8 Stupid Things People Do to Screw Up Their Direct Mail

by Dean Rieck

A famous chess player once revealed to me how he wins so many games, often against far more experienced players. I had expected some arcane theory or secret formula. However, what he said was this: "I try to avoid making mistakes."

I've never forgotten that bit of wisdom. In fact, I routinely give similar advice to my clients, to the readers of my monthly columns, and to the countless people who contact me every week wanting to improve their direct mail programs. Yes, I have all kinds of deep and well-thought-out ideas about creating effective direct mail, but the first thing I tell them is this: "Avoid mistakes before seeking brilliance."

What sort of mistakes? After working with over 125 clients in the U.S. and abroad, I've seen lots of smart people making lots of stupid mistakes. But there are a few particularly stupid things I see again and again, each guaranteed to screw up your direct mail big time:

Stupid Thing #1 — Allowing a trigger-happy "general" agency within killing range of your promotion.

One of the world's largest chemical companies sent me a self-mailer to review. They were using it to generate inquiries for a special program here in the U.S., but it hadn't produced the sort of response they wanted.

They didn't have to tell me a general agency had created it. I could tell by looking at it. The copy was cutesy, full of pun-heavy, meaningless headlines. The design was garish, with wild colors and hard-to-read type. The offer was hidden. The response elements were buried. The central message was disjointed and unclear.

My review consisted of two words: "It stinks."

My solution consisted of three words: "Do it again."

They said they could design the piece themselves if I gave them new copy and some very specific design direction, so that's what I did. But when I got samples a couple months later, I was shocked. The copy had been hacked to death. The design had reverted to its original hideousness.

The reason? They showed it to some people at their bigwig New York agency. The creative team took a fit and mercilessly sacrificed the newly born self-mailer on the altar of creative irrelevance. The results? Lousy.

I have nothing against general agencies, but most of them simply can't do effective direct advertising. (Most can't do good brand advertising, either. But that's another article.) If you're serious about selling products, generating leads, or raising funds directly, keep a safe distance between your direct mail piece and most general agencies. Say, a half mile or so.

Stupid Thing #2 — Having the artist design the piece first, and the writer fill in the blanks later.

I've been in this situation more times than I care to admit. And the result is always bad. It's usually an agency. And it's usually right after they've won a client's business with the aid of a few funky design mockups. Trouble is, when clients are sold that way, they want to see a final product that looks like the original pitch. The format is selected and the layout is created before any thought is given to the actual message.

Like the time an agency sent me a mockup of a three-dimensional mailing to announce a trade show. The copy areas were indicated by little gray boxes here and there in the design. My job: fill in the blanks. But, I asked, what about a response form? What about a letter? What about ... no, just fill in the blanks, thank you.

I love designers. I work with them all the time. But with all due respect, designers should never, ever lead the creation of a direct mail sales message. Design can entice, impress, demonstrate, dramatize, tease, assure, amuse, and suggest, but not sell. Words sell. And words come from the writer.

Stupid Thing #3 — Plastering a clever teaser on every envelope you mail.

A teaser is a technique, not a requirement. But some people seem to experience physical pain at the idea of mailing a plain envelope.

A financial services firm asked me to write a lead generation package. I delivered it, and my contact called me to say some of my copy had been lost.

Me: Lost?

Client: Yes, there is no teaser copy for the envelope.

Me: Oh, well I didn't write any.

Client: Didn't write any? (Long silence.) Well the envelope can't go out like that. What would the board of directors say?

Me: Are you mailing it to the board of directors?

Client: No, but they want a professional-looking package.

Me: Really? I would think they want a package that gets the best response possible. And in this case, I think that means using a plain envelope.

Client: (Another long silence.) Okay, well, our designer has some ideas for teaser copy, so we'll come up with something.

The decision about whether to use a teaser depends on what you are selling and your relationship with your prospects. And it depends on whether you want your ad to look like an ad. Sometimes it should. Often it shouldn't.

My rule on this is simple: When in doubt, leave it out.

Stupid Thing #4 — Spending 2 weeks on the flyer and 2 hours on the letter.

I know. Brochures are sexy. Letters aren't. But the old saying is as true as it ever was: "The letter sells. The brochure tells." So if you spend all your time on the tell, you just aren't going to sell.

A newsletter publisher sent me a sample of a direct mail package that wasn't working like they thought it should. I could see one big problem right away. The letter was a four-paragraph snoozer, little more than "Enclosed you will find, yadda yadda." The company president said his secretary wrote it.


I could go on and on about the importance of letters, but here's the bottom line: If it's in an envelope, it needs a letter. And if you enclose a letter, it should sell. That's where you make the personal connection. That's where you make your pitch. That's where you close the deal.

A package can work without a brochure, but it will seldom work without a good letter. It's the most important part of every direct mail package, and you should allot your time accordingly.

