Mining for Direct Mail Gold
What are the resources I like to have before I write a direct mail package? What information is valuable to me? Where do I look for those "golden nuggets" that can make or break a package?
Let's talk in terms of consumer magazines. Here's what I need from my client at a publishing company:
Media kit: Every magazine has a media kit that typically is given out to potential advertisers and their agencies. The good ones can contain a wealth of background information about the magazine and the people involved. Usually the media kit details who the magazine is targeting, who its readership is, and generally how it is positioned in the marketplace. Much of this information can be obvious, but occasionally a phrase pops out at you that leads to a headline. Or you uncover a seemingly meaningless factoid you actually can build a concept around.
Press clippings: These are the articles about the magazine that have appeared in other newspapers and magazines. Usually they are part of the media buzz that accompanied the launch of the magazine, a switch in editors, or a new redesign. I always find it helpful to know what others have said about the magazine I'll be writing about. It gives me a context in which to create my package. Many times, these articles have quotes from the editors and publishers to which I may not otherwise be exposed. And sometimes those quotes can lead you down a directional path.
Research: Sometimes clients have extensive research about their magazine, which can be tremendously helpful. You can learn which articles scored higher with readers than others. Which covers attracted more attention. What other magazines interest the audiencethat sort of thing.
Sometimes a client will invite me to sit in on a focus group session, which I find is always valuable. A focus group session is a conference in which subscribers and non-subscribers to a magazine (in this example) are brought together and quizzed by a moderator. This moderator has been given a list of questions the publisher is trying to find answers to, and he or she uses various techniques to lead the discussion in those directions. The publishing people and I sit in an adjacent room behind one-way glass. We can see and hear what's being said.
These sessions are usually eye-openers and sometimes quite motivating. Getting to see and hear your customers speak openly about your product is a very important piece of the marketing pie. And as a writer, I come away with images in my head of facial expressions, passionate retorts to questions, heart-felt confessions ... you name it. It's great grist for the creative mill, because you end up with so much to draw on.
The trick, of course, is recognizing "the good stuff" and separating the wheat from the chaff. As a matter of course, the moderator will do that for you when the final report is written about the session.
But I sometimes pick up on things the moderator may notthings that specifically strike my direct mail antenna. It's a fascinating exercise nonetheless, and well worth your time.
Letters from readers: Most magazines feature a "Letters to the Editor" section, and I always like to read through those to see if they contain any good testimonials. Some do, some don't. Some letters never make it into the magazine, but I like to see those, too. I've found testimonials work well in lift notes, or sprinkled throughout four-page letters or four-color brochures. They offer a bit of believability to the package that the rest of the copy may lack.
At least a year's worth of past issues: And I don't just give these a cursory thumb-through. I read them cover to cover. That's the only way to get to know the product, find meaningful examples of good editorial, and make photo
selections for the package. Believe me, I've tried taking shortcuts on this, and it just doesn't work. You've got to go in feetfirst, or not at all.
All direct mail packages previously mailed: This is not to steal ideas, but to see where other writers have gone before. I want to see what was tried, what failed and what may have worked. Then I can decide which direction I'd like to explore, without covering old ground. Even when there's a a strong control I'm asked to beat, there's always a "crack in the armor" somewhere. By that I mean there's usually some benefit the previous writer failed to exploit (or ignored entirely), or there's a nifty angle that could have been taken, but for some reason wasn't.
Web site: Sometimes a magazine's Web site yields "direct mail fruit" for the picking. Things such as:
* a headline that can be twisted or turned a different way;
* a snippet of information that could form the basics for a lift letter; or
* an editorial piece that's exclusive to the Web site (and not printed in the magazine) that contains an interesting story you can use as a hook in your letter or outer envelope.
The point of all this is: Do your homework. The more resources you explore, the more mining you do, the more likely you'll strike goldand write a winning package.
And here's another tip: Once you've done the homework, read the magazines and looked at photos, forget about it. That's right. Put it out of your mind for a day or two. Go to the movies. Drive to the country, and go antiquing. Weed the garden. Listen to talk radio. Just don't think about the project. Then, about three days later, when you least expect it, you'll start getting ideas. Headlines, copy lines, and wonderful inspirations.
Don't ask me why. But it happens.
This miraculous secret came my way from a speaker on advertising creativity during Mass Communications Week my junior year in collegemore than 30 years ago! I've never forgotten the speech, or the tip. Works for me!
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Schneider splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.