Direct mail is the weapon of choice for many small businesses because of its targetability and reasonable cost. It's also very versatile since you can include whatever you want in a mailing package to convince your prospect of the desirability of your product or service. All your company literature can become part of your direct-mail efforts, including company newsletters.
The standard direct-mail package consists of four elements: an envelope, a sales letter, a flier and a reply card.
This carries your package to the recipient and bears the mailing label. There's no reason not to use the envelope to get the sales process started early. Use the outside of the envelope to carry an enticement to the prospect to open it:
1. "A new development in equipment rental reduces costs for your company."
2. "Important information for your financial future."
3. "Time-sensitive material enclosed."
4. "Spending too much on bank charges? Look inside."
This is the workhorse of any direct-mail sales effort. It's been around for a hundred years, and the experts have been working at fine-tuning its appeal for 50 years. Many direct-mail campaigns consist of nothing more than a sales letter. It's inexpensive to duplicate, easily reproducible and simple to test. No matter what your product or service, a well-written sales letter gives you the opportunity to "make your case" to the prospect.
All the thinking that's been done about the basic sales letter can be boiled down to just a few key principles:
1. Write person-to-person. That means it's an "I" writing to a "you." A sales letter is a one-on-one selling opportunity. The prospect has opened your envelope, which has appeared in the mailbox. For a few moments (and not much longer), you have his or her attention. Write as if you were explaining the benefits of your product to a friend. Use short sentences. Avoid formal language. Don't be afraid of contractions like "don't," "isn't" and "it's": This is the way we talk, and this is the way your letter should sound. You're not writing as a company; you're writing as a person.
2. Make your first paragraph your best. People are busy, and no matter how wonderfully crafted your letter is, you can't count on your prospect finishing it. So put your killer benefits to that prospect right in the first paragraph or two. Many sales letter experts suggest you also convey the problem to which your product is the solution. This highlights the benefit and emphasizes the importance of your product or service.
3. Use boxes, subheads, bullets and bold type. Don't make your sales letter look like an encyclopedia article. Break up any large chunks of copy with headings and indents. Your reader will scan the letter quickly in the first few seconds to decide whether it's worth reading. You want the message to get across even with a cursory review.
4. Keep your letter short. One page is best if you're including other material. You should never go over two pages.
5. Make an offer. You're not providing information--you're actively selling. So you need to present the reason for sending your letter. There is something new about your product. You're writing to people who attended a particular show and are offering a discount. You're giving a second product free to people who order a first product. "Order five and get a sixth free." "Join for a year and get two months free." "For a limited time, respondents can take advantage of a one-time trial offer." "Book the service now and get a discount for summer delivery." These are all extra enticements designed to push the prospect over the edge and get him or her to respond.
6. Repeat the offer. State the offer at least twice in your letter, at the opening and at the close.
7. Add a sense of urgency. Give the prospect a reason to reply right away. If you can't persuade the person to act while he or she is holding your mailing package, chances are the person will never respond. So add a time deadline for a response. Or an offer on top of the offer for a quick response. Or maybe a limited amount of the offered product is available at this special price.
You frequently support your direct-mail letter with a flier, a small brochure that provides additional information on the product or service you're offering. While the letter has to condense the benefits of the product, the flier gives you the opportunity to expand on them a bit. Here is where you can use photography, charts and graphs to make your case. Testimonials always work well in fliers to help convince the prospect of the truth of your claims. Stay focused on benefits.
Don't make the flier depend on the direct-mail letter. It should be able to stand on its own in telling your complete product or service story. You'll undoubtedly have other uses for this flier than a particular direct-mail effort: as an invoice stuffer, as an item in a display rack and so on.
Reply cards can simply be inserted in the mailing package, or they can be attached to the brochure and torn off for return. You want the prospect to write his or her name, address and phone, and then generally to either place an order or ask for more information. Make sure your reply card has room and spaces for the respondent to include all the information you need. And have your business reply card checked by the post office so that it fits all their legal requirements for size, weight and color. You don't want the respondent to have to worry about postage, so your reply card has to carry your business reply permit information where the stamp normally appears (you can get such information from your post office).
