The 7 Persistent Myths of Direct Mail

by Dean Rieck

"Why do you cook with the oven door cracked open?"

It seemed like a logical thing to ask, but my wife gave me one of those "that's a stupid question" looks, as if I was wondering why she breathes or shops. "Because that's the way I've always done it, that's why."

Not that it mattered, but I was curious. And hungry. It was Thanksgiving, she had been cooking all day, the oven was billowing heat like mad, and it was taking forever for that bird to cook! She patiently informed me that her mother cooked with the oven door ajar. That's the way she learned.

"But why?" I persisted.

"Well," she admitted, "I really don't know. My mother was a good cook, and that's the way she did it."

When the relatives came over later, I asked about it and someone said, "Oh, that? Her mother had this tiny little oven. Her pans didn't fit, and the door wouldn't close. Took all day to cook a turkey."

Even though my wife's oven was big enough, the open door cooking technique was passed down mother to daughter, though the reason for it was forgotten.

Now don't laugh.

You may be doing the same thing in your direct mail. Because we're such a rule-happy industry, and we pass down our wisdom from one generation to the next, we're especially prone to follow the leader without thinking things through ourselves. This often leads to ideas and traditions that are just as meaningless or counterproductive as cooking your turkey with the oven open.

So here are seven persistent myths that could be causing you to "undercook" your direct mail:

Myth #1 — Your goal is to sell to as many people as possible.

People talk about response rates as if the object is to achieve the highest percentage possible. It's not. Your goal is to maximize profits. The response numbers are tools for analysis and comparison. They are not a goal. It's relatively easy to pump up a response rate if all you want is a higher number. Just give away something free. But if your net profit drops, what's the point?

If you try to sell to 100% of your list, you will actually reduce response because your message will be diluted in its attempt to be all-inclusive. The most productive mailings talk boldly and directly to the ideal buyer. If that's just 1% of your list, then forget about the other 99%. Sell to the people who want to buy what you're selling. The rest are irrelevant.

As an exercise, try to reverse your thinking about selling to buyers. Consider what you should do to eliminate non-buyers — those who are not interested, don't have the money, aren't ready to make a decision, or will not make a good long-term customer.

Myth #2 — You can force action with clever techniques.

Don't get too enamored of your own communication prowess. You can't make people do anything they don't want to do. You can't force a sale. All you can do is get the right offer into the right hands at the right time and use the techniques in your creative tool box to make the transaction as attractive and easy as possible.

Trying to force a sale can lead you to dry, overused techniques. Instead, try to make a genuine effort to be helpful and relevant. For example, if you're a bank wanting to increase deposits, don't just send out a sales letter that barks, "Open your new account today!" Offer a free booklet that educates your customers about how to use your services, perhaps with a title like "How to earn more interest with your money."

And remember to remove the barriers to buying. People want to buy things. However, if there's a good reason not to part with their money, they won't, no matter how persuasive you are.

The fastest way to succeed is to remove the physical, emotional, and financial reasons not to buy before you tinker with creative elements. Don't just club them in the head with verbiage; make it real and tangible. The introduction of the 800 number, for example, did more for selling success than any flowery 8-page letter because it was a tangible way to make response free, easy, and fast.

Myth #3 — You must turn all features into benefits.

Don't be too hasty. There are some market segments that thrive on features. It's part of the "enthusiast" mentality, where dwelling on the objects of affection is the whole point of the experience.

Dedicated wood workers bask in details about carbide-tipped saw blades and chisel sharpening angles. Serious mutual fund investors wallow in verbiage about modern portfolio theory and decile rankings. Avid car buffs revel in talk about horsepower and torque.

This doesn't mean you forget about benefits. There's an old saying: People don't want drills; they want holes. Okay, but for the enthusiast, while you want to talk about the beautifully straight holes, you don't want to forget about the drill. For many people, the features are a big part of the benefits.

Myth #4 — General advertising techniques don't work in direct marketing.

Don't you believe it. Many of the most prominent direct marketers came up through the ranks selling books, magazines, and informational products to readers and a core audience of direct mail responsive buyers. There was no need for a carefully crafted image or for more subtle psychological techniques.

