Direct Mail Questions and Answers

by Dean Rieck

Here are my answers to questions I've been asked recently about direct mail.

Q: We've tested self-mailers, but they never seem to work. What are we doing wrong?

A: As for what you're doing wrong, I can't possibly answer that question without seeing your self-mailers. There is nothing inherently wrong with the format. I have created successful self-mailers for many clients, mostly for lead generation but also for direct sales. One of my clients uses self-mailers exclusively to sell books and videos to a business market.

A self-mailer works best when your audience is familiar with your company or your product category. The more you have to explain or the more credibility you have to build, the more likely a direct mail package will get a better response.

Also, don't think of a self-mailer as a brochure. Think of it as a condensed envelope package. For example: You can use teasers to get recipients inside, include a short letter summarizing the offer, provide an order form that stands out from the rest of the design, etc. A brochure doesn't sell, per se; it supports a sales message. So the direct mail package analogy is more effective.

Having said all that, I want to emphasize that an envelope package is usually a safer bet. Self-mailers are primarily a cost-cutting format. I recommend that you get a package to work first, then test the same idea as a self-mailer.

Q: What do you think of bingo cards?

A: Not much. Their purpose is to generate inquiries, but the quality is usually poor. When I see a bingo card, I circle dozens of numbers on a whim just to get some mail. I think that's what most people do. If you want inquiries, offer something free and get a response right off the page. Give your phone number. Include a coupon. Or add a bind-in response card. Bind-ins work like crazy.

Q: My boss wants to test an "invoice" format. It looks official, as if someone has ordered our product and we're just billing for it. Is this legal?

A: It depends on how far you go to make it look official. You're walking a thin line. Even if it's legal, it may not be ethical. I'm seeing more and more of these. Some are just stripped-down, economical solicitations. But some are blatant trickery. If you have to dupe people to get them to buy your product, doesn't that mean there is something wrong with your product? Why not sell something people want instead of snookering them into paying for something they don't want?

Q: Are there any sure-fire direct mail techniques?

A: Nothing works all the time, but there are some techniques that seem universal in their effectiveness:

Q: Should headlines be short or long?

A: A long time ago, I interviewed for a job at a small advertising agency in Las Vegas. The owner considered himself a master advertiser and insisted that headlines should be seven words or shorter, without exception. I told him he was wrong and gave him several good examples of long headlines. He smiled, nodded, and showed me to the door.

I run into this short or long argument all the time with both letters and headlines. And it's just nonsense. A headline should be as long as it has to be to get the reader interested in reading more. I've written headlines as short as one word and as long as 30 words or more. Loosen up. Focus on selling, not on formulas.

Q: Is the word "FREE" overused?

A: No. Offering free stuff is the one and only technique that will never, ever lose its effectiveness.

Q: How often should you update a direct mail package?

A: When it stops working or when you beat it with another package. You can test different offers, inserts, premiums, and other elements, but don't mess with the basic package unless there's a good reason.

Q: I hear lots of advice about direct mail success, but where's the academic research to back it up?

A: There have been plenty of academic studies on reading habits but few on direct mail and, for example, how it's opened, which pieces are read first, etc.

Frankly, I don't know how you could run an academic study on such things. Unless people are in their natural environment, making decisions with their own money, you just won't get good results. Direct mail techniques are based on real-world testing which is the only kind that counts.

However, in Sell It By Mail, James Lumley provides an overview of how people read and respond to mail. I don't know how he arrived at this, but it's an interesting analysis.

He begins by saying that only 15% to 20% of prospects will even consider reading your mail. So you've lost around eight out of 10 prospects before your envelope even gets opened and its contents read. Those who do read will go through a three-stage decision process:

1. Prospects scan for relevancy. At this point, you have 100% readership from those who do read your mail, about 20% of all those to whom you have mailed. These prospects will spend around 15 to 20 seconds opening and scanning the package. Assuming you have a good list, these people will have some preexisting interest in your offer. The hot spots people scan include headlines, subheads, picture captions, signature, postscript, and the acceptance statement on your response device. People are not particularly savvy about direct mail, but they know where to get the scoop on your offer. And if they don't see something that interests them, your mail goes into the trash.

2. Prospects read for a reason to say no. If your readers are interested after scanning the hot spots, they will read more closely. At this stage you have 50% to 70% of all readers, which is around 10% to 14% of all those mailed. If they think it's relevant, they are beginning to think about saying yes, but continue to read until they find a good reason to say no. They will pay particular attention to charts, diagrams, tables, illustrations, bullet lists, and other summaries in order to get details quickly. In other words, most potential buyers are unsold by something in the package.

3. Potential buyers read to confirm a yes decision. By the time people get to body copy, they're in the yes mode but not yet convinced. They are now looking for confirmation that this is a good decision. At this point, you have 20 to 25% of all readers remaining or 2% to 4% of all mailed. Then, those who go on to say yes will be a fraction of this number, 2% or 1% or whatever your response rate.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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