Direct Mail Is Only Junk Mail If It Doesn’t Work

"E-mail may be thought of as 'spam,' but it is even more cost effective than direct mail, and you can track results with even greater precision."

By David P. Kowal

To most people, it’s junk mail. But one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.

If used properly, direct mail can be an effective sales tool. It is relatively inexpensive, much more personalized than advertising and – best of all – it is highly targeted. If your market were 50-year-old bald Eskimos living in Ipswich and working as chimney sweeps, assuming anyone fit that description, you probably could find a mailing list somewhere for your market.

Increasingly, e-mail can also be an effective marketing tool, although -- as with direct mail – response rates typically are very low. E-mail may be thought of as “spam,” but it is even more cost effective than direct mail, and you can track results with even greater precision. You can, for example, track who opens your e-mail. It would be tough to track who opens your direct mail.

So how can you turn your junk mail into effective direct mail? The first step is to start with the best possible mailing list. Identify your target market as precisely as possible, then purchase or assemble a list to meet your description.

If you’re a Realtor, for example, and you want to tell everyone in a specific neighborhood about a house you just sold, you can prepare your own list from available records. If you’re targeting a market by location, SIC code, age, zip code, income level, occupation or some other factor, you’ll have to rent a list. Depending on your market, you may be able to rent a list from a trade association or publication that serves that market, or you may contact a list broker. List brokers are effective for true mass mailings targeting thousands of individuals or businesses. Associations typically have very limited lists, but the lists are usually inexpensive.

Regardless of where your list comes from, keep in mind that your direct mail campaign will be only as effective as your list. If you plan to rent the list for multiple uses, include “Return Postage Guaranteed” on your envelope. Paying postage on returned mail could prove costly – even a list that is updated regularly is bound to have returns in the 6% range – but it will allow you to test the accuracy of the list.

“Free” Advice

When preparing your mailing, make good use of the envelope, since you need to get someone to open it. A brief “teaser” line or a graphic can be effective. The word “free” may be the most powerful word in the English language, but other short words like “now” and “yes” also can be effective. If graphics are used, they should be colorful, eye catching and appropriate. If you’re targeting tennis players, for example, an illustration or cartoon of someone playing tennis will draw attention.

Direct mail correspondence generally should be brief. Some direct mail experts say a letter can be as long as three pages and still be effective, but a one-page letter is usually sufficient. The letter should get to the benefits immediately – they may appear in a box, in bold headlines or in underlined text at the beginning of the letter. Many potential respondents go right to the “P.S.,” which can be the most important part of the letter. Make it enticing.

To boost your response, make an offer they can’t refuse. If the first person to respond wins a free trip to Bermuda, people will respond quickly. If you’re selling a service, offer a free promotional item. Offering a freebie provides respondents with a tangible benefit. Whether you’re offering a calculator, a fly swatter or some other trinket, you’d be amazed what people will do for anything that’s free.

Make it easy to respond. A postage-paid business reply card is best, especially if respondents only have to check a box to respond. You may also consider giving respondents the option of responding by phone or fax.

Test your mailer. The only way to really determine what works is to try it. Sometimes a minor tweak, such as changing the color of the envelope, can affect response. Experiment, but track your results carefully and compare the difference.

By itself, a well-developed direct mail piece is likely to yield a 1% to 2% response. That may not sound like much, but it is if you’re trying to reach a large market.

The response can be much higher if direct mail is integrated into a marketing communications program. If potential clients receive several pieces of direct mail, e-mail and follow-up telephone calls, for example, the response should improve significantly.

Follow these basic ideas and you may be able to convert your direct mail from junk mail into potential treasure.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at