But today, almost every industry is using direct mail at one time or another. Imagine an investment firm sending you a mailer with screaming headlines, big red stickers, and promises of retiring rich. I'm not going to invest with a company like that. Are you? I might be frivolous about subscribing to Trout Fishing Today, but not about buying stocks and bonds. That's serious business, and I want to deal with a company that looks serious.

Or let's say you're generating inquiries for an assisted living facility. Your copy goes on at length about your attention to detail and the happy, carefree atmosphere. But the brochure looks cheap, and the photos are snapshots full of frowning old folks sitting in shadowy rooms. A schlocky look makes people think you're a schlocky operation.

Image is important. To ignore it is arrogant and shortsighted. It's true that image doesn't sell. Only words can do that. But people give a higher belief rating to what they see than to what they read. So the image must match or exceed expectations. Otherwise, the words will be ignored.

Myth #5 — The best way to succeed is to imitate others.

A very dangerous myth indeed. It rests on the "Efficient Marketing" theory. That's the idea that all mailers are smart, careful testers. And if a mailing works, they'll keep mailing it until it stops working. If it doesn't work, they'll stop mailing it.

Nice theory. But it's not reliable. Direct marketers are no more smart or careful than anyone else in business. Many don't run well-constructed, thorough tests. Some don't test much at all. People often replace successful mailings for no other reason than they're bored with them. And many businesses that don't rely on direct marketing for the bulk of their income routinely keep unsuccessful mailings in the mail stream because it makes little difference to the bottom line.

The dictum "copy smart" is recited again and again. And it's certainly good to see what competitors are doing and borrow whatever you think might be successful. But don't rely on that tactic 100%. Every product, service, business, list, and offer is different.

Myth #6 — All direct marketing rules are tested and trustworthy.

This is a corollary to Myth #5. And it's utter hogwash. We often act like our carefully crafted rules are handed down to us from on high, carved in stone tablets. But many are nothing more than personal preference or ideas based on narrow experience.

One guru I know professes that "fear" is the only appeal you need. The simplicity is appealing. And his background is in insurance and financial services, so his preference for the fear appeal is understandable. It's just not appropriate for every mailing.

Another guru preaches that all envelopes should be plain. However, his experience is limited to selling lists for business mailings. I don't know that he's ever created a single direct mail package, let alone one for consumers. People do get teaser-happy when creating envelopes, but sometimes a good teaser is exactly what you need.

Remember, people make the rules. And you have to carefully consider who those people are and what their experience is. Plus, as I mentioned in Myth #5, people seldom test as carefully as you might think. So you can't regard any rule as more than a rule of thumb. Many "proven" test results are merely exaggerated or misinterpreted anecdotal evidence.

Myth #7 — Great creative begins with a "concept."

This is a carryover from the world of general advertising, where business has to be pitched and exorbitant fees have to be justified. The tool of choice for all this pitching and justification? The creative concept.

Early in my practice, I worked with a major agency that locked me in a room with a designer at the start of every project so we could brainstorm concepts before worrying about details, such as why people might want to buy the product. Without exception, every one of those mailings bit the dust because of so much concern for abstract concepts and too little concern for tangible benefits.

I have nothing against general advertising. I think the ongoing debate about whether direct or general advertising is better is just silly. Is a hammer "better" than a shovel? Well, it depends on whether you want to pound nails or dig holes, doesn't it?

In the world of general or mass market advertising, your job is to create awareness and establish brand preferences for purchases later on. A memorable, well-thought-out concept can indeed help. But direct marketing is about selling directly to customers, not later but now. Perhaps you need a "big idea," an overall sense of what you need to do to make a sale. But you don't need a "creative" concept.

There are plenty more myths, of course. I could write a hundred articles. The idea, though, is that you have to consider everything you read, hear, and see with at least a little skepticism. You have to question tradition.

In the end, there's no substitute for thinking for yourself.

By the way, after a few heated arguments (no pun intended), my wife tried cooking with the oven door closed. She's reduced her turkey time by several hours. And the bird tastes better, too. Now if I can just figure out why she cuts sandwiches diagonally and puts peanut butter in the refrigerator.

Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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