|The 12 Most Common Direct Mail
Mistakes...And How to Avoid Them
direct mail doesnt depend on fancy, four-color design or "creative" copy.
by Robert W. Bly
Mistake No. 1: Ignoring the most important factor
in direct mail success.
Do you know what the most important part of your direct mail
campaign is? Its not the copy. Its not the art work. Its not even the
format or when you mail. It is the mailing list.
A great mailing package, with superior copy and scintillating
design, might pull double the response of a poorly conceived mailing. But the best list
can pull a response 10 times more than the worst list for the identical mailing
The most common direct-mail mistake is not spending enough
time and effort up-front, when you select - and then test - the right lists.
Remember: In direct marketing, a mailing list is not just a
way of reaching your market. It is the market.
The best list available to you is your "house" list
- a list of customers and prospects who previously bought from you or responded to your
ads, public relations campaign, or other mailings. Typically, your house list will pull
double the response of an outside list. Yet, only 50% of business marketers Ive
surveyed capture and use customer and prospect names for mailing purposes.
When renting outside lists, get your ad agency or list broker
involved in the early stages. The mailing piece should not be written and designed until
after the right lists have been identified and selected.
Mistake No. 2: Not testing.
Big consumer mailers test all the time. Publishers
Clearinghouse tests just about everything...even (I hear) the slant of the indicia on the
Business-to-business marketers, on the other hand, seldom
track response or test one mailing piece of list against another.
As a result, they repeat their failures and have no idea of
what works in direct mail - and what doesnt. A mistake. In direct mail, you should
not assume you know what will work. You should test to find out.
For example, copywriter Milt Pierce wrote a subscription
package for Good Housekeeping magazine. His mailing became the
"control" package for 25 years. That is, no package tested against it brought
back as many subscriptions.
The envelope teaser and theme of that successful mailing was
"32 Ways to Save Time and Money." Yet, Mr. Pierce says that when he applied the
same theme to subscription mailings for other magazines - Science Digest, Popular
Mechanics, House Beautiful - it failed miserably.
"There are no answers in direct mail except test
answers," says Eugene Schwartz, author of the book, "Break-through
Advertising." "You dont know whether something will work until you test
it. And you cannot predict test results based on past experience."
Mistake No. 3: Not using a letter in your mailing
The sales letter - not the outer envelope, the brochure, or
even the reply form - is the most important part of your direct-mail package.
A package with a letter will nearly always out pull a
postcard, a self-mailer, or a brochure or ad reprint mailed without a letter.
Recently, a company tested two packages offering, for $1, a
copy of its mail-order tool catalog. Package "A" consisted of a sales letter and
reply form. Package "B" was a double post-card. The result? "A" out
pulled "B" by a 3-to-1 ratio.
Why do letters pull so well? Because a letter creates the
illusion of personal communication. We are trained to view letters as "real"
mail, brochures as "advertising." Which is more important to you?
One recommendation I often give clients is to try an
old-fashioned sales letter first. Go to a fancier package once you start making some
Mistake No. 4: Features vs. Benefits.
Perhaps the oldest and most widely embraced rule for writing
direct-mail copy is, "Stress benefits, not features." But in
business-to-business marketing, that doesnt always hold true.
In certain situations, features must be given equal (if not
top) billing over benefits.
For example, if youve ever advertised semiconductors,
you know that design engineers are hungry for specs. They want hard data on drain-source,
voltage, power dissipation, input capacitance, and rise-and-fall time...not broad
advertising claims about how the product helps save time and money or improves
"Ive tested many mailings selling engineering
components and products to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers)," says Don Jay
Smith, president of the Chatham, NJ-based ad agency The Wordsmith. "Ive found
that features and specs out pull benefits almost every time."
Vivian Sudhalter, Director of Marketing for New York-based
Macmillan Software Co., agrees.
"Despite what tradition tells you," says Ms.
Sudhalter, "the engineering and scientific marketplace does not respond to promise -
or benefit - oriented copy. They respond to features. Your copy must tell them exactly
what they are getting and what your product can do. Scientists and engineers are put off
by copy that sounds like advertising jargon."
