8 Common Direct Marketing Questions Answered

by Dean Rieck

People have so many questions about direct marketing, I thought I'd simply list some of the most common ones and answer them.

Q: What's the secret of success in direct mail?

A: The secret of success is that there is no one secret of success. There are dozens of things that have to work right before you turn a profit. So if you're trying to find a magic spell to strike it rich, you're in the wrong business.

Having said that, I'll say this: Start with a good product. It will make everything you do easier, from selecting lists to writing copy. You know what they say: The best way to kill a bad product is with good advertising. And I would add this: It's hard to kill a good product even with bad advertising.

Q: I'm teaching a business class about direct marketing. What would you say are the basics my students need to know?

A: The most basic concept to understand is that direct marketing is a method of selling products and services. Instead of putting products on retail shelves and waiting for people to buy them, you sell directly to customers. You cut out the middleman. The type of advertising used is direct response, which is really just a set of techniques that works well when selling directly.

To make direct response advertising work, you need three things: 1) an offer, 2) enough information to justify accepting the offer, and 3) an easy means of responding to the offer. This short list explains why so many people fail to create effective ads — they simply forget one or more of these three requirements.

How's that for boiling down the whole industry into about a hundred words?

Q: No one writes with typewriters anymore, so why do the gurus keep saying to use a typewriter font in direct mail letters? Isn't this just a holdover from the old days?

A: If you want a TV spokesman to look like a doctor, you have him wear a white smock. The smock is an icon. It instantly conveys the idea of "doctor." Likewise, if you want your letter to look personal, you set the type in a typewriter face. The type is an icon. It instantly conveys the idea of "letter." One of these days, that will change. But icons have a way of sticking around, so it won't be any time soon.

One caveat: I generally use a typewriter face — such as Courier, American Typewriter, or Memorandum — for consumer letters but not for business letters. Business people are more likely to see typewriter faces as old-fashioned, so for them I prefer Times Roman or a similar serif face.

Q: I would like to test a magalog, but the estimates I'm getting to create one are pretty high. Is the price justified?

A: Any price is justified if the end result is profitable. Personally, the results I see are mixed. Some of my clients say their magalogs are working great. Others say direct mail packages work better and cost less. Most of the success I see is with books, newsletters, or magazines — reader-oriented products that seem to mesh well with the reader-oriented format of a magalog. But you'll have to test to see if the format can work for you.

By the way, "magalog" is a misnomer. Technically, a magalog is a combination of a magazine and a catalog. Most of the magalogs you see in the mail, though, are really just self-mailers that look like magazines. So you could be a troublemaker like me and call them "magamailers."

Q: Can you sell with postcards?

A: It's hard to sell directly from a postcard, unless you're selling a well-known product or category with a standard offer, such as a free trial for a magazine subscription. There just isn't enough room to relay all the information your prospect needs to justify a purchase. If you want to cut costs and still sell directly, try a self-mailer.

However, postcards are wonderful for generating inquiries. Ask prospects to call a toll-free number for an information kit, for example. Or direct them to a special page on your Web site. Or use a double postcard or self-mailer that lets prospects tear off a reply card and drop it back in the mail.

One technique I like for both postcards and self-mailers is the "little letter" — a short message, personalized if possible, that fulfills the same function as a direct mail letter. This little letter is easy to create and can boost response significantly.

Q: I see people quoting postal rules and regulations. But where do you find that stuff? Is there a manual where I can find everything spelled out clearly?

A: You bet. It's called the Domestic Mail Manual, published by the United States Postal Service. Anyone doing direct mail should have a copy. It explains — in excruciating detail — official standards, mail classes, special services, rate eligibility, mail preparation, and just about everything you didn't know you needed to know. If you mail outside the U.S., you should get the International Mail Manual. There's also an online version of the Domestic Mail Manual and a ton of other resources on the USPS website at www.usps.com.

Q: I see direct response TV spots, but I never hear direct response radio ads. Why? It would seem that radio would be a great way to target specific groups of listeners.

A: There are direct response ads out there, but they're mostly on talk radio stations. Most are used to generate inquiries or offer free samples. The weaknesses of radio are that your time is generally limited to 30 or 60 seconds, so you can't include much information, and there is no direct means of response except for the telephone. The strengths are that radio spots are simple to create and are very cost-effective — the best are usually little more than an announcer reading copy.

If you're trying to generate traffic for your website, radio may be exactly what you're looking for. A recent study by Arbitron Internet Information Services and Edison Media Research shows that Internet surfers often listen to the radio while they surf and are likely to check out a site after hearing an ad. About all you need to do is make an offer and give your web address. I'm surprised more people don't try this.

Q: Should e-mail letters be short or long? I've seen advice going both ways.

A: The "make it short" advice comes from neophytes who have entered marketing from the technical side and assume people are as bored with what you're selling as they are. The "make it long" advice comes from mail gurus who are used to writing meandering 16-page letters and just haven't caught up with our modern, impatient society. Both are wrong.

There's a joke attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When asked how long a man's legs should be, he replied, "Long enough to reach the ground." An e-mail letter should be long enough to get a response. Sometimes that means a short letter. Sometimes that means a long letter. There's just no easy rule to cover every situation.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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