable ways to reach out to new and existing clients.

What's the advantage? Unlike other forms of advertising, in which you're never sure just who is getting your message, direct mail lets you communicate one-on-one with your target audience. That allows you to control who receives your message, when it is delivered, what is in the envelope, and how many people you reach.

To create an effective direct-mail campaign, start by getting your name on as many mailing lists as possible. Junk mail isn't junk when you're trying to learn about direct mail. Obtain free information every chance you get, especially from companies that offer products or services similar to yours. Take note of your reaction to each piece of mail, and save the ones that communicate most effectively, whether they come from large or small companies.

The most effective direct-mail inserts often use key words, colors and formats that can be adapted into your own mailer. Make sure the colors you use promote the appropriate image. Neon colors, for example, can attract attention for party planner or gift basket businesses. On the other hand, ivory and gray are usually the colors of choice for lawyers, financial planners and other business services.

To involve the reader in the ordering process, many mailers enclose stickers that say Yes or No to be pasted on the order form. Companies such as Publishers' Clearinghouse take this technique further by asking recipients to find hidden stickers throughout the mailing and paste them on the sweepstakes entry. It also asks customers to choose their prizes, which gets them even more involved.

Next, read up on the subject. A wealth of printed information is available to help educate yourself about direct mail. Do-It-Yourself Direct Marketing: Secrets for Small Business (John Wiley & Sons), by Mark S. Bacon, is a comprehensive manual that touches on all aspects of direct mail. The National Directory of Mailing Lists (Oxbridge Communications) covers most mailing lists available for rental, including small and highly targeted offerings. Two of the better-known publications are DM News, a weekly trade paper, and Direct Magazine, a monthly.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA), in New York City, is a national trade organization for direct marketers. For a catalog that highlights many of the direct marketing industry's books, a free brochure that lists a variety of direct marketing institutes and seminars across the country, or more information about joining, call the DMA at (212) 768-7227. You can also visit the group's Web site at www.the-dma.org.

Excerpted from Start Your Own Business: The Only Start-Up Book You'll Ever Need, by Rieva Lesonsky and the Staff of Entrepreneur Magazine, © 1998 Entrepreneur Press