In the same way, I suspect that doctors are swayed more by
hard medical data than by advertising claims, and that industrial chemists are eager to
learn about complex formulations that the average advertising writer might reject as
In short, the copywriters real challenge is to find out
what the customer wants to know about your product - and then tell him in your
Mistake No. 5: Not having an offer.
An offer is what the reader gets when he responds to
To be successful, a direct-mail package should sell the
offer, not the product itself. For example, if I mail a letter describing a new mainframe
computer, my letter is not going to do the whole job of convincing people to buy my
computer. But the letter is capable of swaying some people to at least show
interest by requesting a free brochure about the computer.
Make sure you have a well-thought-out offer in every mailing.
If you think the offer and the way you describe it are unimportant, you are wrong.
A free-lance copywriter friend of mine ran an ad in the
Wall Street Journal that offered a free portfolio of article reprints about direct
mail. He received dozens of replies. Then he ran an identical ad, but charged $3 for the
portfolio instead of giving it away. Number of responses that time? Only three.
Here are some effective offers for industrial direct mail:
Free brochure, free technical information, free analysis, free consultation, free
demonstration, free trial use, free product sample, free catalog.
Your copy should state the offer in such a way as to increase
the readers desire to send for whatever it is you offer. For example, a catalog
becomes a product guide. A collection of brochures becomes a free information
kit. A checklist becomes a convention planners guide. An article
reprinted in pamphlet form becomes "our new, informative booklet-How
to Prevent Computer Failures."
From now on, design your fulfillment literature with titles
and information that will make them work well as offers in direct mail. When one of my
clients decided to publish a catalog listing US software programs available for export
overseas, I persuaded her to call the book "The international Directory of US
Software," because I thought people would think such a directory was more valuable
than a mere product catalog.
Mistake No. 6: Superficial copy.
Nothing kills the selling power of a business-to-business
mailing faster than lack of content.
The equivalent in industrial literature is what I call the
"art directors brochure." Youve seen them: Showcase pieces destined
to win awards for graphic excellence. Brochures so gorgeous that everybody falls in love
with them - until they wake up and realize that people send for information, not
pretty pictures. Which is why typewritten, unillustrated sales brochures can often pull double
the response of expensive, four-color work.
In the same way, direct mail is not meant to be pretty. Its
goal is not to be remembered or create an image or make an impact, but to generate a
One of the quickest ways to kill that response is to be
superficial. To talk in vague generalities, rather than specifics. To ramble without
authority on a subject, rather than show customers that you understand their problems,
their industries and their needs.
What causes superficial copy? The fault lays with lazy
copywriters who dont bother to do their homework (or ignorant copywriters who
dont know any better).
To write strong copy - specific, factual copy - you must dig
for facts. You must study the product, the prospect and the marketing problem. There is no
way around this. Without facts, you cannot write good copy. But with the facts at their
fingertips, even mediocre copywriters can do a decent job.
Don Hauptman, author of the famous mail-order ad, "Speak
Spanish Like a Diplomat!," says that when he writes a direct-mail package, more than
50% of the work involved is in the reading, research and preparation. Less than half his
time is spent writing, rewriting, editing and revising.
Recently a client hired me to write an ad on a software
package. After reading the background material and typing it into my word processor, I had
19 single-spaced pages of notes.
How much research is enough? Follow Blys Rule, which
says you should collect at least twice as much information as you need - preferably
three times as much. Then you have the luxury of selecting only the best facts, instead of
trying desperately to find enough information to fill up the page.
Mistake No. 7: Saving the best for last.
Some copywriters save their strongest sales pitch for last,
starting slow in their sales letters and hoping to build to a climactic conclusion.
A mistake. Leo Bott, Jr., a Chicago-based mail-order writer,
says that the typical prospect reads for five seconds before he decides whether to
continues reading or throw your mailing in the trash. The letter must grab his attention
immediately. So start your letter with your strongest sales point.
