A Secret Look at How People Read Your Direct Mail

by Dean Rieck

If you could watch people go through their mail the day your direct mail piece arrives, what do you think you would see? Let's take a look. But be warned, this will turn your stomach.

First of all, only about 20% of the people on your list even consider reading your mail. No matter what you offer, no matter how you offer it, about eight out of 10 prospects simply chuck your mail into the trash with barely a glance.

Feeling a little queasy? Take a swig of Pepto-Bismol. It gets worse.

Those who remain are willing to grant you around 15 or 20 seconds of their attention. They glance at headlines, subheads, pictures, captions, offer statements, and other hot spots. But they're not reading. They're just scanning to see if your mail is interesting or relevant or valuable. And about half quickly conclude that it's not.

Into the trash.

Of all those to whom you originally sent your mailing, about 10% remain. These people start skimming to get some details. They pay particular attention to bullet lists, charts, diagrams, tables, illustrations, and bits of copy here and there. They're interested. They want to say yes. So you're home free, right? Wrong. Because soon, about half of these skimmers run across some detail that brings everything to a dead stop. Or they don't find something they're looking for.

So it's into the trash you go.

You're now down to about 5% of those mailed. These people are firmly in a yes mode but are not yet convinced. They look for confirmation that saying yes is a good decision. These are the few, the proud, and the brave who start reading your carefully crafted body copy. And how many of these actually respond? Maybe half, if you're really, really persuasive. More likely, a quarter or less.

So out of every 100 people who receive your mailing, perhaps 1% or 2% buy your widget.

And all this assumes you've done most things right. If not, what we see isn't pretty at all. The numbers plummet. Your sales fade away to nothing.

It's okay to cry. Let it out. But after you dry your eyes, think about what you've learned from this depressing spectacle. When people sort your mail, they're quick. They're brutal. And if you don't instantly capture their attention, you're dead.

So don't waste your time rewording the seventh paragraph on the back panel of your brochure or tweaking your logo color so that it's a particular shade of green. If you want to improve your results, don't spend most of your time where the people on your list will spend the least. Get down to basics. Consider the big issues.

To begin with, you should test lists. Test lots of lists. Crummy mail sent to a good list can make you money. But brilliant mail sent to a bad list will fail every time. This is where you win or lose the most because, as you've just seen, that first garbage sort is a killer. The best lists are those made up of proven mail-responsive buyers. Like it or not, some people will respond by mail and some people won't. But don't believe a word of what those list cards tell you. The only way to know which lists work for you is to — say it with me — TEST.

Sell a good product. Can you say, "Duh?" A lot of people I talk to think that direct mail is a magic path to riches. Just slap together any old gizmo and, presto, the money tree starts blooming. Wrong. A good product is always easier to sell than a piece of crap. And people decide quickly whether you're selling a winner or a dud. What's a good product? It's something people want or need right now. Something they already understand. Don't try to create a new market unless you have deep pockets and lots of patience.

Make an enticing offer. When people glance at your mailing, they're looking for what you're selling and the deal you're making to sell it. So make it good. Make it fast. And make it clear. Doubt fills trashcans. And for goodness' sake, make your offer more than just the price. Offer a free trial. Throw in a premium. Beef up your guarantee. If you don't give people an outstanding reason to accept your offer, they won't.

Spend lots of time writing your headlines and subheads and less time tinkering with body copy. Include plenty of information, enough to answer every question and ease every doubt. Point out the benefits. List all the features. Make every word clear. Make every picture relevant. Present a clear call to action. Make response easy.

Hmm. Does this sound like Direct Mail 101? Yup.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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