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

Improve Your Direct Mail In One Day
By Alan Rosenspan

It's the largest direct marketing medium by far -- $31 billion is spent on it every year. It's innovative, interactive and involving -- or at least it should be. And it offers exciting opportunities for the future. But I'm not talking about the Internet, I'm talking about direct mail.

This April, a handful of direct marketing managers will attend a new seminar designed to improve their direct mail.

The seminars are called "Improve Your Direct Mail In One Day" and they are limited to only 18 participants each -- to ensure that there will be time for personal attention.

What makes these seminars unique is that each participant will bring their own direct mail package and will learn specific ways to improve each element of it.

These seminars have already been held in Europe by my friend Erik Van Vooren, and will now be presented in the U.S. for the first time. However, for those of you who won't be able to attend, I'd like to share some of the content with you.

The focus is direct mail, and only direct mail. The reason for this is that direct mail is still the most popular form of direct marketing, but it's been somewhat neglected in recent years due to all the attention paid to the Internet and other media.

Yet -- and I have written about this before -- it is my opinion that the medium of direct mail still offers you the best opportunity to deliver a powerful, personal message to your customers and prospects.

The seminar includes six segments: Re-Inventing Direct Mail; Developing a Killer Creative Strategy; Coming up with an Irresistible Offer; Determining the Right Features and Benefits; and an expanded section on Improving Your Direct Mail Package; and Boosting Response.

We will come up with ideas, share them with the other seminar participants and the instructor, discuss and vote on what we think works best. So each seminar becomes a small focus group of direct marketers working on each direct mail package. Participants not only get the value of the instructor's ideas and suggestions, but get the benefits of the groups experience.

Plus there will also be a number of valuable checklists, Creativity Tests, case-histories, and other activities designed to get participants to think about their direct marketing programs.

The two core sections of the seminar are "Developing a Killer Creative Strategy" and "Improving Your Direct Mail Package." Let me take you through them and the issues involved.

The First and Most Important Step

Developing a "Killer" Creative Strategy is perhaps the most important step you can take towards improving the results of your direct mail.

There are, of course, many examples where great creative work has been responsible for the success of a direct marketing program. I've done several. I've also worked on projects where I was instructed to "Start the work. We'll figure out the strategy later."

However it is much more likely that success will come from a tightly-defined, well thought-out, highly creative strategy before the creative work actually begins.

And it all starts by filling out a Creative Strategy Form. Every company has a version of the form. If you don't have one, you may wish to use the sections I've indicated below.

The Creative Strategy Form can be described as both a blueprint and a contract for your direct marketing program.

It is a blueprint because it fully describes all the elements of your direct marketing program and sets it down on paper. In a way, it is like the "specs" of the job.

The Creative Strategy Form also becomes a contract -- between you and the people doing the creative work. In other words, the decisions you make when filling out the creative strategy -- such as choosing the offer, focusing on the specific key benefit, using the right tone and manner -- are all agreed on before the copy or art is done.

This has three major benefits:

1. It ensures that everyone working on the project has common goals and an understanding of what is involved. It can eliminate mistakes.

It also eliminates guesswork. The last thing you want to have happen is for someone to change the program substantially, after all the creative work has been done.

It's also the most expensive thing.

2. It forces you to think about issues and answer questions about your program that you may otherwise overlook or leave out.

3. It becomes a useful tool to evaluate the actual creative work after it has been done to answer the first and most important question -- is it on strategy?

Let's take each element of the Creative Strategy Form and analyze it's purpose.

Project Description

This is a simple description of what your project entails.

For example, you may write "A direct mail campaign to existing customers." Or "A direct response advertisement." Sounds simple enough, right?

However, what I recommend is that you complete this first part after you've decided on your objectives. Because what you want to accomplish should come before how.

For example, you may have planned a direct mail campaign to encourage customers to renew their subscriptions to your magazine. However, there may be better ways than direct mail to accomplish that same objective.

You may decide to use the magazine itself as a direct mail carrier. Or use telemarketing. By leaving the description of the project last, you might come up with a more effective and creative way to achieve your goals.

Target Market Or Audience

This describes who your direct marketing program will be directed towards.

It is important to note that reaching the right people is the single most important challenge of any direct marketing campaign. It will influence your response by a factor of 10. It is much more important than your offer, your format, your copy or your art.

It can involve which lists you've selected, which occupations or job titles, or even the demographics or psychographics of your audience. Your goal here is to get as precise as possible. Good direct marketing depends on a thorough understanding of the people you are talking to -- down to the individual, if possible.

