Freelance Writer Files: Doing Direct Mail? Don’t Get Fancy, Get Relevant.

Direct mail is one of those things people either hate or simply dislike. Why is that? Because most people get tons of direct mail that doesn’t offer anything they want. It simply isn’t relevant to them. Or maybe it is, but it takes the recipient too long to find out how. Either way, it’s headed for the landfill.

People decide within two or three seconds whether a piece of mail goes on the “opening” or “trash” pile, and then move on with their lives.

As an ad agency copywriter, I did mostly advertising, meaning ads, brochures, radio and TV spots. Advertising is a different animal from direct mail, I’ve learned, as I’ve had more opportunities to write direct. In advertising, you’re usually doing (a) awareness advertising, (b) image advertising, or (c) offer advertising, sometimes including a coupon. Of the three, (c) is most similar to direct mail. The offer-coupon ad wants you to do something, and it gives you both an incentive to do it and a time limit (Coupon expiration date).

The reason it’s called “direct” mail is that it comes directly to a prospect’s mailbox. Anyone writing for direct mail should keep in mind another reason: it has to communicate in a direct way in order to avoid the trashcan. And there is an art and science to doing it well.

That’s why most direct mail includes a “teaser” on the envelope, which is meant to get you to open it. Here are three teasers from direct mail pieces I plucked out of my trash at random:

Your Input and Signature Needed

• Your 2012 XXXX Membership Card Is Enclosed
Urgent Response Requested


These are certainly urgent requests for action. But only the first one piques my interest, and only because it’s requesting my “input,” and I’m always happy to share my opinions. And gee whiz, it had a “Registered Document number” on it. Sure looks official and all. Sadly, it doesn’t offer me anything I really want, so into the trash it goes.

At the moment, I’m doing a direct mail campaign for a client. To maximize his budget, the mailings need to be relevant to his target audience. The letters will present them with an offer they can’t refuse—if they’re in the market for what he’s selling, and if the prospects’ dissatisfaction with other providers is as high as we think it is, they will be.

But I won’t simply say, “When you choose XYZ Company, you’ll get (unique benefit).” I will go beyond that and build my message around this idea:

“When you choose XYZ Company, you will get (something they really aren’t getting now and want badly: all the service they’re paying for). Our service tracking system calculates exactly how much service you are getting from our company every week. And if you don’t get every bit of service you are paying for, that week is FREE!”

There is an additional incentive to do it: When the prospect responds within a certain time limit, either by calling or by sending in an enclosed postage-paid card, and sets up an appointment, s/he will get a free demo of the service, and s/he will be able to see measurable results! I can’t reveal how (client confidentiality), but it is a doable offer.

There is no risk and no obligation involved. There is everything to gain. Why wouldn’t the prospect respond?

• First, we’re offering something the target audience is VERY interested in (getting the most for their budget, because most companies don’t give them all the service they pay for).
• Second, we’re doing something else no one else in the market is doing: backing it up with a measurable guarantee of performance.
• Third, we’re offering a FREE demo, which gives a representative a foot in the door.
• Fourth, we’re giving them a sense of urgency about responding, since the offer expires in a couple of weeks.

In addition, the letter and the postcard will have a code number that will let us track results. A 1% to 3% response rate is standard, but if the list is honed to include only the best prospects, it could be higher.

Finally, we won’t leave it there. We’ll send prospects two more direct mail letters, each one highlighting a real pain the prospect has that my client can relieve. After that, any prospects who haven’t responded yet will receive three brochures at staged intervals detailing the same three surefire (if we’ve found out they work in DM) pain-relief scenarios.

So the net of it is this: If you’re the creative putting together a direct mail campaign, don’t kill yourself trying to think up a fancy, possibly creative-award-winning headline and tricky copy for your direct mail letter. Keep it simple (not that it’s easy). Put your head together with your client’s and come up with a solid offer of something the prospect needs and wants, something relevant to his or her needs. Then state it simply and compellingly. And finally, plot out your campaign and keep with it. That’s all there is to it. Now, go and get relevant!

A day or two after the first mailing of 50 letters, my client received a call and made an appointment, the first of many, we hope. Second letter is going out early next week. Common wisdom says a 1% to 2% response rate is good for direct mail. In this case, just one new customer could easily pay for the marketing effort! Successful campaigns don’t cost, they pay.

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