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10 Direct Mail Secrets

Check out these insider tips for creating effective direct mail pieces on a budget.

For the past decade, many business owners have regarded direct mail as the ugly stepsister of print or broadcast advertising. Loud, misleading and cluttered pieces mailed anonymously to millions of prospects only served to reinforce this perception.

Today, however, some of the most innovative and effective advertising is delivered through the mail, and more and more business owners are finding the rewards of direct mail are great if their campaigns are designed with a discerning eye and a realistic strategy in mind. Looking for some tips to help you create a direct mail campaign that brings in results without breaking the bank? Here are 10 smart tactics, culled from my 15 years as a direct mail professional:

1. Develop a visual sense for what works and what doesn't. You have an abundance of learning materials right inside your mailbox. The next time you go through your mail, take a minute to examine what's there, what catches your attention, what attracts you and what repels you. Do you have examples of previous campaigns you've sent out? Or pieces from your competitors that you can learn from? "Junk mail" has a unique style--learn to recognize it and think about how you can create the opposite.

2. Don't insult your prospects' intelligence by using cheesy tag lines or see-and-say visuals. Believe it or not, "FREE MONEY" doesn't attract much attention in the inundated world of today's consumers. So avoid using bold with italics, ALL CAPS, and multiple exclamation points (!!!!), as these are the clich�d visual cues of junk mail.

And try to be innovative in what you do show. Make a point of avoiding see-and-say graphics, which are too elementary to involve and activate the brain of a potential customer. For instance, let's say you were sending out a postcard for your lawn-care service that reads "Lawn-Mowing Service" and the photo or illustration depicts a company employee mowing a lawn. (See: picture of employee mowing lawn. Say: "Lawn-Mowing Service.") Boring! Instead, be more creative.

The key here is to entice your audience to complete a story in their minds of how your product or service solves a problem they have. In the example above, you might show the uniformed employee mowing the lawn but have the caption read "Honey, did you mow the lawn today?" "Yeah, it's a tough job, but someone had to do it." That way, the audience has to figure out the picture. They might complete the riddle like this: "Why is this guy taking credit for mowing the lawn? Because he hired this lawn-mowing service and got the job done. Maybe I could relegate my lawn-mowing responsibility like this guy did." Involving your audience lengthens the time they take to look at your mail piece and improves the odds they'll take in the information they need to make a decision for your business. Humor can also play a great part in these visual stories.

3. Don't assume your audience knows everything. An educated consumer is one that's more willing to make a purchase. Your headline should draw attention to your body copy, which is your most powerful selling tool. Ignore what people say about how no one reads anymore--if compelled by a good headline and provoking imagery, a potential customer will want more information immediately. Directing them to a website or phone number is asking a lot of your audience, so instead, include essential information right on the mail piece. When writing copy, start from the beginning, be direct, and include as much information as you can in five sentences or less. Chances are, the reader is scanning, so use words that are easy to understand but are descriptive enough to accurately communicate your message.

4. Use what you know. If you know your customers inside and out, by all means, use that information in your mail piece. Meeting your potential customers where they are is a great way to attain trust quickly. Become familiar with your market so you can be specific about your mailing list. Consider demographics like gender, age, income, climate, leisure activities and more when deciding where to mail each piece. The more you use information that's been hard-earned in years past, the better your response rates will be.

5. "You Won't Believe This Amazing Offer!" At least that part's true, when it comes to your prospects--people are much more skeptical these days. So do something completely unusual with your direct mail piece: Tell the truth. Exposing your weaknesses make your strengths seem even greater, and (yes, believe it) creates a sense of honesty and trust. Consider this example: A flooring company boasts "the best styles at the best prices." While the claim sounds attractive, it doesn't have the same believability (thus response-eliciting) factor as a piece that claims "the same styles at the best prices." Creating a trustworthy message allows consumers to set positive expectations, rather than refuting any false ones they might be reading. And when potential customers set expectations, you can bet they're ready to take a risk on your business.

6. Ask and you shall receive. Know exactly what action you want your mail piece to elicit, and then ask for it. Then ask again. This is known as the call-to-action in the world of direct mail, and it's the consumers' cue for getting what they want. If there's no call-to-action, your direct mail piece is just creating brand recognition. Is there a number to call? Don't just list the number--ask them to make the call. Is there a website to visit? A response mail required? Ask, suggest and entice your audience to respond to your piece. Make the information accessible, easy to read and effective--which may mean making some changes in the office, whether that's a designated phone line or a more memorable web address.

7. Consider the medium. What will your message be delivered on? Postcards are an effective medium for most products, because they cut down a barrier (the envelope) between the consumer and the message. However, some direct mail is more appropriate when crafted as a letter, especially those that involve high-dollar sales and financial services.

Think carefully about your product and your message before making a decision about the medium. No matter what format you choose, consider the paper your message will be printed on. Inexpensive paper communicates something very different from high-quality paper. If you're selling anything that's considered expensive, high-quality or custom, nice paper will communicate that message much more effectively than something inexpensive. On the other hand, the type of paper you choose makes little difference when you're selling items that are inexpensive, sold at bulk rates or discounted. Deciding what's best for your direct mail piece will improve your response rates exponentially.

8. Use color wisely. Color will always catch more attention than black and white, but when it comes to color, more is not necessarily better. Additional colors may cost more money to produce--and too many colors can create a piece that's confusing and cluttered--so it's important to find what's best for your project.

Begin by choosing one or two main colors and one or two supporting colors based on the feelings they elicit: Warm colors are exciting and energizing; cool colors are relaxing and refreshing. Bright colors speak loudly; dull colors suggest quietly. Think about your product, corporate image and your audience when choosing color. Metallic colors are a great option for one- or two-color jobs.

And check with your printer to see what's available that might make your piece stand out for a small--or no--increase in price. Consider colored paper, as well as using a color as a field (covering a large shape area) and reversing out the text (that means showing white text on a colored background). These techniques will help you make the most of your budget and color choices for maximum impact.

9. Personalize your pieces. You've seen them: "[your name here], you've got to check out this deal!" Personalization can enhance a consumer's inclination to read your direct mail piece by creating a sense of familiarity. It also emphasizes their importance to your business. For example, are you more likely to open an envelope that says "Current Resident" or "[Your Name]"? Most likely, you'll feel important to the second business and choose to open that mail first.

When it comes to personalizing a direct mail piece, there are a lot of options, ranging from addressing it to a specific consumer or including their name in the letter portion to printing their name in the art area on the actual postcard or letter. Some of these options can get pricey, so if you think it's appropriate for your mailer, talk with your printer about your personalization options so you'll know what options fit your budget.

10. Determine the best way to mail it. When it comes to mailing your direct mail pieces, you have options regarding the postage you purchase. Think about your customers and the value of your product, as well as time sensitivity. Will "presort" (formerly bulk rate) arrive in time? Do your potential customers care about first-class postage or not? Are you eligible to receive special, not-for-profit postage rates? And don't forget to consider the type of postage for your direct mail piece. You can choose to use first-class or presort stamps, or you can print the first-class or presort postage directly on the mail pieces (this is known as the indicia). In pieces that are highly personalized and official-looking, a stamp can enhance response rates because consumers infer a human touch. On postcards, indicias work just as well as stamps and don't cost anything to apply to the mail piece.


With fifteen years of direct mail experience, Mark Risley, president of Dallas-based Dimaco Ltd., a full-service, direct mail company, specializes in developing highly effective direct marketing campaigns for businesses across the United States. Visit the company's website for more information.

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