Some examples of powerful openings:
- "Which produces the best ad results - 800 phone number?
company phone? coupon? no coupon?" - from a letter selling ad space in
Salesmans Opportunity magazine.
- "14 things that can go wrong in your company - and one
sure way to prevent them" - an envelope teaser for a mailing that sold a manual on
internal auditing procedures.
- "A special invitation to the hero of American
business" - from a subscription letter for Inc. magazine.
- "Can 193,750 millionaires be wrong?" - an envelope
teaser for a subscription mailing for Financial World magazine.
- "Dear Friend: Im fed up with the legal system. I
want to change it, and I think you do, too." - the lead paragraph of a fund-raising
Some time-testing opening gambits for sales letters include:
- asking a provocative question;
- going straight to the heart of the readers most pressing
problem or concern;
- arousing curiosity;
- leading off with a fascinating fact or incredible statistic;
- Starting the offer up-front, especially if it involves money;
saving it, getting something for an incredibly low price, or making a free offer.
Know the "hot spots" of your direct mail package -
the paces that get the most readership. Those include: the first paragraphs of the letter,
its subheads, its last paragraph and the post-script (80% of readers look at the PS); the
brochure cover, its subheads and the headline of its inside spread; picture captions; and
the headline and copy on the order form or reply card. Put your strongest selling copy in
Mistake No. 8: Poor follow-up.
Recently a company phoned to ask whether I was interested in
buying its product, which was promoted in a mailing Id answered. The caller became
indignant when I confessed that I didnt remember the companys copy, its
product, its mailing, or whether it sent me a brochure.
"When did I request the brochure?" I asked. The
caller checked her records. "About 14 weeks ago," she replied.
Hot leads rapidly turn ice cold when not followed up quickly.
Slow fulfillment, poor marketing literature and inept telemarketing can destroy the
initial interest that you worked so hard to build.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself about your
current inquiry fulfillment procedures:
- Am I filling order or requests for information with 48 hours?
- Am I using telephone follow-up or mail questionnaires to
qualify prospects? By my definition, an inquiry is a response to your mailing. A
lead is a qualified inquirer - someone who fits the descriptive profile of a potential
customer for your product. You are after leads, not just inquiries.
- Am I sending additional mailings to people who did not respond
to my first mailing? Test that. Many people who did not respond to mailing No. 1 may send
back the reply card from mailing No. 2, or even No. 3.
- Am I using telemarketing to turn nonresponders into
responders? Direct mail followed by telemarketing generates two to 10 times more response
than direct mail with no telephone follow-up, according to Dwight Reichard, telemarketing
director of Federated Investors Inc., Pittsburgh.
- Does my inquiry fulfillment package include a strong sales
letter telling the prospect what to do next? Every package should.
- Does my inquiry fulfillment package include a reply element,
such as an order form or spec sheet?
- Does my sales brochure give the reader the information he
needs to make an intelligent decision about taking the next step in the buying process?
The most common complaints I hear from prospects is that the brochures they receive do not
contain enough technical and price information.
Dont put 100% of your time and effort into
lead-generating mailing and 0% into the follow-up, as so many mailers do. You have to keep
selling, every step of the way.
Mistake No. 9: The magic words.
This mistake is not using the magic words that can
dramatically increase the response to your mailing.
General advertisers, operating under the mistaken notion that
the mission of the copywriter is to be creative, avoid the magic words of direct mail,
because they think those magic phrases are clichés.
But just because a word or phrase is used frequently
doesnt mean that it has lost its power to achieve your communications objective. In
conversation, for example, "please" and "thank you" never go out of
What are the magic words of direct mail?
Free. Say free brochure. Not brochure. Say free
consultation. Not initial consultation. Say free gift. Not gift.
If the English teacher in you objects that "free
gift" is redundant, let me tell you a story. A mail-order firm tested two packages.
The only difference was that package "A" offered a gift while package
"B" offered a free gift.
The result? You guessed it. The free gift order in package
"B" significantly out pulled package "A". Whats more, many
people who received package "A" wrote in and asked whether the gift was free!
