Direct Marketing, Mail Order, and E-commerce News from the National Mail Order Association


The 12 Most Common Direct Mail Mistakes...And How to Avoid Them
by Robert W. Bly

Successful direct mail doesn't depend on fancy, four-color design or "creative" copy.

Mistake No. 1: Ignoring the most important factor in direct mail success.

Do you know what the most important part of your direct mail campaign is? It's not the copy.
It's not the art work. It's not even the format or when you mail. It is the mailing list.

A great mailing package, with superior copy and scintillating design, might pull double the
response of a poorly conceived mailing. But the best list can pull a response 10 times more
than the worst list for the identical mailing piece.

The most common direct-mail mistake is not spending enough time and effort up-front,
when you select - and then test - the right lists.

Remember: In direct marketing, a mailing list is not just a way of reaching your market.
It is the market.

The best list available to you is your "house" list - a list of customers and prospects who
previously bought from you or responded to your ads, public relations campaign, or other
mailings. Typically, your house list will pull double the response of an outside list. Yet, only
50% of business marketers I've surveyed capture and use customer and prospect names
for mailing purposes.

When renting outside lists, get your ad agency or list broker involved in the early stages.
The mailing piece should not be written and designed until after the right lists have been
identified and selected.

Mistake No. 2: Not testing.

Big consumer mailers test all the time. Publishers Clearinghouse tests just about
everything...even (I hear) the slant of the indicia on the outer envelope.

Business-to-business marketers, on the other hand, seldom track response or test one
mailing piece of list against another.

As a result, they repeat their failures and have no idea of what works in direct mail - and
what doesn't. A mistake. In direct mail, you should not assume you know what will work.
You should test to find out.

For example, copywriter Milt Pierce wrote a subscription package for Good Housekeeping
magazine. His mailing became the "control" package for 25 years. That is, no package
tested against it brought back as many subscriptions.

The envelope teaser and theme of that successful mailing was "32 Ways to Save Time
and Money." Yet, Mr. Pierce says that when he applied the same theme to subscription
mailings for other magazines - Science Digest, Popular Mechanics, House Beautiful -
it failed miserably.

"There are no answers in direct mail except test answers," says Eugene Schwartz, author
of the book, "Break-through Advertising." "You don't know whether something will work until
you test it. And you cannot predict test results based on past experience."

Mistake No. 3: Not using a letter in your mailing package.

The sales letter - not the outer envelope, the brochure, or even the reply form - is the most
important part of your direct-mail package.

A package with a letter will nearly always out pull a postcard, a self-mailer, or a brochure or
ad reprint mailed without a letter.

Recently, a company tested two packages offering, for $1, a copy of its mail-order tool catalog.
Package "A" consisted of a sales letter and reply form. Package "B" was a double post-card.
The result? "A" out pulled "B" by a 3-to-1 ratio.

Why do letters pull so well? Because a letter creates the illusion of personal communication.
We are trained to view letters as "real" mail, brochures as "advertising." Which is more
important to you?

One recommendation I often give clients is to try an old-fashioned sales letter first. Go to a
fancier package once you start making some money.

Mistake No. 4: Features vs. Benefits.

Perhaps the oldest and most widely embraced rule for writing direct-mail copy is, "Stress
benefits, not features." But in business-to-business marketing, that doesn't always hold true.

In certain situations, features must be given equal (if not top) billing over benefits.

For example, if you've ever advertised semiconductors, you know that design engineers are
hungry for specs. They want hard data on drain-source, voltage, power dissipation, input
capacitance, and rise-and-fall time...not broad advertising claims about how the product
helps save time and money or improves performance.

"I've tested many mailings selling engineering components and products to OEMs (original
equipment manufacturers)," says Don Jay Smith, president of the Chatham, NJ-based ad
agency The Wordsmith. "I've found that features and specs out pull benefits almost every time."

Vivian Sudhalter, Director of Marketing for New York-based Macmillan Software Co., agrees.

"Despite what tradition tells you," says Ms. Sudhalter, "the engineering and scientific
marketplace does not respond to promise - or benefit - oriented copy. They respond to features.
Your copy must tell them exactly what they are getting and what your product can do. Scientists
and engineers are put off by copy that sounds like advertising jargon."

