Boost Your Mail Response by Removing the Barriers to Buying

by Dean Rieck

You know you have a good product. You're sure the market is there and the price is right. And you have several hot direct mail lists you're testing. Still, you just aren't getting the response you expected. What do you do?

If you're like most direct marketers, your first reaction will be to pull out your creative tool box and start hammering away at the creative. You add a stronger P.S. to the letter. Pump up the benefits in your headlines. Add an insert with an enticing premium offer. You tack on technique after technique to increase the selling power of your direct mail piece and force more sales.

Does it work? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that since you don't know what's broken, you really don't know what to fix. Any creative tinkering you do will be random.

What should you do?

I'd like to show you a different and surprisingly simple way to create, evaluate, and improve your direct response advertising. It's especially well-suited for dealing with situations like I've just described, where you're using perfectly good techniques and following proven creative rules but aren't getting the results you want.

And while I'll focus on traditional direct mail, please remember that you can easily apply the same thinking to any media, including print, television, radio, and online ads.

The Aggressive Approach to Direct Response Selling

Most of us in direct marketing have an aggressive approach to selling. We want to "capture" the attention of prospects, push their "hot buttons," and "force" them to act immediately.

It's a good approach. It's based on sound Behaviorist principles that do, in fact, work. We operate with the functional analogy that our creative is a "sales person in the mail." We want our paper sales person to coax, urge, persuade, and sell just like any good sales person.

However, this is only an analogy. It is not reality. Unlike face-to-face sales, your direct response creative simply can't force anybody to do anything. A car salesman can grab you by the lapel and sit you down in the vehicle he wants to sell. He can, to a certain extent, push you past many of your doubts and objections with an aggressive approach and make a sale. But your advertisement can't be that forceful.

There is, therefore, a line beyond which the aggressive approach cannot take you. And when you reach this limit, when you're sure about your basics (lists, market, price, offers) but your creative is letting you down, you need to switch to a different mental analogy.

The "Passive" Approach to Direct Response Selling

What I'm suggesting is a reversal of our typically aggressive thinking that casts us as the hunter and our prospects as the prey. Instead of thinking "I'm going to capture a sale," think "I'm going to remove the barriers to buying and allow people to follow their natural inclination to make purchases from me."

This approach rests on several basic principles of the modern American consumer:

Principle #1: Prospects want to buy from you. We live in a highly evolved consumer culture. Shopping and buying is the modern equivalent for the hunting and gathering of our ancestors. People don't limit buying to necessities. The majority of purchases today are discretionary. Luxury cars, stereos and CDs, computers, designer clothing, gourmet food, books and magazines for every interest, specialty tools — Americans are in a daily frenzy to purchase products of every kind. Including yours.

Principle #2: You can't force anyone to do anything they don't want to do. Neither copy nor design is endowed with magic powers. For all the huffing and puffing we do about persuasive communications, the reality is that you can't force a sale through an advertisement. The best you can hope for is to capitalize on a need or want that exists and turn it into a buying action.

Principle #3: Selling does not require brilliance. Since people are natural consumers, we don't need clever ideas to sell them our wares. They are actively looking for things to buy, craving purchases. Yes, there's a certain amount of want-making, but that's more the realm of general advertising, not direct marketing, where we should be peddling items for which there is an established need or want.

Principle #4: You must remove the barriers to buying. If we agree that people naturally consume, that you can't force a sale, and that clever ideas are not a requirement, we must ask ourselves why prospects accept one offer and reject another. What is stopping the natural inclination to buy? What are the barriers to buying? All things being equal, isn't it reasonable to conclude that if we identify and remove these barriers, our sales will increase? When we take away all the reasons prospects have to say, "No," what can prospects do but say, "Yes?"

The Benefits of the Barrier Removal Approach

Call it Zen selling. Call it a problem-solution approach to improving your creative. Call it a new paradigm, if you prefer a more academic term. In any case, going beyond Behaviorism and adopting a barrier-removal mindset presents a host of benefits for the serious direct marketer:

The Barriers to Buying

The barriers to buying include everything that may stand in the way of your prospect responding positively — physical, emotional, intellectual, and financial. Your goal, therefore, is to ask yourself questions about your direct mail piece, to identify and subsequently remove every conceivable barrier so that absolutely nothing stops the sale.