No Obligation. Important when you are offering
anything free. If prospects arent obligated to use your firms wastewater
treatment services after you analyze their water sample for free, say so. People want to
be reassured that there are no strings attached.
No salesperson will call. If true, a fantastic phrase
that can increase response by 10% or more. Most people, including genuine prospects, hate
being called by salespeople over the phone. Warning: Dont say "no salesperson
will call" if you do plan to follow up by phone. People wont buy from
Details inside/See inside. One of those should follow
any teaser copy on the outer envelope. You need a phrase that directs the reader to the
Limited time only. People who put your mailing aside
for later reading or file it will probably never respond. The trick is to generate a
response now. One way to do it is with a time-limited offer, either generic
("This offer is for a limited time only."), or specific ("This offer
expires 9/20/87."). Try it!
Announcing/At last. People like to think they are
getting in on the ground floor of a new thing. Making your mailing an announcement
increases its attention-getting powers.
New. "New" is sheer magic in consumer
mailings. But its a double-edged sword in industrial mailings. On the one hand,
business and technical buyers want something new. On the other hand, they demand products
with proven performance.
The solution? Explain that your product is new or available
to them for the first time, but proven elsewhere - either in another country, another
application, or another industry. For example, when we introduced a diagnostic display
system, we advertised it as "new" to US hospitals but explained it had been used
successfully for five years in leading hospitals throughout Europe.
Mistake No. 10: Starting with the product - not the
In my New York University copywriting workshop, I teach
students to avoid "manufacturers copy" - copy that is vendor-oriented,
that stresses who we are, what we do, our corporate philosophy and history, and the
objectives of our firm.
You and your products are not important to the prospect. The
reader opening your sales letter only wants to know, "Whats in it for me? How
will I come out ahead by doing business with you vs. Someone else?"
Successful direct mail focuses on the prospect, not the
product. The most useful background research you can do is to ask your typical prospect,
"Whats the biggest problem you have right now?" The sales letter should
talk about that problem, then promise a solution.
Do not guess what is going on in industries about which you
have limited knowledge. Instead, talk to customers and prospects to find out their needs.
Read the same publications and attend the same seminars they do. Try to learn their
problems and concerns.
Too many companies and ad agencies dont do that. Too
many copywriters operate in a black box, and doom themselves merely to recycling data
already found in existing brochures.
For example, let's say you have the assignment of writing a
direct-mail package selling weed control chemicals to farmers. Do you know what farmers
look for in weed control, or why they choose one supplier over another? Unless you are a
farmer, you probably don't. Wouldn't it help to speak to some farmers and learn more about
Read, talk and listen to find out what's going on with your
In his book "Or Your Money Back," Alvin Eicoff, one
of the deans of late night television commercials, tells the story of a radio commercial
he wrote selling rat poison. It worked well in the consumer market. But when it was aimed
at the farm market, sales turned up zero.
Mr. Eicoff drove out to the country to talk with farmers. His
finding? Farmers didn't order because they were embarrassed about having a rat problem,
and feared their neighbors would learn about it when the poison was delivered by mail.
He added a single sentence to the radio script, which said
that the rat poison was mailed in a plain brown wrapper. After that, sales soared.
Talk to your customers. Good direct mail--or any ad
copy--should tell them what they want to hear. Not what you think is important.
Mistake No. 11: Failing to appeal to all five
Unlike an ad, which is two-dimensional, direct mail is
three-dimensional and can appeal to all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste.
Yet most users of direct mail fail to take advantage of the medium's added dimension.
Don't plan a mailing without at least thinking about whether
you can make it more powerful by adding a solid object, fragrance or even a sound. You
ultimately may reject such enhancements because of time and budget constraints. But here
are some ideas you might consider:
Audiocassettes. In selling summaries of business books
recorded on cassette, Macmillan Software Co. sent an audiocassette in a cold mailing to
prospects. The cassette allows the prospect to sample the books-on-tape program. I would
have said, "Too expensive." But inside information, and the fact that I got the
package twice, tell me it's working for them.
