The Biggest Strategic Mistakes in Direct Mail
Sometimes we get so sophisticated in our application of tactics that we forget to check our mailings and our entire programs for strategic soundness. One of the reasons this happens is that we are all so pragmatic: If a twist or technique works for someone else, we try it. Add a bar code here, put a sticker where? How about a Post-it note on our desks that reads, "Check for these five strategic mistakes that can kill an entire direct mail program"? Here's the countdown:
Failure to overcome disbelief and inertia We live in the "age of disbelief." Advertising agents are believed by only 10 percent of the population. More than half the students coming out of college have taken marketing courses, so they know our tricks. Many direct marketers have learned that deception is verboten, but they have not learned that they must proactively overcome disbelief.
You can't make a claim without backing it up. You have to explain. Gary Bencivenga, one of the copy greats, says that the two most important words in successful copywriting are not "free" and "new," but "reason why."
Also, you can't overcome inertia without making a claim or strong offer, or taking a stand. Do not assume that your message will get through to even your best prospects or customers without a conscious effort to overcome that inertia as well as the thousands of other messages they receive daily.
Failure to differentiate your product/service or offer
This is obviously the correlative of No. 5 above. You can't overcome inertia, no matter how good the creative, with a commodity product/service or offer. With so many products and services today appearing to be commodities because of message bombardment, offer differentiation becomes even more important. You have to find a way to get prospects to try a product/service so that they can then understand the differences.
What is a differentiating offer today? A sweepstakes? Probably not, the way most sweeps are done. A premium? Could be. Whatever it is, the offer must be simple to understand (unlike all those telecom deals), really desired by the customer, and distinct from what competitors are doing. For example, a client of mine that publishes directories offers customers a refund if they use one of its products to apply for at least three government loans, but get turned down. It's a unique offer for this business sector.
Failure to test properly
Once in a while, a company will jump into direct marketing and become an overnight success. The product or offer is so strong that it beats everything else. But most of the time, we need to work our way to success through the right kinds of testing.
The biggest mistake is inadequate testingtesting the whole concept of direct mail with one mailing list, one offer, one creative approach. You simply can't make any valid judgments that way. You're better off putting more money into the established channel for your business or leaving the money in the bank.
The second biggest testing mistake is not looking at lists and databases carefully enough. Many firms launching tests mail too broadly. They don't take into account geo-demographic and attitudinal factors (for consumer mailings) and primary business, size of firm, years in business and geography (for B-to-B mailings). Many still underestimate the power of compiled lists that offer mail-responder segments. As a result, with mailings going to many more prospects than should be contacted, response percentages are way below what they should be.
Failure to measure and evaluate properly
Recently, I ran into two semi-experienced circulation directors who compared test versus control results based on test costs (with creative loaded in, no less!) against the rollout costs of the control. You can never build a program that way.
To evaluate a test or program properly, you have to practice "measurement by objectives." If you're generating leads, are you aiming for quantity (gross response) or quality (number of sales)? If you're a cataloger, is your objective to acquire the most new customers per thousand catalogs mailed or accrue the highest profit?
And the biggest failure in direct marketing ...
Failure to be customer-centric
Everything stems from this. Direct marketing guru Denny Hatch calls it "method marketing." The idea is getting inside the heads of your prospects and customers, and working your direct marketing concepts from there. If you do that, you understand the content and context of the customer's life, which helps you select the lists and list segments that best intersect. You understand what offers are appealing and what offers are turn-offs or confusing.
Here are two recent examples of major companies that nearly went astray in their test efforts.
* A food company: My firm was hired to do a creative critique of a direct mail package someone else had developed. The copy was pretty good and the graphics were sensational. Unfortunately, this direct marketer did not understand that it was mixing two very different selling propositions in the same package, and that one of them was a complete turn-off to the market segment it had chosen to mail.
* A residential real estate company: The assignment was to develop letters to homeowners looking to sell their houses. The company well understood the importance of commission rate in obtaining listings, but not the other attributes home sellers are looking for in agents. It also didn't understand the importance of continuing the dialogue with homeowners who have their hands raised only part of the way. You don't decide to sell your house with the same speed as you sell some old rock albums on eBay.
Every once in a while, take a step back from your day-to-day operations to train your eye on the bigger picture of your direct marketing program.
Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high tech, and B-to-B marketing. He works with direct response agencies in addition to having his own clients. Read more of his articles at www.leemarcstein.com.