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direct mail q&a


Q. Is there any mailing format that consistently performs better than the others?

A. In a word, no. but you can take advantage of the fact that direct mail allows for testing with prompt results. So you can determine the format and approach that works best and provides maximum cost-effectiveness for your market.

Q. What questions should I ask when I'm reviewing a piece of direct mail copy?

a. Here are a few suggestions: is it clear? Is it interesting? Does it speak to the recipient's needs and desires? Does the opening sentence irresistibly pull the reader in? Does it pile on the benefits? Is it concise? (by concise, we mean, does it avoid unnecessary verbiage in doing the job it has to do?) Is it believable? (Remember, the purpose of all advertising is to generate believability. one exaggerated claim or bit of excess "hype" can lose your prospect's trust right then and there.) Is it totally, 100% about the recipient? (A good direct mail piece should appear completely selfless. It's not about you. It's about what you can do for the prospect. It's not about your product or service. It's about what your product or service can do for the prospect. never brag or boast. Always show that you understand your prospect's needs, care about those needs, and that you're in business to meet them.) 

mailing lists

Q. How important is the list in a direct mail effort?

A. Important indeed. In fact, most direct mail professionals regard list choice as the single most critical element in determining the success of a mailing. And they can make a good case: when using an identical direct mail package, the best list can pull ten times as many responses as a poor list. No matter how well-crafted your mailing may be in other respects, if it isn't reaching the right people genuine prospects for your product or service results will suffer.

Q. What are the sources for mailing lists?

A. Basically, there are three kinds of sources for mailing lists:

Internal sources. Here you work with your own list of current or previous customers those who are using or have used your product or service. such lists, taken from your company's own files or database, are known as house lists. Because these people already have experience with your company, they should represent your very best prospects. They're also the people you know most about for highly targeted selling efforts. When mailing to a house list, you can segment it according to past purchasing patterns, and so tailor your message to an individual's demonstrated needs and desires. A house list is the opposite of an outside list, where you rent names from list brokers or from other companies.

External sources. These are names that come from outside your company. There are two subcategories here. Direct response lists consist of names of people who have previously responded to direct response offers. In other words, these consumers are comfortable with the idea of ordering or inquiring by mail. Direct response lists can be tailored according to the types of things that have been sent for; they cover a broad range of subjects and interests, from magazine subscribers to catalog shoppers. A second type of external list is the compiled list. Such a list represents a collection of names and addresses taken from a database that was originally established for a noncommercial purpose. Sources include motor vehicle registrations, government records, telephone directories and sic compilations.

We might note that, after your own internal lists, direct response lists almost always perform the best. but they tend to be two to three times as expensive as compiled lists.

offer/call to action

Q. What, precisely, is an offer?

A. In looser terms, it might be described as "the deal" the specific proposition that induces a customer or prospect to act. Classic examples are "send for our free catalog" and "choose any 12 downloads for a penny."

Q. What are the elements that make up an offer?

A. An offer may consist of:

  • the product or service itself

  • a money-back guarantee

  • a specific promise such as a toll-free phone line to provide customers with assistance

  • a price break or just the price itself

  • a free sample or trial

  • favorable payment terms

  • a premium for acting now.

Q. How important is the offer?

A. The offer is one of the most critical components of your direct mail package. Aa mailing may be highly compelling in many ways in format, copy, selling strategy but it will only achieve its maximum potential when coupled with a sound offer. While it's hard to overestimate the importance of offer testing, the procedure is, fortunately, very simple. Just send out the same package with a variety of others, and watch for differences in the results.

response rates

Q. What can affect the response rate of a direct mail package?

A. We began with this particular question because it's hard to overstate the point that just about everything can affect response: the mailing list, the creative format, the offer, degree of personalization, and so on. We'll cover a lot of these factors in more detail below.

Q. How can the success of a direct mail campaign be measured?

A. It depends on what you want your campaign to do for you. ask yourself some questions. are you selling directly and looking for cost-per-order that provides a certain profit margin? are you trying to build in-store traffic? Are you attempting to create long-term customer loyalty? Do you want to generate requests for information at a certain cost-per-inquiry? Aare you willing to settle for a break-even response rate if it means garnering a list of names that you can continue to sell to in the future? In other words, the measure of your success is in the mastery of your goals.