Do you have a powerful message that a company spokesperson
can deliver in dynamic fashion to your audience? Consider adding a cassette to your
Videocassettes. Some companies are taking the idea one
step further and mailing videocassettes cold to prospects. Again, that's expensive--but
successful in many instances. One company I spoke to got a 30% response to such a program.
And in telephone follow-up, they learned that 95% watched the tape.
Pop-ups. Chris Crowell, president of Essex,
Conn.-based Structural Graphics Inc., says pop-ups can increase response up to 40% when
compared with a conventional flat mailing. You can have a pop-up custom designed for your
mailing or choose from one of many "stock" designs available.
Money. Market research firms have discovered that
enclosing a dollar bill with a market research survey can increase response by a factor of
five or more, even though $1 is surely of no consequence to business executives or most
consumers. Has anyone tried using money to get attention in a leadgetting industrial
Sound. Have you seen the greeting cards that play a
song when you open them because of an implanted chip or some similar device? I think that
certainly would get attention. But as far as I know, no one has used it yet in direct
Product samples. Don't neglect this old standard. Enclose a
product or material sample in your next mailing. We once did a mailing in which we
enclosed a small sample of knitted wire mesh used in pollution control and product
recovery. Engineers who received the mailing kept that bit of wire on their desks for
Premiums. An inexpensive gift such as a slide guide,
measuring tape, ruler or thermometer can still work well.
One recommendation and warning: A lot of us, including me,
need to be a little more imaginative if we want our mailing package to stand out in the
prospect's crowded mailbox. At the same time, we must remember that creativity can enhance
a strong selling message or idea but cannot substitute for it. As copywriter
Herschell Gordon Lewis, president of Communicomp in Plantation, Fla., warns,
"Cleverness for the sake of cleverness may well be a liability, not an asset."
Mistake No. 12: Creating and reviewing direct mail
Do you know what a moose is? It's a cow designed by a
Perhaps the biggest problem I see today is direct mail being
reviewed by committees made up of people who have no idea (a) what direct mail is; (b) how
it works; or (c) what it can and cannot do.
For example, an ad agency creative director told me how his
client cut a three-page sales letter to a single page because, as the client insisted,
"Business people don't read long letters."
Unfortunately, that's an assumption based on the client's own
personal prejudices and reading habits. It is not a fact. In many
business-to-business direct mail tests, I have seen long letters outpull short ones
Why pay experts to create mailings based on long years of
trial-and-error experience, then deprive yourself of that knowledge base by letting
personal opinions get in the way?
Here are some things you can do to become a better
- Reduce the review process. The fewer people who are involved,
the better. At most, the mailing should be checked by the communications manager, the
product manager and a technical expert (for accuracy).
- Resist the temptation to meddle. Point out technical
inaccuracies and other mistakes. But don't dictate the piece's content, tone or style.
- Make a commitment to judge direct mail not by what you like or
by aesthetics, but by results-which can be measured accurately and scientifically.
- Become more educated in direct mail by reading books. I
recommend "Successful Direct Marketing" by Bob Stone (NTC Business Books,
Chicago (800) 323-4900; 496 pp.; $29.95) as a good place to start.
- Know what's going on in the industry. Subscribe to at least
one of the direct marketing magazines: Direct Marketing, Zip Target Marketing, DM
Nexus. Also, keep in touch with industry developments by reading the more broadly
based marketing publications, such as BUSINESS MARKETING and Advertising Age.
- If you challenge your direct mail pros, be willing to spend
for a test. In direct mail, the answer to "Which concept is best?" is the same
as the answer to the question, "Which mailing piece pulled best?"
Because nobody can argue with results.
© Copyright 1998, Robert W.
by the kind permission of Bob Bly, Copywriter/Consultant/Seminar Leader, 22 East
Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd floor · Dumont, NJ 07628 Phone (201) 385-1220 · Fax (201)
385-1138 email: firstname.lastname@example.org