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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

How To Succeed in Direct Marketing
By Alan Rosenspan

If you've never read "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" by Shepard Mead, you're missing a masterpiece.

You may have seen the show, or the movie. But the book is much more comprehensive -- and has a lot of valuable ideas that can be extremely useful to direct marketers.

For example, one section is on "office memos." The book advises you to address the memo to the very highest person even remotely connected with your project, or even the CEO.

You then cc: (A) the people who you really want to impress, and (B) the person who you actually need to send the memo to. Having the memo addressed to the CEO will ensure that they read every word carefully.

It is, of course, unnecessary to send the original memo.

How can you use that technique in direct marketing? I'll give you an example later in this article.

But first, I'd like to give you my own personal views on how to succeed in direct marketing. I'll start with a story.

Visit America and Meet an American

My first job was at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. They published a creativity test in a local college newspaper, and a friend of mine shared it with me.

After taking the test, O&M brought in 30 of us to take a weekend course with them, after which they gave us an assignment that we had to complete by the following week.

My assignment was to get overseas visitors to want to come to America.

I was 20 years old at that time, and the furthest I had been away from Brooklyn, New York was Montreal, Canada. I had never flown. I had absolutely no idea what overseas visitors could possibly be interested in.

So I went to the public library and I began to do research.

The ad I created used a photograph of a Native American chief in full headdress, with the headline, "Visit America and Meet an American." The copy began as follows, "This is Chief Okinew of the Navaho tribe. He's also the U.S. congressman from Oklahoma."

The Creative Director chuckled when she read that, "That's pretty funny" she said. "It's true," I deadpanned. As she continued reading, she stopped from time to time and asked, "Did you make that up?" I hadn't -- and I got the job.

And so we come to the first -- and one of the most effective techniques -- for how to succeed in direct marketing.

Knowledge is direct marketing power

As David Ogilvy said, "The difference between a good surgeon and a great surgeon has nothing to do with their hands. A great surgeon simply knows more than a good surgeon."

This is even more true in direct marketing -- and the information is widely available. Claude Hopkins was one of the great copywriters of the early days of advertising. He wrote a terrific book called "Scientific Advertising" which is still available and still worth reading.

When he first wrote the book, he showed it to the owners of his agency, Lord & Thomas, which eventually became J. Walter Thompson.

They were so impressed with the book, they refused to allow him to publish it. They kept the manuscript in their office safe for many years, exposing it to only a few key executives of the company. They considered it a key competitive advantage, which of course, it was.

What's really wonderful about direct marketing is that so many experts have been willing to share their knowledge and with others.

You can read the books and learn from the experiences of Lester Wunderman, Stan Rapp, David Shepard, Jim Kobs, Dick Shavers, Robert Bly, Murray Raphel, Ray Considine and other great thinkers.* You can even steal their ideas. (In fact, they encourage it. As Murray Raphel says, "Steal the best, forget the rest.")

*For a free Reading List, please see the end of this article

And you can avoid the expensive mistakes. But I'm not just talking about general direct marketing knowledge. Knowledge can also help you increase response. Let me explain:

One of the most important suggestions I make during my Direct Mail Seminar is this:

Tell them something they didn't know, or give them a new way of thinking about something they did know.

This has two advantages.

First, it is a very powerful tool to use with prospects and customers. It makes your communication much more likely to be read, remembered and acted on.

Let's face it -- unless your product is brand new, people have been doing without it for years, and living happy, productive lives. Why should they change their mind now and become your customer?

But tell them something they didn't know, and they may re-consider their decision.

The second advantage of this technique is that it is also very effective with clients and even within your own company. If you're the person who knows more about your product or service, your company, or even your competition, you will stand out from your competition.

Let me give you an example:

You can hear a pin drop, but you can also hear everything else

One of my secret thrills is finding out something about a product or company that my client didn't know.

When Sprint came out with their famous "pin drop" campaign, AT&T was my biggest client. And I decided to do some research.

