A Second Bite of the Forbidden Fruit – The Art of Direct Mail

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 Years ago, the world was awash in junk mail.

Junk mailTons of the stuff invaded homes across America every day. It became so bad at times, we used to throw it out by the tub.

When that happened, it wasn’t long before mailers got the message loud and clear. Direct mail came mostly to an end while the world of email spam came roaring to life.

Spam Rules

This is why some twenty-somethings suddenly looked brilliant during their 15 minutes of fame, figuring out how to use 80% of the Internet’s bandwidth to peddle Nigerian lost fortunes and 16-page get-rich-quick pitches. And wow did that work for a while. But eventually, like so many of the mediocre English rock bands of the 70s, the crappy stuff subsided and the real art emerged.

It took a while, but a few very clever and talented email marketing gurus emerged who fully understood both the skill it takes to create those offers so masterfully and then tracks results using advanced metrics to ensure the success of each mailer. But just as before with postal direct mail, the number of unsolicited email offers, even the legitimate ones, exploded exponentially. Monitoring the flood of digital flotsam became too much to endure. It’s even dangerous to open unsolicited email these days not knowing what digital trap is set to steal your personal information. Now we’re back where we started, ignoring the endless stream of these “unbeatable” offers and urgent time-limited opportunities.

The death knell of the serious spammers seemed to be those 45 minute Internet videos calling for the end of the world. The fatigue of it was palpable as all of us, trying to simply run our lives, completely tuned out and change our email addresses yet again.

Guess Who’s Back?

Yup. Postal Direct Mail is once again making a comeback. You know, that dead tree stuff: thick packages of paper mechanically assembled with computer precision. Designed to look like priority communication with the importance of an insurance policy yet scientifically calibrated to generate a precise emotional reaction with an uncanny rhythm that evolves to “closing” you on an offer. Unlike its electronic counterpart,  this highly orchestrated and planned marketing missive, likely costing upwards of $35,000 to craft, is designed to elicit the exact response it should from approximately 2% of the readership, selected carefully and chosen by computers who know more about its recipient than their parents likely do. But who has the time to read 16 pages of marketing prose?

Window Of OpportunityThis Time It’s Different!

Unlike the paper flood of decades ago, far fewer people are doing direct mail today, so mailboxes are practically empty, and that is a golden opportunity.  The word “ancient” comes to mind in most middle-aged marketing managers who are too infatuated with their Facebook campaigns to realize that some people get curious when something other than a bill arrives at their home. No doubt this too shall pass in the next several years as once again, we marketing dorks catch on to this opportunity, and eventually overdo and spoil it, just like we do to anything that has a spark of life to it. Meanwhile,  there’s a window here, and I suggest considering the wisdom of jumping through it.

 Where to Start

If you think I am going to try and show you step by step, it’s not going to happen. I am not the expert who should guide you in this process but here’s a full primer which appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine, written in 2005, which nails it perfectly.

I would start with this and begin planning your strategy. Because of Facebook and other “modern” inventions which have emerged since this article was written, think more about how you want your reader to respond. Now with so many different response options, testing becomes even more important.

Only Three Options Back Then

Years ago, when I was in the habit of littering the U.S. Postal System with several million letters a year, we had only 3 ways to get a reply: A postage-paid business reply envelope, a fax and of course a phone call. We discouraged phone calls since we would be overwhelmed if everyone chose to order that way, so back then, faxes were the most efficient.

We had six fax machines on a long table. After I dropped a mail piece, I would pull up a chair and sit there watching the money roll in. It was horribly inefficient because every order had to be hand-entered into our order entry system while today, clients enter their own information directly into our web databases and CRM systems.

The Best of Both Worlds

If I were to try and decide between an email or physical mail campaign (atoms vs. electrons) I would go physical, and I would start with a postcard. The postcard requires short, powerful copy and is the closest thing to a squeeze page on the web. (A squeeze page is a page where, when you arrive, you can only do one thing: provide your email address, or leave, with no other options. It squeezes you into a single choice.) Because of the small number of words and limited space for graphics, every ink dot is precisely calculated to deliver a specific impact. It’s got to grab the reader’s attention within a single second and close like a freight train. The recipient is directed to enter their email address on a carefully constructed web page in exchange for a free (or lost cost) nugget of value (for example, a report, a business tool or a collection of audio interviews about a  topic of interest). That’s what I would do.

Postcards can be tested in small quantities, in many different variations, and with different sizes. It seems like a great way to mine for new prospects since emailing now is legally restricted due to spam rules. You can still buy quality lists for about $125 per thousand and there are many one-stop shops who will do everything for you: acquire your list, design your card, buy the stock, print and mail your offer. For the economies of scale they offer, there’s no point in doing it yourself. In fact, a good guideline is that it will cost about $0.26 a card including shipping. All you need to add is postage and your list expenses.

How to Decide

I think of postcards as a great way to prospect for new clients who are NOT Internet marketers. If I want to reach businesses of all types, I believe direct mail and postcards, in particular, will work well. Since a postcard does not require any other action than to read it, your prospect will do so, no choice involved. Your job is to keep your message simple, offer a free option to receive something of value quickly and require them to visit a web page with a SIMPLE address. If I were doing a more complex product launch, like a new book or a training program, a postcard should be tested but my instinct says it will be less effective unless the name and photo of the book are so compelling, it drives people to the web instantly.

 Cost vs. Benefit

Theoretically, email is free (to send) but you can’t legally mail to non-permission recipients and if your list is from an unknown source it will be labeled as spam. In reality, you will most likely employ a company to send your email for you to increase the odds of it being delivered unless you are mailing to your own lists. You will probably pay someone to write it and craft it’s look and feel. Even if you don’t get labeled as a “spammer,” it’s not likely to work very well to a cold list. If you are serious about your marketing and want to reach new clients, then consider using direct mail. Consider using postcards. Consider carefully planning exactly what outcome you want and then execute with precision. It will pay off if you stick to your plan.

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