From the March 2001 issue of Startups

Few marketing initiatives rouse consumers' ire like direct mail. Rarely do folks get in a lather about TV, print and radio commercials. Highway billboards and Internet banner ads are accepted with little rancor. But direct mail, boy, does it ever set people off!

That's because many of us are inundated with offers that are completely irrelevant to our lives, interests and buying behaviors. The good news is, executed properly, direct mail shouldn't end up in the hands of people for whom it inspires extreme crankiness. The following guidelines will help you create pieces that are of benefit to recipients and a boon to your bottom line:

  1. Figure out who your audience is. How old are they? Where do they live? What other brands are they loyal to? What's their profession? What model car do they drive? You need to be specific, because according to William Spero, president of direct-marketing Internet portal DirectMailQuotes.com, "A full 60 percent of the success of your campaign can be attributed to getting your message to the right audience."
  2. Spend time and money to get the right list. Compiled lists are generated from sources like phone books and motor vehicle records and can zoom in on information like ZIP code, age and marital status. Response lists are much more targeted, and therefore more costly. If you want to reach all Wall Street Journal subscribers, that's a response list.
  3. Decide what you're offering. Spero says 30 percent of your success will be determined by your offer. Are you having a huge sale? Got a two-for-one deal? Whatever you're offering, don't be coy-put it right out there, and ask for the response you want. Do you want customers to call in? Come in to your shop? Return a card for more information? "An offer should have a call to action so the recipients respond right away," says Spero.
  4. Be clever. Take your time writing the copy and, perhaps most important, the headline-come up with a few different ones and test them. If you're writing a sales letter, be sure to include a "P.S." The design should support the copy and your offer in a complementary way-if you're selling an expensive service or product, don't skimp on the design elements. Resist the urge to whip up materials on your desktop. Let a designer do that-you need to focus on selling. And don't use cheap paper stock; you aren't saving anything if no one responds.
  5. Stand out. Most direct mail is terribly bland and announces itself loudly: "I am junk mail. Feel free to chuck me in the trash." Find ways within your budget to make an impact. For example, I've had success with small mailers by using first-class postage and highlighting some piece of information. I've also had phenomenal results with handwritten notes on postcard mailers.
  6. Test, test, test. Alas, you can't just stamp it and wait for riches to follow. Bill Babcock, co-founder with Diane Jenkins of Babcock & Jenkins Direct, a direct-marketing provider for technology companies in Beaverton, Oregon, stresses how important it is to test your list. "Once you have tested [a sample of recipients], then the remainder of people on the list who fit selection criteria will respond about as well as the original selection." So early success or failure of test names will indicate whether you've got a winner or a dud on your hands. And if you don't test, says Babcock, "you might as well spend money on lottery tickets."
    Kimberly McCall is the president of McCallMedia & Marketing, Inc., a marketing, public relations and business communications agency in Freeport, Maine. You may contact her at (207) 865-0055 or at her Web site, MarketingAngel.com.