But what if you have multiple target audiences? You can direct the same program to different kinds of people, or those found on different lists. This involves:

1. Choosing the common denominator between them.

For example, your target market may be of different age groups, with different financial needs, but they all share the fact that they are affluent. Or:

2. Versioning your message.

This means that the basic direct mail package remains the same, however there are some parts of it, such as the outer envelope or the letter that are specific to the individual and therefore look very personal.

For example, I recommended a package for the National Fire Protection Association where the outer envelopes were versioned like this:

"If you're a firefighter, you should know the answers to these questions"

"If you're a building safety manager, you should know the answers to these questions"

"If you're a facilities manager, you should know the answers to these questions"

Inside was a brochure with important questions about fire safety, and a letter that said, "Now get all the answers when you join the NFPA" But what if you're not sure who you should be targeting?

There are two answers: If you already have customers, the direct marketing rule is this: "Your next customer will look a lot like your last customer." So, you may wish to model your customer base, or do some research to find out who they are and why they are buying your product.

But what if you don't already have customers or your product or service is new? The second answer is to run an advertisement in a general publication and see what kind of people raise their hands.

For example, let's say that you make data analysis software. You're not sure what kinds of industries might use it. You could then run an advertisement in a general business magazine, and analyze the responses.

If a significant percentage of them came from the automotive industry, you can then purchase a similar list, or advertise in a magazine that reaches that industry. In effect, you have allowed the target market to select themselves.

Exception to the rule. In some cases, your target market may not need to have anything in common except this -- they are people who have already demonstrated the action you wish them to take.

For example, if you are selling things through the mail, one of the best lists you can purchase is called a "Hot List" or a "Hot Names List." These are people who have purchased items through the mail within the past three or six months.

Typically, this list will outperform virtually every other list, except your own customer list.

Objective / Desired Perception

Traditionally, this section describes how you want to position your product or service in the prospect's mind.

Some Creative Strategies break this down into two sections. The first part is what the prospect thinks or believes now. The second part is what you want the prospect to think or believe after they've been exposed to your message.

This is useful because it forces you to put yourself in your prospect's shoes, which leads to a better understanding of their needs and desires.

Objective / Desired Action

This section seems self-evident. Of course, you want people to respond. However, the reason that it is listed here is because this should be the single-minded focus of every direct marketing program.

Each element of what you do should be weighed with this consideration in mind -- will it help persuade or enable people to respond, or will it interfere or help them postpone their decision. Obviously, the latter should be quickly weeded out.

Remember that the goal of direct marketing is to get people to act. Not to change their opinion. Not to remember your product the next time they go to a mall.

It is not a "share of mind." It's a show of hands. We want people to do something with their hands -- to bring in a coupon, to call an 800 number, to click through our website, to register for a seminar.

Therefore this section should include what you want people to do, as well as any information they will need to do it. This includes your 800 number, your fax number, as well as your e-mail number and/or Internet address.

Beware of asking people to do too much. For example, when asking people to complete a questionnaire, keep it to no more than nine questions.

Main Benefit

This section should describe the main benefit of your product and service. Please notice that I use the word "benefit" and not "feature". There is an important difference.

The main benefit is the principal reason that people buy or use your product. It must be important, credible and if possible, unique.

In general advertising, where time and space are much more limited, one main benefit seems to work better than many main benefits. In direct marketing, the more benefits you include, the better. Needless to say, you still need to focus on the main benefit.

Reasons Why/Support

This section is extremely important -- because credibility is key in direct marketing.

Do you remember the Joe Isuzu TV campaign back a few years ago? It featured a slimy car salesman who told you the most unbelievable things about Isuzu cars. Underneath him, there was a message written. "He's lying."

The campaign, although short-lived, was memorable because it recognized exactly how most people think of car sales people. They're lying. And before you begin to feel smug about that -- consider that they view advertising people the same way.

So you must support and prove your benefits -- especially your main benefit. You can do this in a number of ways.

1. Be specific.

Numbers seem to work in direct marketing better than words. "Stop Smoking in 3 Easy Steps" is better than "Stop Smoking". And there are some kinds of products or services, such as health, for which big numbers work best. For example, "1001 medical remedies you can find right in your garden."

The reason why is that numbers imply credibility. "They're not just saying that -- they actually measured it!"

2. Use testimonials.

I'm surprised at the number of direct mail packages I receive that don't have case-histories, testimonials, product reviews, and third-party endorsements.

These are such effective tools that the only excuse not to use them is that your product or service is really terrible. Otherwise, I advise you to include them whenever possible.

This is particularly important in business-to-business where prospects want to see who you've worked with, and in what industries, before they can feel comfortable working with you.