Consider the following barrier "categories." This is not necessarily a comprehensive list, nor is it in any particular order. And the categories can and do overlap.

However, this should give you a feel for the barrier removal approach so that you can begin applying this thinking immediately.

The Identification Barrier — All of us have a certain image of ourselves which helps determine how we think and act. Does your marketing presentation make your prospect think, "Yes. A person like me would buy this" OR "I want to be like people who would buy this. So, I'll buy it, too?" Do your copy and graphics clearly target the prospect you're aiming for? Do headlines and pictures get the attention of your particular prospect? Is your message interesting to your prospect? Does your direct mail package (or ad, commercial, etc.) have a distinct personality to which your prospect can relate?

The Clarity Barrier — Don't expect to sell something to someone who doesn't understand what you're selling or the benefits of accepting your offer. Does your creative prevent clarity by calling attention to itself instead of focusing on the offer? Is your offer absolutely clear? Do your copy, design, and typography say what you really intend to say? Are all the details about your product or service fully understandable to your prospect? Is the graphic treatment of your copy legible and designed to encourage reading? Is your copy readable and written to encourage reading? Is your piece scannable and easy to understand at a glance? Is it simple, straightforward, and to-the-point?

The Product Identity Barrier — You don't necessarily have to go to great lengths to "position" your wares. However, it should have a distinct identity. Remove your product from your message and replace it with a competitor. If your creative still makes sense, you have not established identity. Do you relay a "big idea" for your product or service? Can your prospect instantly grasp your unique selling proposition? Have you proven your superiority? Have you turned all your features into benefits that are meaningful to your prospect?

The Involvement Barrier — Involving your prospect is more than just keeping his or her hands busy. Have you given your prospect a choice to make? Do you encourage involvement with a quiz or checklist? Do you ask your prospect to complete something to accept your offer? Do you capitalize on your prospect's inborn sense of fun and play with tokens, stickers, coupons, etc. Do you involve your prospect with personalization in the letter and other pieces? Have you offered your prospect something of true personal value?

The Credibility Barrier — You may be truthful, but does your prospect actually believe you? You can't argue a prospect into trusting you. You must remove all doubt with tangible displays of credibility. On what authority do you make your offer? Do you show how other people have used your product or service? Do you clearly relay your reputation without chest beating? Can you show how there's a trend for using your product? Do you provide testimonials from people your prospect will believe? Have you featured your guarantee? Do you show who personally backs up the guarantee? Do you make clear any qualifications to your offer? Do you have teeny legal type that might arouse suspicion?

The Immediacy Barrier — Have you expressed in words and graphics why it's so important to respond now rather than later? If your offer is urgent, does your copy make it sound urgent? Does the graphic treatment make your offer look urgent? Do you directly tell your prospects what you want them to do? Have you painted a "word picture" of how your prospect will immediately benefit by responding? Do you have a deadline? Is it a meaningful deadline or just an arbitrary date? Have you made clear the scarcity of your product or your offer? Instead of punishing those who order late, can you reward those who order early?

The Acceptability Barrier — Have you put yourself into the shoes of your prospects to consider whether your offer is really acceptable to them? Have you made an appeal to your prospect's emotional needs? Do you also make an appeal to logic? Is your product, offer, and overall presentation "likable?" Does the idea of responding make your prospect feel good? Have you made an effort to show how desirable your offer is? Does your offer allow prospects to feel that responding to your offer is consistent with their past ideas and actions? Do you give prospects the logical justification they need to make a purchase?

The Accessibility Barrier — Is there any physical barrier your prospect must overcome to respond? Is your toll-free number easy to see? For those who don't like to call, have you offered other response avenues, like mail, fax, and e-mail? Is there enough room on your order form for your prospect to write? Does the order form fit into the BRE? Is there a BRE? Do you accept orders 24-hours a day, 7-days-a-week? What can a prospect do if there's a question about your offer?

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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