Direct mail has become a huge advertising and marketing vehicle. Although referred to as "junk mail" by many of us who have our boxes stuffed daily with flyers for pizza and oil changes, direct mail can be a viable part of your marketing plan if used correctly.

As with any advertising, the key is to create a message or offer that benefits your current and prospective clients. For example, I regularly recycle at least five mailers per day without even looking at them. However, there are those offers that I regularly read and use. These offers are usually from companies I already do business with, such as Pier One, Filene's, or US Air. It is important before launching a direct mail campaign that you keep prospects' needs top of mind.

Because direct mail has become so (relatively) inexpensive and ubiquitous, some well-meaning advertisers use it frequently with little or no results. I've talked to clients who are dubious about using direct mail again because they got less than a 1% return on a previous mailing. This low return is unacceptable for the small businessperson without the resources to dump millions of mailers. The good news is that I have seen mailers get a 40% return if targeted well.

If you've made the decision to pursue direct mail as part of your marketing plan, keep the following in mind:

  • The list is the thing. Without a targeted list of people to receive the mailer, you are wasting your time and cash. There are many ways to compile a qualified list, as simple as putting it together yourself from all your contacts and prospects. You can also buy lists from a mail house or list broker, your local chamber of commerce, and other professional groups. When buying from a list broker, beware! Although there are many reputable list brokers and mail houses, do some research before selecting one. (Be particularly aware of any list brokers on the Internet -- this is definitely a service to buy locally.) A list is only as good as the company that maintains it. Information needs to be updated constantly. Ask mail houses where they buy names and how often the list is updated or "merged and purged." Once you have settled on a list broker, there are infinite ways to target your mailer, including income, sex, marital status, age, and hobbies.
  • Carefully craft your message. Are you disseminating information (you've moved, expanded, changed names, etc.) or are you trying to bring in traffic? Make sure you have a strong offer (10% off is usually not a sufficient draw, unless you are targeting hard-core current customers - a negligible savings is not enough to motivate new customers.) Make sure that you are presenting the offer in a way that is consistent with your client base (an upscale jeweler would not use a postcard -- more likely a conservative sales letter). Don't forget to include all pertinent info such as hours, location, phone number, and Web site address -- a small map is usually a good idea as well.
  • Work with a professional to create the mailer. Work with a graphic designer (many mail houses offer this service) to create an appropriate look and feel for the mailer. Some artists will steer you away from copy-dense pieces, but don't shy away from a lot of copy if your product or service calls for description. Don't skimp on postcard or letter stock -- cheap paper will connote a cheap product. Check your mailer with a microscope for typos and erroneous information. You will only have a moment to make a strong impression. Make sure that your message is clear and the call to action obvious.
  • Consider the timing of the drop. If you are in retail and offering an item at a discounted price, ensure that you will have plenty of stock to meet demand. If you are offering a service such as an oil and filter change, staff up enough to meet demand on Saturday morning. (It's a sad thing to bring in customers for the first time, only to keep them waiting and frustrated -- they'll never return.) If you are a restaurant offering a special, you may consider dropping the mailer just before the weekend. Also take into consideration the lifestyle of your clients. If you have an upscale boutique with affluent clients, you may not want to drop any mailers in July or August, when many people are away on vacation. Beware of Christmas/Hanukkah unless you are selling gift items.
  • Prepare to track all responses. Unless you diligently track your responses, you are not getting your money's worth. Knowing what you did right and wrong is invaluable for planning your next mailer. Tracking can be very simple -- keeping a tally of all coupons redeemed, etc.
  • Capture information about those who respond. When you do attract new customers, make sure you know who they are. There are several ways to do this. One of my clients has a "guest book" at her counter, and all her salespeople encourage buyers to sign it to receive advance notice of special sales. You may even want to offer a small incentive for people to leave their name and address -- perhaps a drawing for free merchandise or dinner at a nice restaurant.
  • Evaluate all information before dropping your next mailer. Who responded, who didn't, how long it took for response, any feedback you or staff received on offer. This research will be an immense help in developing your next offer.

Note: If you are doing your own mailings: the post office offers free direct mail kits that are very helpful. Make sure you are aware of all postal regulations and specs before you invest your time and cash in a mailer. If you are doing your own bulk mail piece, be prepared to do due diligence learning the ropes -- bulk mail can be a daunting task if you aren't prepared. Keep in mind the weight and size of your mailer.

Copyright © 1999 Kimberly L. McCall