In the same way, I suspect that doctors are swayed more by hard medical data than by
advertising claims, and that industrial chemists are eager to learn about complex formulations
that the average advertising writer might reject as "too technical."

In short, the copywriter's real challenge is to find out what the customer wants to know about
your product - and then tell him in your mailing.

Mistake No. 5: Not having an offer.

An offer is what the reader gets when he responds to your mailing.

To be successful, a direct-mail package should sell the offer, not the product itself. For example,
if I mail a letter describing a new mainframe computer, my letter is not going to do the whole job
of convincing people to buy my computer. But the letter is capable of swaying some people to
at least show interest by requesting a free brochure about the computer.

Make sure you have a well-thought-out offer in every mailing. If you think the offer and the way
you describe it are unimportant, you are wrong.

A free-lance copywriter friend of mine ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal that offered a free
portfolio of article reprints about direct mail. He received dozens of replies. Then he ran an
identical ad, but charged $3 for the portfolio instead of giving it away. Number of responses
that time? Only three.

Here are some effective offers for industrial direct mail: Free brochure, free technical information,
free analysis, free consultation, free demonstration, free trial use, free product sample, free catalog.

Your copy should state the offer in such a way as to increase the reader's desire to send for
whatever it is you offer. For example, a catalog becomes a product guide. A collection of brochures
becomes a free information kit. A checklist becomes a convention planner's guide. An article
reprinted in pamphlet form becomes "our new, informative booklet-'How to Prevent Computer

From now on, design your fulfillment literature with titles and information that will make them work
well as offers in direct mail. When one of my clients decided to publish a catalog listing US software
programs available for export overseas, I persuaded her to call the book "The international
Directory of US Software," because I thought people would think such a directory was more
valuable than a mere product catalog.

Mistake No. 6: Superficial copy.

Nothing kills the selling power of a business-to-business mailing faster than lack of content.

The equivalent in industrial literature is what I call the "art director's brochure." You've seen them:
Showcase pieces destined to win awards for graphic excellence. Brochures so gorgeous that
everybody falls in love with them - until they wake up and realize that people send for information,
not pretty pictures. Which is why typewritten, unillustrated sales brochures can often pull double
the response of expensive, four-color work.

In the same way, direct mail is not meant to be pretty. Its goal is not to be remembered or create an
image or make an impact, but to generate a response now.

One of the quickest ways to kill that response is to be superficial. To talk in vague generalities,
rather than specifics. To ramble without authority on a subject, rather than show customers that you
understand their problems, their industries and their needs.

What causes superficial copy? The fault lays with lazy copywriters who don't bother to do their
homework (or ignorant copywriters who don't know any better).

To write strong copy - specific, factual copy - you must dig for facts. You must study the product, the
prospect and the marketing problem. There is no way around this. Without facts, you cannot write
good copy. But with the facts at their fingertips, even mediocre copywriters can do a decent job.

Don Hauptman, author of the famous mail-order ad, "Speak Spanish Like a Diplomat!," says that
when he writes a direct-mail package, more than 50% of the work involved is in the reading,
research and preparation. Less than half his time is spent writing, rewriting, editing and revising.

Recently a client hired me to write an ad on a software package. After reading the background
material and typing it into my word processor, I had 19 single-spaced pages of notes.

How much research is enough? Follow Bly's Rule, which says you should collect at least twice as
much information as you need - preferably three times as much. Then you have the luxury of
selecting only the best facts, instead of trying desperately to find enough information to fill up the page.

Mistake No. 7: Saving the best for last.

Some copywriters save their strongest sales pitch for last, starting slow in their sales letters and
hoping to build to a climactic conclusion.

A mistake. Leo Bott, Jr., a Chicago-based mail-order writer, says that the typical prospect reads
for five seconds before he decides whether to continues reading or throw your mailing in the trash.
The letter must grab his attention immediately. So start your letter with your strongest sales point.

Some examples of powerful openings:

Some time-testing opening gambits for sales letters include:

Know the "hot spots" of your direct mail package - the paces that get the most readership.

