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Direct Mail: Fundamentals for Success

By: M.L. Hartman

M.L. Hartman is the Vice President of Creative and Communications at Interactive Marketing Group,, an integrated marketing and communications firm located at 50 Commerce Drive, Allendale, NJ. He can be reached via e-mail at

If you're looking for the best vehicle to target a large audience and gather data, nothing beats direct mail. Nothing. Just combine the right data, message and creative, and you've got an efficient, self-contained, heat-seeking marketing missile capable of hitting your target and providing a substantial return on investment. But, if it's that easy, how come it's not always successful?

Effective direct mail requires three key components: the right audience, the right message and strong, complementary creative-in that order. Unfortunately, many marketers (clients and agencies) get caught up in the superficial nature of creative design and forget just how significant data and messaging are to the mix. Sure, looking good is terribly important, but expecting it to drive response is, well, a bit shallow.

Data is king. No matter how good a mailing program you've put together, it just won't work unless you're talking to someone who actually cares what you've got to say-and that's generally someone with a need. Because a perfectly tailored message can't suit anyone if it isn't delivered to the proper audience. So, long before you even start thinking about what you're going to say and what your mailing's going to look like, understanding your market and sourcing appropriate data comes first. It sounds simple enough, and it is. Zeroing in on the right person at the right time is the single most important factor in direct mail or any direct marketing effort.

Say it loud and clear. Once you've identified your audience, figuring out what to say shouldn't be difficult-it's how you say it that can be challenging. As a nation of scanners, not readers, simplicity is key and tried-and-true devices like subheads and call-outs can do wonders for guiding a "reader" through a letter. Including a postscript provides tremendous benefit, as recipients typically first look at a letter's signature to see whom it is from. Having a PS that actively recaps your message/offer quickly engages interested parties, prompting a closer review and better opportunity. Above all else, try to avoid complex or highly technical jargon and stay focused on your call to action. There's no prize for long and winding sentences, so cut to the chase and tell the reader exactly what they need to know in order to conclude that your product or service is clearly the best choice.

Looks can kill. Good creative plays an invaluable role in how a mailing performs, but, if it's over-done, it'll undermine the credibility of your message and earn your mailing a one-way ticket to the circular file. Too much glitter and flash scream "junk mail," making it difficult for any audience to take you seriously. Think about it. How many mailings look fantastic but offer nothing more than good looks? Also, make sure you've chosen the best vehicle to deliver your message. Format is extremely significant in how well a mailing performs, with the most affordable "package" often sacrificing response. Want a mailing that pulls? Create a letter package and stay away from postcards! Creative design needs to complement your message and compel recipients to open and read what you've got to say, so evaluate your creative carefully to see if it's helping or hurting your position.

While a 1% response rate is considered a successful direct mail campaign, with the right audience, message and design, the sky's the limit. When your objective is to canvass a large area and grow your database, no other direct marketing discipline offers the speed, efficiency, affordability and accelerated development of direct mail. Just remember, grabbing your audience's attention with an eye-popping look can have powerful results, both positive and negative. After all, direct mail is what it is and it's not advertising.

© Copyright 2005, M.L. Hartman

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