Stupid Thing #5 — Creating a slow-reveal "Burma Shave" brochure.

Remember those Burma Shave signs along the highway? They would present a rhymed message, with each line on a different sign, so as you drove past, the message was slowly revealed, saving the product name for the end.

You know, "Within this vale — of toil — and sin — your head grows bald — but not your chin — Burma Shave."

Cute. But a bad technique for direct mail brochures. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about. A few words of copy or a clever graphic on each panel. The reader has to open the brochure — reading in exactly the right order from panel to panel — to figure out the message.

Early in my career, I worked with an agency that insisted every brochure have a "set up" on the cover and a "payoff" inside. It was like writing jokes instead of brochures. Every time I delivered clear, straightforward copy that started selling right on the cover, it was rewritten to set up, then pay off.

Burma Shave signs had a simple purpose: to fix the Burma Shave name in the minds of buyers. However, your brochure has a much more difficult and immediate task: to support the sales message in the letter with explanations, details, and proofs. People look to it not for entertainment but for information.

So if you have something to say, say it. Start saying it right on the cover. And make sure your message is clear no matter how the reader skips around from panel to panel.

Stupid Thing #6 — Playing hide and seek with the order form, guarantee, and testimonials.

A software company had tested a half dozen versions of the same mailer. All of them had performed poorly. When I got the samples, I could see why. The order form was hidden on the last panel of the brochure. The guarantee — one of the strongest I've ever seen — appeared in only one place in the middle of some text. And the testimonials were merely filler for a few open areas in the design.

But an order form is not a piece of extra paper. A guarantee is not a necessary evil to jam into the copy. Testimonials are not a design element. These are each part of the skeleton of your direct mail message. Without that skeleton, the body of your package collapses into a helpless mass of paper.

Whenever possible, make your order form a separate piece that falls right into your prospect's lap. Highlight your guarantee on every piece to assure your prospect of your integrity. And group your testimonials so they make a stronger impression.

Stupid Thing #7 — Buying first class postage and third class creative.

If ever there was a definition of false economy, it's this. One New York publisher is typical. They had an expensive, specialized industry publication they wanted to sell. Could I help them? Sure. So I gave them a quote for a package, but they said it was too much. To save money, they did it on the cheap with some local people.

I talked to them again some months later and guess what? The package bombed. That economy mailing wasn't very economical after all. They admitted this, and said that's why they were calling. Could I help them? Sure. So I gave them another quote. Again it's too much. They claim they have to save money because the first mailing didn't do well!!!

Just shoot me.

Look. If you've spent months developing the product, researching lists, spying on the competition, setting up fulfillment services, and getting all the particulars in place, then why would you suddenly get cheap on creative?

Do you want the cheapest brain surgeon? Do you shop for economy parachutes? Do you pinch pennies on rattlesnake venom antidote? If something is important, you want the best. Right?

Okay. Some of the best creative talent in this business is freelance. And most of those people command much more than the $50 an hour types who are just looking for some work between agency jobs. Professional-level copy and design for a typical direct mail package can cost from $10,000 to $20,000. Sometimes it's a little less or a little more, but that's ballpark for most of the people who know what they're doing.

I know you can't judge quality solely on price, since there are hacks at every price level. But you can be sure of one thing: if the price is low, there's a reason. If you need brain surgery, you don't want a doctor who is paid $15 an hour and drives a rusty Pinto. And if you need effective direct mail, you don't want cheap creative talent either.

Both will make your brain hurt.

Stupid Thing #8 — Guessing, guessing, guessing instead of testing, testing, testing.

This is probably the stupidest thing of all. And I run into it all the time. Despite the image our industry has for being a bunch of number-happy bean counters, a frighteningly large percentage of businesses don't test. Or don't test properly.

One guy wanted me to help him sell a software product. He was using a self-mailer, but I thought he needed an envelope package. He said he had tested envelope packages and firmly stated that they don't work.

But after asking some very specific questions, I found out he had done one mailing. With a new offer. To an untried list. During a bad time of the year. And didn't mail it against his control. In other words, he did a lousy mailing, got lousy results, and concluded that envelope packages are lousy.

Stand me up and shoot me again.

And you would be amazed at the businesses I talk to that don't test at all — respected, household names you probably think are testing their socks off. Some of the worst offenders are big companies that have direct mail programs, but don't rely on them for their success. And (egad) you're probably borrowing techniques from these people!

I don't care how smart you are or how well you know your market or product. Until you run a properly designed test, you don't know jack. And even then, you should test again just to be sure.

Is testing expensive? Let me put it this way: it's less expensive than rolling out a mailing that is destined to flop. So make this your mantra: Test. (inhale) Test. (exhale) Test. (inhale) Test. (exhale)

Avoiding stupid mistakes won't guarantee success. But like the chess player, you will reduce your losses and thereby increase your wins.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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