And by the way, don't edit them. Use them exactly as they come in -- bad grammar adds to their credibility.

3. Use charts.

Although we like to think of ourselves as cerebral, we are primarily visual. Charts and graphs are an excellent way to display information in a highly credible fashion. "It must be true -- just look at that chart."

It's no coincidence that the largest selling national newspaper in the United States in USA Today, which has far more charts and visuals than your Wall Street Journal.

Tone And Manner

The exact same words can be said in a number of different ways, and convey very different meanings. This section describes the tone of your direct mail package.

Should it be announcement-oriented?

Absolutely, if your product or service is new. News is one of the most under-utilized tools in direct marketing and is often buried. However, when something is new -- and it's only new once -- it almost always commands more attention from people.

Should it be hopeful?

If you're doing fund-raising, your message might be hopeful. Of course, fund-raising has it's own techniques and strategies.

Should it be formal?

There are some instances where a formal approach may work best for you. In my work for the Private Bank of Boston, I had to be very conscious that I was writing "up" to people with far greater means that my own. My tone and manner was straightforward, formal and respectful. It worked extremely well.

Should it be on the wild side?

When I worked on the Gatorade account, it was obvious that our audience of teenage boys required a different approach. Our campaign, "Liquid Technology" featured bizarre self-mailers, posters and type-faces we haven't used before or since.

The same creative group also worked on Quaker Oats, and the work looked like it came from two different worlds.

Should it be invitational?

Sure, if you are inviting people to attend a seminar. Besides, people like to be invited to things. One of our most successful seminar campaigns for Interleaf looked almost exactly like an invitation in size, format and even choice of language. Even the outer envelope said, "An Invitation"

Different tone and manners work for different products and different audiences and even for different objectives. It is important to decide up front which tone and manner is most appropriate for you.

The Offer

This is one of the most important decisions you will make on your Creative Strategy, and one that will have the biggest impact on response after list.

The offer is simply what you will give people for responding. It could be a brochure, a kit, a white paper, a discount, a premium, almost anything.

It should be something free. It should never be simply "more information."

In the seminar, we will go through dozens of different offer ideas, as well as several case-histories where changing the offer -- or changing the currency of the offer -- increased response many times over.


This section includes everything that needs to be in the communication because of company, legal or even marketing issues.

For example, in the mutual fund business, there are legal disclaimers that need to be included, such as "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."

It's a good idea to include these mandatories in your Creative Strategy, since adding them at the end might be awkward or difficult to do.

By now, we've covered the classic Creative Strategy, and outlined the basics of the direct marketing programs. However, I recommend you go one step forward and include two additional items on your strategy, which I believe will be invaluable aids.

What Are Your Prospects Doing Now?

Before you can get people to do what you want them to do, you have to understand what they are doing now.

You may be surprised at this -- but people have been getting along without your product and service for many years. It is critical to understand how.

There are very few products that will be used for something completely new. Virtually every product or service replaces another product or service or another way of doing things.

For example, suppose your company was the one that introduced Iomega zip disks. For those who are unfamiliar with this product, they're fat computer disks that hold as much information as 100 ordinary disks.

The advantages are obvious -- you can store and carry with you -- an enormous number of files. And it's much more convenient that sorting through a 100 disks.

So what were people doing before the Zip drive? Some people were using other kinds of storage disks that were much larger and less convenient.

However, the larger group of people were simply using ordinary disks, savings some things and keeping others on their computers. So part of the advertising focus had to be to convince people the value of saving and storing their work.

You Know You Need It When...

This has become one of my client's favorite parts of the Creative Strategy form.

Basically, what I'm looking for is the "early warning signs" that the prospect could benefit from the product or service I'm advertising.

For example, I did a package for a high technology company to engineers. They didn't know our product even existed. However they had some frustrations that we were able to identify. So we asked them...

Do you often have to switch between incompatible tools?

Do you have to go back and re-design everything when one element changes?

Are you frustrated trying to incorporate new technologies into your designs?

And even...Do you feel that competitors are adding new features faster than your company?

I used these questions on the front of the envelope and in the letter. My goal was to have engineers read them, nod their heads and say, "These are exactly the problems I'm having. Maybe this new software can help solve them." It worked very well.

Improving Your Direct Mail Package

Denny Hatch, publisher of "Who's Mailing What" put it best when he said, "You don't judge direct marketing. It judges you."

In other words, your response is the best test of whether or not your direct mail package is any good. Not if it wins an award, or the art director likes the colors.

That is why the focus in the seminar is on improving response.

What we will do is take each element of the direct mail package; the outer envelope, the letter, the reply device, the brochure, and any extra enclosures, and dissect and analyze them.