I found out something absolutely fascinating about voice quality. AT&T scientists had carefully reduced the bandwidth of their equipment, so it was calibrated to the human voice.

In other words, it eliminated noises such as the air conditioner, or the room tone, or the person in the cubicle next door. This was an important technological advantage.

When Sprint started in the long distance business, they didn't have the same technology, so they couldn't factor out those extraneous noises. Or they may have simply decided to leave them in. But the result was -- you could pick up all sorts of non-vocal sounds on your Sprint line.

However, this disadvantage became the basis for their brilliant campaign.

So you may have been able to hear a pin drop, but you also heard everything else.

I made a presentation to AT&T recommending television, print and direct mail to drive home the point that our quality was so high you couldn't hear a pin drop. And as I presented, one of the AT&T executives said, "Are you making this up?"

It was with enormous satisfaction that I was able to answer, "Not a word of it."

In the end, they decided not to do the campaign -- probably because it would have given the Sprint claim even more attention. But I was very proud of the fact that I had discovered the truth behind the story.

And this leads me to my second suggestion:

Work hard, and so will your direct marketing

"Many people have the talent to become great, but few have the energy"

Tom McElliot, of the advertising agency Fallon McElliot said that. He does 400-500 roughs for every ad that his agency produces. That means if only one out of 100 is a great ad -- he has at least 4 or 5 to choose from.

It's a simple fact -- the harder you work, the better your direct marketing will be.

Your first draft is not going to be as good as your fifth draft. Your third headline isn't going to be as sharp as your 15th. Yes, there may be a point of diminishing returns, but the problem is that most of us stop, long before we get to the really good stuff.

When I ran a large creative group, one of my copywriters came to me with a letter she had written. It wasn't very good.

I gave her some suggestions on how to improve it, and suggested she try a couple of different versions. She came back to me three days later, with one revision. It still wasn't very good.

"You're an excellent writer, " I began, "But you're never, ever going to be as good as you can be unless you're prepared to work much, much harder. It isn't a question of talent -- you've got it. But talent isn't enough"

As John Caples once said, "If my copy is twice as good as anyone else's, it 's only because I've worked five times as hard at it."

And by the way, long copy works. It almost always outpulls short copy. The reason why you don't see more of it is because it's harder to write good long copy than it is to write good short copy.

Here's my third suggestion:

Testing not only helps your company and your client. It helps you At my Direct Mail Seminars, I am always astonished at the tiny percentage of people who test. Anything.

"We don't have time" "We don't have the budget" "We already know what works" are all explanations I hear, and I can understand the mentality behind them.

Regardless, I strongly recommend you test every time you mail.

There are three reasons:

1. It will definitely improve response. Are you smart enough to pick what will be the winning package every time you look at rough ideas? I'm not, and I've been doing it for over 20 years.

I'm still amazed that one package can outpull another 4 times over -- and often surprised, because it wasn't the one that I or my client picked. By testing more than one idea, more than one execution, more than one list, more than one offer, you can dramatically affect response.

2. It gives you more chances to succeed. We all have the same goal -- whether we're the client, the agency, the freelancer, or the vendor. We want our direct mail to be successful.

Don't we have better odds if we have more than one turn at bat?

Testing also gives you the opportunity to take chances -- to do a "safe" alternative and then do something really different or really unique. And those ideas can sometimes represent a real breakthrough for your company.

3. It turns you into an expert. Testing not only shows you which package pulled best, but gives you important information about your market and your product.

In fact, a planned, iterative testing program will help you build a body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't work in your industry. And that information will be yours to keep, even if you change companies in the future.

So, if you're not testing, start now.

The Memo Technique

Remember the memo I mentioned at the beginning of this article? It's easy to apply in direct marketing.

Simply send a copy of your direct marketing package to the boss of the person you're trying to reach. Then let them know about it in the P.S. of the letter.

I guarantee you that's one letter they'll read more carefully!

Alan Rosenspan still wants to succeed in direct marketing which is why he writes articles like these. For a free Direct Marketing Recommended Reading List, please e-mail him at or call 1-617-559-0999.

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