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Columns by Linda  Formichelli:

Self-Promotion with Emotion

Obedience School

Momma Always Said

Sweet Talk



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Direct Mail for Cheapskates

Pass by the fax machine, turn off the computer, and head out to Ye Olde Office Maxxe for some good old-fashioned paper and stamps. We're going to mail -- yes, mail -- promotional materials to your prospects.

"Mail?" you sniff, lifting your nose heavenward. "Isn't that a bit outdated?"

That may well be, but snogging's been around since Adam and Eve, and people still find that worthwhile. In fact, according to Denny Hatch, a consultant, IP copywriter, and founder of the Inside Direct Mail newsletter, in the future you'll probably be seeing more -- not less -- direct mail. "If an e-marketer expects to build a business based on people stumbling onto his Web site, he doesn't have a business," he says. "With how many -- 40 million URLs out there? -- you have to drive people to yours."

Can Direct Mail Really Do That?

Let's look at an actual mailing from someone who couldn't possibly steer you wrong -- me. Over the course of several months, I sent out a two-page sales letter and a reply card to 600 contacts that I compiled myself from business directories at the Boston Public Library. I spent about $200 on letterhead, postcards, and envelopes and a similar amount on postage. (Want to learn how to rent and/or compile a list of your own? Watch out for an upcoming article on the subject by Eric Martin.)

This modest mailing generated an 11% response rate. Of that, three companies gave me assignments. That might not sound so hot, but those three companies have given me projects worth over $15,000 to date -- a 2,400% return on my investment.

Okay, I'm Sold -- So What Do I Send Out?

What to send depends on the message you're trying to convey. Some ideas are postcards, double postcards, sales letters, newsletters, promotional items, and greeting cards.

Don't be afraid to get creative. For example, Cooking for Profit magazine (never let it be said that I'm not widely read) wrote about a clever advertiser who sent out a postcard that was so nondescript, it was begging to be trashed. A week later, the advertiser mailed the same postcard, crumpled up and then flattened out, in an envelope. On the postcard was a sticky note that read, "Please don't throw this away again! This is important!" Not only did this mailing generate sales, it was also written up in a newspaper article -- thereby generating more publicity.

No, I Mean, What Do I Put on the Darn Thing?

Some mailpieces, such as postcards, require design work. If your idea of design involves a few strategically placed graphics from a free clip-art CD, you might want to let a professional handle your mailpiece. If you're more artsy-fartsy, you can save bucks by doing it yourself. Just keep the following in mind: "In general, simpler tends to be better," says Chris Clark, an IP graphic and Web designer and owner of Cave Dog Studio. "Communicating the message clearly is more important than using lots of fancy graphics. When you look at the design of a postcard, the first thing you perceive should be the core of the message."

The best way to find out whether your mailpiece hits the mark is to ask a friend (or better yet, an enemy) for his or her unvarnished opinion. "Print mockups at full size -- and in color, if appropriate -- and hand them to friends who haven't been involved in the design process to gauge their responses," says Clark. "Make sure they're being honest, too. Sugar-coated criticism will only hurt the final product."

Whatever design you choose, make it easy for the prospect to contact you by including your phone number, 800-number (now available for as little as $5 per month), fax number, email address, URL and -- why not? -- snail mail address on the mailpiece.

When Should I Mail My Stuff?

When you're spending green stuff on a mailing, you don't want your message getting lost in the crush of red and green cards during the winter holidays. That's why Nancy Michaels, founder of Impression Impact and co-author of Off-The-Wall Marketing Ideas, sends greeting cards out on Chinese New Year and the Fourth of July, which tend to be light mailing months. Other good mailing months are January and September. "You get people when they're in that back-to-school or new year state of mind," she explains.

Michaels also suggests timing your mailings so they arrive on a Tuesday or Wednesday. "Monday can be overwhelming, and on Friday, people are in TGIF mode. On Tuesday and Wednesday, people are there and in the groove," she says. And Thursday? "Oh, I have nothing against Thursday."

How Do I Keep from Getting Tossed in the Bin?

You'd think that being sophisticated people who have seen men land on the moon and one sheep become two, we wouldn't feel a primal urge to rip open a mailpiece just because it has a crooked stamp or a yellow envelope. But research shows that we're really just a pack of Pavlovian-type dogs when it comes to tricks like the ones below.

  • Try a teaser on the envelope: "Free customized clip art inside!"

  • Send lumpy mailings -- meaning there's something in the envelope that makes it lumpy.

  • Create a sense of urgency. S.E. Ring Mailing Lists will sell you bogus next day air envelopes at $25 per 100. These look like rush envelopes from FedEx or UPS, yet require only 33¢ in postage.

  • Use colored envelopes.

  • Hand address the envelopes (or use a handwriting-type font).

  • Hand stamp the envelopes. (I once read that affixing the stamps slightly askew gets a better response than perfectly straight stamps.)

  • Use off-size or odd-shaped envelopes.

The best way to determine which of these techniques will work for you is to test them against a plain mailpiece.

How Much Will Postage Set Me Back?

Stop griping about the rising cost of postage. It costs a piddling 33¢ to get a First Class letter mailed from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere else in the U.S., for corn's sake. You don't have to resign yourself to shelling out big bucks to send your direct mail. Just follow these tips to get your mailpiece where it's going without breaking the bank.

  • Please, please, please check with the Postmaster before printing your direct mail piece. I'd hate to have Aquent Magazine readers sending tear-stained letters to the editor about how their mailpieces required $47.99 in postage each. The USPS even offers free business reply templates and a directory of Mailpiece Design Analysts -- postal employees specially trained to answer your questions regarding mailpiece design.

  • Because you should reuse your list several times throughout the year, you may want to alternate more expensive mailings with postcards to keep the costs down.

  • If you want to impress your prospects, or make it easy for them to respond, a pre-paid business reply card (BRC) may be worth the moolah. According to Second Thoughts About a First Newsletter by 1099's own Nancy Austin, a business-reply permit costs about $85 a year, and each card that gets sent to you will cost about 79¢.

  • Don't feel that you have to have a pre-paid BRC. I stopped stamping the reply cards in my mailing, and the response rate remained the same. "There's not enough money at stake for people to question whether or not to send the card in," says Michaels.

  • If you're doing a large mailing, contact the Postmaster about how to qualify for bulk mail rates.

Don't snub direct mail just because it's not sexy. While your competitors sit there in their swivel chairs slinging email and faxes left and right, you can take advantage of a time-tested marketing method that brings direct results to your bottom line.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Linda Formichelli if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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