A scaled-down direct-mailing option is the self-mailer, which can incorporate virtually all the elements of a full direct-mail package on a single folded sheet of paper. And, of course, along with a decrease in elements is a reduction in cost.
With a self-mailer, you eliminate the costs of producing additional elements, inserting them into an envelope and paying greater postage. The simplicity of a self-mailer also makes it easy to produce quickly, enabling you to introduce a new product, announce a sale or make contact with customers in short order.
The only challenge of self-mailers is overcoming the image of a flimsy fold-over that epitomizes so-called "junk mail." However, what the self-mailer lacks in format appeal, it can make up for in copy clout and design.
The "guts" of the self-mailer can be set up any number of ways. In a three-panel piece, one panel can have bullet points, another a personal sales letter and another the response device or order form. You can even make your self-mailer a four-panel affair, with the final panel for testimonials.
The postcard is perhaps the most elementary of mailing formats, offering many of the advantages of a folded self-mailer, as well as some exclusive to itself.
Since a huge percentage of direct-mail packages never get opened, it pays to consider a format that never has to overcome that obstacle. With a postcard, all the recipient needs is a flip of the wrist to read everything you have to say. This can be a big advantage in attracting the typically impatient reader.
Inexpensive postcards give you the opportunity to consider a mailing "campaign," enabling you to send out a number of such cards at regular intervals to remind the recipient of your product or service.
You can also produce oversized postcards that give you more "canvas" on which to display your wares and make your sales argument. And while the larger size costs incrementally more in printing, paper and postage, its simplicity still makes it affordable.
Like the folded self-mailer, one possible downside of a postcard is that it won't get the respect of a sealed envelope. But if it's developed in a way that has originality and selling power, you could have yourself an inexpensive business builder.
Your Company Newsletter
One popular technique for staying in touch with customers and establishing yourself as a source of valuable information is a company newsletter. For small businesses, they offer a lot of advantages:
- They're easy to produce in-house. While they're labor-intensive, they don't demand special skills. Any personal computer with a word processing program or page layout program can turn out an attractive newsletter. Many programs include newsletter templates to make your job even easier. Be sure to use a two- or three-column format for easy scanning. Employ photos or illustrations to clarify your articles. Keep your typeface large enough for all your customers to read the articles without straining.
- They let you inform and sell. You can provide your customers and prospects news on your company, information on your products, case histories of how your products perform, background on key employees, market overviews and so on. You dictate the content. Your only requirement is to keep it interesting for the customer...and to keep the sales content from overwhelming the information content.
- Their size can deliver more complex information. Ads and brochures always restrict what we can say. Newsletters provide you with an endless brochure. You can put together multipart articles, conduct lengthy interviews, show new ways to use your products--all within a comfortable space allotment.
- They let you offer lots of different types of information. Don't be misled by the previous point. Although newsletters give you room for lengthier articles, keep the bulk of your newsletter as short pieces, so they are very scannable. You want lots of different items in the hope of providing something interesting to every reader.
- You create credibility. Your newsletter lets you show off your knowledge and product savvy. Your customers get to see you, your products and your company directly, outside the typical selling framework.
- You can think long-term. Good newsletters don't just happen. Editors have editorial calendars that link newsletter themes with conferences, new product introductions and other company events. You should plan your newsletter at least six months in advance.
- You can get your customers involved. Establish a newsletter advisory board to give you ideas on content. Profile some of your largest customers in your newsletter to show other customers the quality of your product. Have customers write articles for your newsletter on industry trends, new applications, reports on trade shows and so on.
- You can use your newsletter to prospect for new customers. Send out extra copies of your newsletter with a cover letter to prospects. It's a softer sales approach that can be very effective with some potential customers who may resist more direct sales efforts. You can win them over with your knowledge, not your sales persistence.
- You control frequency. Newsletters can be a lot of work to maintain. Plan on four a year to start, and add more if you're getting interest and your company can handle the workload. You can always put out special issues for extraordinary reasons--new product introduction, large contract, special trade show exhibition, story in national press and so on.