By: Lois Geller, Contributor
At our agency we create about 30% of the direct mail we used to do. There’s no logical reason for the drop but there are a few dozen other reasons and they all center on the Internet.
I’ve started speaking at various marketing events again – I enjoy it and a happy side effect is that it always results in unexpected calls from prospects. Today a man called about attracting more investors, people just like his current high end clients.
That’s ideal for direct mail so I asked if he’d tried it. He said no; he needed a brochure, and printing and … well, he had more excuses. I mentioned “Maybe just a great letter?” Oh, he said that won’t work.
I smiled and thought of the magic that one great letter can work in a marketing program.
The operative word is “great”. The difference between workmanlike and great in direct mail is as vast as the difference between a cartoonist and Vermeer.
The problem is that to a critical and untutored eye a great direct mail letter doesn’t look like much. It looks simple, which is much more difficult to achieve than something sophisticated – a word that in this context usually means corporate gobbledygook. The critic reading the direct mail letter is rarely a member of the target audience so, naturally, the letter doesn’t resonate.
Let me give you a few examples of how simple letters work very well.
Need new business now
When we were onMadison Avenue in New York, happily just ensconced in our spectacular office, we lost our major client because their top level staff had all been let go by the Board in some kind of scandal. What to do? Stressed and a little nervous, I decided to write to all the businesses around Madison and 39th Street.
Basically I just asked each recipient for 10 minutes to explain how our approach could help grow his or her business. We got some calls, I met a few people and we picked up more than enough work to keep body and soul together until we landed another big account.
I’ll pay you a bonus
We moved to Florida because my Mom was ill. When she passed away a couple of years later, I had to sell her apartment on the beach side of Collins Avenue. The market was softer than soft, so I renovated the kitchen, staged the living room, added plants and nothing happened except that the real estate agent kept telling me to lower the price.
Instead, I wrote a personal letter to everyone who lived in the building. Most of them knew my mother and the apartment so I concentrated on the offer: if you help me find a buyer, I’ll give you a gift of $2,000. Soon, my phone was ringing off the hook, and one kind neighbor sold the apartment for me – to his brother who loves it.
Buy a Lincoln
This is one of the letters I think of when people tell me a letter alone won’t work. We were working in Toronto and our client, Ford of Canada, did a lot of direct mail with fancy brochures. They’re great people so we asked if it’d be okay to try something new, something a lot less expensive, to sell a new Lincoln. They said sure, go ahead. (Agencies almost never suggest spending less money.)
We wrote a short, personalized letter that didn’t say a lot more than “This letter is worth $1,500 to you when you buy or lease a brand new Lincoln.” Over a six month period, that little letter sold about half the Lincolns in Canada.
The power of one letter, all by itself
I’ve seen a letter lift response by 1300% over the much fancier control package, another letter pacify irate customers so they don’t mind paying shipping and handling, and another apologize for a mistake and wind up selling more merchandise than if the mistake hadn’t been made in the first place.
Actually, I’ve seen that last technique work more than once. There’s something about an apology. I once tried to persuade a client to let us make a mistake and then follow up with an apology but he said no, even though he was tempted.
At a publishing company with five book clubs, the computer department made a doozy of a blunder. Each club had a main selection that was mailed automatically to their members, unless they told us otherwise a few weeks before. It was a massive undertaking to write instructions about who got what.
I had left for a Club Med vacation and was startled when I got a desperate call from the office. Two of the clubs got their main selections mixed up so that Good Housekeeping Ladies got a Cosmo book, and Cosmo Girls got a Good Housekeeping Cookbook.
We wrote to thousands of women to explain what had happened and saved the program. We just told the truth and were down-to-earth about it.
Where letters often work best
Take a look at your database to find customers who have stopped buying from you. A simple “We want you back” letter can bring them right back before they forget you exist. I wish more companies did this. Instead, they use email now and it’s just not as effective.
I’m also starting to hear that straight direct mail letters are working very well with young males, not teenagers but the 30-50 group.
It can’t hurt to try a letter or two every now and then. It doesn’t cost a heck of a lot. In fact, your biggest expense might be the cost of hiring a really good direct mail writer. If you can get a letter to click with a test audience, you’ll have found a potential silver mine that can pay off nicely when you roll it out to larger audiences.
A few quick notes
• Your letters should sound as if they were written by a human being.
• One-to-one and conversational is usually best. Forget corporatese, it’s snooze-inducing.
• Try a live stamp, even better, try two live stamps.
• Try to find common ground. One of my favorite first lines is “I don’t know how you feel about (whatever), but I …”
• Test a lot of different approaches and lengths.
• Offer something they can get only by responding to your letter.
• Ask for the order and make it easy to reply.