Q. When I send out a mailing, how long should it take for responses to start coming in? And when can I be fairly certain that responses have run their course?

A. For one thing, response time will depend on whether you mailed first-class or standard mail. First-class packages reach their destinations sooner, and so naturally bring back a faster response. If you chart responses against time elapsed, you'll generally see the classic "bell-shaped" curve well-known to statisticians.

Q. Will seasonality affect the response rate of a mailing?

A. It can. Some packages, such as those containing gift catalogs, have obvious seasonal correlates. But even others can show improved performance if mailed at certain times of the year, or in some cases, at specific times of the month. For starters, you can use your existing sales patterns as a barometer of when to mail. Also, you might factor in the timing of your competition's mailings. as is often the case in direct mail, some modest experimentation can provide you with guidance. You can send out test mailings at different times to track seasonal rises and dips for your product or service. And if you have a package that seemed promising from a creative standpoint, but didn't perform as hoped, by all means consider after trying it again during a different period.


Q. What are the distinguishing strengths of mail?

A. When designing a mailing program, it's helpful to keep the medium's unique capabilities uppermost in mind. tThat way, you're likely to take advantage of everything that it has to offer. Consider mail's five special strengths, and how you can make them work most effectively for you:

When you use mail, you select exactly who you want to talk to. you speak to people in their own language and about their individual needs. you can target in many different ways geographically, demographically, psychographically and combine approaches for still greater selectivity. you can even time your efforts to coincide with a critical point in a customer's buying cycle.

With mail, you know that every dollar you spend is being directed at people who are genuine prospects for your product or service. instead of paying for circulation or viewership that may not be relevant to your needs, your budget is working all-out where it really matters.

Mail can handle a wide variety of advertising or marketing tasks. mail can sell directly, of course. but it's also the medium that can deliver a sample right to the consumer, bring back the information you need to build a database, or develop a dialogue that helps to create a lifetime customer.

There's no guesswork when it comes to the results of a mail campaign, and virtually no waiting. if you've got a winner worth rolling out, you know right away. by allowing you to rapidly compare the merits of various strategies, mail provides the kind of knowledge that will help you in every aspect of marketing.

Because you can prove that mail works, it becomes its own justification. as responses pour in, the value of your program speaks for itself. this high level of accountability enables you to proceed with a high level of confidence.


Q. What variables should be considered when testing?

A. The things to test are those that usually have the greatest impact on response rate: offer, price, premium, creative (including strategy, format and copy), seasonality and list selection. Remember, of course, to test one element at a time, so you'll be able to clearly link cause and effect. first, test more substantial differences in the approach you can fine-tune your program later on by testing finer points. (Mail is a responsive medium, and you'll often achieve profitable results quickly; your next level of testing then becomes a matter of seeing how you can make a "good thing better.") By testing with small but statistically significant mailings, you can keep costs to a minimum. Modestly priced testing can also encourage you to explore innovative approaches that might turn out to be breakthrough winners. You'll find testing to be a fascinating, instructive and highly profitable exercise, full of marketing and advertising lessons you would not have gained otherwise.

Q. When should you test?

A. There are as many answers to this question as there are companies with mailing programs. But here are some general guidelines:

  • when you want to fine-tune a successful mailing to improve results even further.

  • when your cost-per-order or cost-per-inquiry isn't what you had hoped.

  • when you're presented with new creative that you feel might be a significant performer but (wisely) requires more than gut instinct to justify a major rollout.

  • when you seek to expand your market via wider-ranging list selection.

  • when something in your marketing mix changes a different price, a new offer, a promising premium.

  • When there's a new-product introduction.

Q. How often should testing be done?

A. You want to have an ongoing testing program. As you know, the marketplace is constantly changing and testing is a powerful tool for keeping up with changes. Also, testing supplies knowledge, and no marketer can have too much of that. Hunches, intuition and artistry will always play an important role in our discipline but so must the realities of response rates and numerical analysis.

Q. What kind of response is necessary for a test to be reliable and projectable?

A. Here again, there's no answer that applies to every company and every program, but there is a good rule of thumb. In order for a test to be projectable, you should receive a minimum of 1% in the mailing in question. For example, on a 5,000-piece mailing, this would represent 50 responses.

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