Perform a direct mail autopsy in 6 easy steps

direct mail autopsyDirect mail is a powerful and effective medium. But it’s a cruel world out there. And sometimes, your mail dies a gruesome death.

Maybe you don’t get the response you want. Perhaps the piece doesn’t get delivered correctly. Or fickle fate steps in and, for no apparent reason, murders a mailer you’ve successfully used a dozen times.

It’s enough to make you sick to your stomach. But rather than just shrug and accept it, there are steps you can take to discover the cause of death.

Here’s how to perform a “direct mail autopsy” in 6 simple steps:

1. Analyze the results. You can’t fix a problem until you know what the problem is. So take a stiff drink and sit down with the numbers for a while.

Is the response rate low or non-existent? If it’s a two-step, is the problem on the front end or the back end? How about your return or cancellation rate? What about net profit? Crunch your numbers every which way to see if you can hone in on the problem.

2. Double check essential elements. A mailing I did for one client bombed so badly they called me in a panic to say they were getting no responses at all. Not one. I calmly asked to see a sample piece as mailed and noticed something weird about the ZIP barcode.

Somehow their addressing software had inverted the bars so that the short bars printed tall and the tall bars printed short. With the ZIP wrong, no one received the piece. Fortunately, it was an easy fix.

Sometimes you can get so caught up in the creative aspects of a direct mail package that you forget to check things like those barcodes, addresses, phone numbers, website URLs, and other standard information. But you need to check them every time.

Always get extra samples and go over them with a fine-toothed comb. Fill out the form, call the number, go to the website, check the entire response process.

3. Compare it to successful pieces. Take a hard look at your offer. Has it changed? Weigh the information included. Is there more or less? Are you speaking about your product in a different way? Are you using a different format than before? Are you asking people to reply in a different way? Does the design look wrong for what you’re selling?

Technically, if you’re testing correctly, you will change only one element at a time, and you’ll always know why something fails or succeeds. If you’re not testing that way, and your piece bombs … well, now you know why it’s a mistake.

4. Look for the “muleta.” That’s the name of the little red cape bullfighters use. They wave it around in one hand to distract the bull from the sword they hold in the other hand. In a direct mail piece, the muleta is something that distracts potential customers from your offer, message, or product.

One direct mail piece I saw recently featured a teaser on the envelope that read, “Stop monkeying around.” A big picture showed a goofy-looking monkey holding a wrench. This piece was selling a set of high-end automotive tools, but the verbal and visual puns functioned as a muleta, confusing people. Jokes don’t sell.

5. Be honest about your product. I once created a direct mail package for a well-known publisher, who told me the mailing bombed. But when I asked for details, I learned that the response rate doubled, the net profit doubled, and most of the numbers went up. However, the cancellation rate rose to around 30 percent and that didn’t go over well with management.

I gently told them it probably indicated a product-related problem — more people were trying the product because of my mailing but a lot of them didn’t like it. The publishing company didn’t accept that explanation, didn’t want to change the product, and didn’t seem to care that they were making twice as much money, even including cancellations.

Apparently, they preferred to make less money so they didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of admitting they had a bad product. Good grief.

6. Hire a professional. I know that sounds self-serving, but few business owners have the skill to create good direct mail. And often they don’t have anyone on staff who can do it either. Sometimes when they farm out the project, they hire someone local and cheap. Big mistake.

A failure may mean you need to bring in a hired gun to get your direct mail on track.

If budget is a problem, many consultants offer an analysis service that can identify problems in a direct mail piece and provide potential solutions. It’s not as good as having a direct mail piece created from scratch by a pro, but it’s a smart compromise.

Don’t feel too bad if you have a direct mailing that’s dead on arrival.

To change metaphors, everyone remembers that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. But few remember that he also had 1,330 strike outs. That’s because people generally remember successes and forget failures.

So when you have a mailing that strikes out, don’t panic. Just figure out your problem, fix it, and step up to the plate again.

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4 Responses to “Perform a direct mail autopsy in 6 easy steps”

  1. Jeremy Powers on October 21st, 2010 5:10 pm

    I have not heard the term muleta since I last read Hemingway’s short stories. That is a great analogy.

    The same thing happened with several of the big “.com” companies a few years back. They made all these super funny or cute commercials, paid a ton to have them aired during the Super Bowl, and never actually told consumers what they were selling.

  2. Dean Rieck on October 21st, 2010 6:03 pm

    Generally it’s an ad agency talking a vulnerable marketing staff into blowing some money.

    Remember the TV show Thirtysomething? The ad agency owner lectured one of his employees about the purpose of ad agencies … to win awards, to get new clients, to create more advertising, that will win awards, to get new clients …

  3. Jeremy Powers on October 22nd, 2010 8:21 am

    I don’t watch much tv these days, but I do remember that scene and that show.

    I subscribe to the Bly/Kennedy/D’Alessandro school of marketing thought: the advertisements should pay for themselves, short term (<1 year). Building brand equity or name recognition can be fine, as long as the equity or recognition leads to sales.

    Thanks for the response.

  4. Lisa Miller on February 4th, 2011 6:01 pm

    Direct mail these days are diminishing yet there some companies in this business that need to make profit.So i think if you love direct mail and you believe its working for you, you need to learn and master these six steps.I find them very useful to me and i believe they will be useful to you too.Good article.

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