Those include: the first paragraphs of the letter, its subheads, its last paragraph and the post-script
(80% of readers look at the PS); the brochure cover, its subheads and the headline of its inside
spread; picture captions; and the headline and copy on the order form or reply card. Put your
strongest selling copy in those spots.

Mistake No. 8:
Poor follow-up.

Recently a company phoned to ask whether I was interested in buying its product, which was
promoted in a mailing I'd answered. The caller became indignant when I confessed that I didn't
remember the company's copy, its product, its mailing, or whether it sent me a brochure.

"When did I request the brochure?" I asked. The caller checked her records. "About 14 weeks ago,"
she replied.

Hot leads rapidly turn ice cold when not followed up quickly. Slow fulfillment, poor marketing literature
and inept telemarketing can destroy the initial interest that you worked so hard to build.


Here are some questions you should ask yourself about your current inquiry fulfillment procedures:

Don't put 100% of your time and effort into lead-generating mailing and 0% into the follow-up, as so many
mailers do. You have to keep selling, every step of the way.

Mistake No. 9:
The magic words.

This mistake is not using the magic words that can dramatically increase the response to your mailing.

General advertisers, operating under the mistaken notion that the mission of the copywriter is to be creative,
avoid the magic words of direct mail, because they think those magic phrases are clichés.

But just because a word or phrase is used frequently doesn't mean that it has lost its power to achieve your
communications objective. In conversation, for example, "please" and "thank you" never go out of style.

What are the magic words of direct mail?

Free. Say free brochure. Not brochure. Say free consultation. Not initial consultation. Say free gift. Not gift.

If the English teacher in you objects that "free gift" is redundant, let me tell you a story. A mail-order firm
tested two packages. The only difference was that package "A" offered a gift while package "B" offered a
free gift.


The result? You guessed it. The free gift order in package "B" significantly out pulled package "A".
What's more, many people who received package "A" wrote in and asked whether the gift was free!

No Obligation
. Important when you are offering anything free. If prospects aren't obligated to use your
firm's wastewater treatment services after you analyze their water sample for free, say so. People want
to be reassured that there are no strings attached.

No salesperson will call
. If true, a fantastic phrase that can increase response by 10% or more. Most
people, including genuine prospects, hate being called by salespeople over the phone. Warning: Don't
say "no salesperson will call" if you do plan to follow up by phone. People won't buy from liars.

Details inside/See inside
. One of those should follow any teaser copy on the outer envelope. You need
a phrase that directs the reader to the inside.

Limited time only
. People who put your mailing aside for later reading or file it will probably never
respond. The trick is to generate a response now. One way to do it is with a time-limited offer, either
generic ("This offer is for a limited time only."), or specific ("This offer expires 9/20/05."). Try it!

Announcing/At last
. People like to think they are getting in on the ground floor of a new thing.
Making your mailing an announcement increases its attention-getting powers.

. "New" is sheer magic in consumer mailings. But it's a double-edged sword in industrial mailings.
On the one hand, business and technical buyers want something new. On the other hand, they demand
products with proven performance.

The solution? Explain that your product is new or available to them for the first time, but proven elsewhere -
either in another country, another application, or another industry. For example, when we introduced a
diagnostic display system, we advertised it as "new" to US hospitals but explained it had been used
successfully for five years in leading hospitals throughout Europe.

Mistake No. 10:
Starting with the product - not the prospect.

In my New York University copywriting workshop, I teach students to avoid "manufacturer's copy"
- copy that is vendor-oriented, that stresses who we are, what we do, our corporate philosophy and history,
and the objectives of our firm.

You and your products are not important to the prospect. The reader opening your sales letter only wants
to know, "What's in it for me? How will I come out ahead by doing business with you vs. Someone else?"

Successful direct mail focuses on the prospect, not the product. The most useful background research
you can do is to ask your typical prospect, "What's the biggest problem you have right now?" The
sales letter should talk about that problem, then promise a solution.

Do not guess what is going on in industries about which you have limited knowledge. Instead, talk to
customers and prospects to find out their needs. Read the same publications and attend the same
seminars they do. Try to learn their problems and concerns.

Too many companies and ad agencies don't do that.

Editors Note: Want to learn more on how to write great advertising and direct mail from the master Bob Bly?
Check out the NMOA bookstore for training, classes and books:

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