For example, the most important part of any direct mail package is the letter. And while there is no template for writing a great letter, there are certain things you can do to help improve response. Let's go through them one-by-one.

The Most Intimate Form of Advertising

To begin with, you must understand that a letter is a personal communication. It is one individual writing to another individual. And it's the only form of advertising that always begins with the word, "Dear."

The job of the letter usually isn't to inform people. It's to intrigue them, seduce them, and above all persuade them to act.

There are five critical elements to each letter that we will address in the seminar.

The Johnson Box

This is the headline on the top of the letter. Research that I've seen shows that adding a Johnson box will increase response by an average of 40%.

The Johnson Box should be short -- one or two sentences at most -- and might include: the main benefit, the offer, anything that might intrigue the person into reading the letter.

You wouldn't think of running an advertisement without a headline. Why shouldn't your letter have the same advantage? Of course, there are certain situations -- which we will discuss -- where a Johnson Box can actually have an adverse effect on response.

The Opening

The first sentence or two of any letter are critically important. It is here that the prospect will decide whether or not to keep reading. There are dozens of ways to create a powerful opening that are covered in the seminar. Here are three:

A. Ask a provocative question

My favorite example of this is for Amore catfood done by the Leo Burnett agency. The letter began something like this:

"Dear Name, "If you were on a cruise ship and a gigantic wave washed over the deck sweeping your husband and your cat overboard, who would you save first? "If you even hesitated...Amore catfood may be just what you're looking for.

B. Show'em you Know'em

If you can establish that you know the prospect, because of the list you found their name on, or because they've done business with you before, you may have a very effective opening.

However, a word of caution. Never make assumptions that you can't support. If your letter begins..."Dear Alan Rosenspan, As someone who loves the ballet"...and I don't -- you've lost all your credibility right at the onset.

C. Put news in it

Most direct marketers tend to bury their news. However, as I've said before, "new" is one of the most compelling words in advertising. And people are almost always willing to consider something new -- it's the same old stuff that they won't bother reading.

The Body Of The Letter

Once you've drawn people in with your opening, the body of the letter must create desire for your product and your offer.

I always recommend putting the offer as far up in the letter as you can -- usually by the third paragraph. I recommend calling attention to it by indenting that paragraph, underlining the offer or using other techniques that we will cover in the seminar. (For example, do you know the Three Laws of Communications? They may surprise you.)

There are a few questions to ask yourself about the body of your letters:

Are the sentences short? They should be, particularly at the beginning of the letter. In fact, the first paragraph should be only a sentence or two.

Do you have a lot of copy hooks? Copy hooks are specific phrases that help the reader stay interested. They include: "As you know" "I'm sure you'll agree"

Count the "you"'s. The letter copy should be personal and directed towards the reader. If you have too many "we"'s, you're probably focusing on your product or service too much. The more "you"'s, the better.

Clincher Closings

The closing is one of the most important parts of the letter -- and where many direct marketing packages fail. There are certain techniques which can be very effective, which we will cover in the seminar.

Of course, the simplest technique is to ask for the order and to provide specific information on how to respond. I always recommend putting the 800 number in the letter and also directing them to the reply device. You'll be surprised how many direct marketing letters don't do that.

The P.S. D' Resistance

The P.S. is the most-read part of the letter, after the Johnson Box or opening. It is important to make it work as hard as it can for you.

One of the innovative ways that I've discovered was for a campaign for Mazda. We mailed the exact same letter to the President of the company and the Fleet manager. The only difference was the P.S.

The President's letter read, "P.S. We've taken the liberty of sending this letter to your Fleet Manager, Ted Johnson, who will provide you with more information about the benefits of this program."

The Fleet Manager's letter read, "P.S. We've taken the liberty of sending this letter to your President, Sue Johnson, who will no doubt be interested in the cost-savings of this program."

Each person couldn't throw the letter away quite as easily -- particularly the Fleet Manager -- because they never knew when the other person would ask about it.

Plus when they passed each other in the hall, they had to mention the letter. It was the most successful Mazda mailing we had ever done.

The seminar will also include advanced direct mail techniques such as: The Cluster Bomb, or how to get multiple people to respond to the same mailing; The Certificate Trick, or how to get people to respond even when they don't have an immediate need, and The Postcard Test, or how to cut the cost of your mailing in half and increase response at the same time.

7 Valuable Checklists -- Yours Free

Seminar space is limited, so I have a special offer for readers of Direct Marketing . Simply e-mail me at and I will send you the 7 checklists on how to improve every element of your direct mail package. I'll also send you more information on a new Business-to-Business seminar that I'll be doing for the DMA in May and June.

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