Direct Mail Success Strategies

Direct Mail Success Strategies

Byline: Elaine Tyson

Feel like you just swallowed a blender? Your coffee’s cold, you’re mumbling to yourself and that new direct mail package looks like it was written and designed by a two year old. You’re at the point where tossing the next person who bugs you through a window seems like a rational option. Have I caught you at a good time, or what?

Take a deep breath, muster everything you’ve learned about selling subscriptions through the mail and ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with the next subscription campaign. This may sound easy, but establishing a goal is a first important step. What do you want your prospects to do?


*Accept a trial subscription

*Accept a short term introductory offer

*Become a charter subscriber

Many people ignore this simple step and then complain that direct mail doesn’t work. Whatever your decision, when it comes to selling magazine subscriptions it pays to remember that your campaigns need to do more than simply sell one-time orders. You want to get new customers that will renew. The ultimate circulation sales goal is to develop a relationship with subscribers that will last for a long, long time. Your decision at this stage will lead you to develop strategy to accomplish your goal.

The Compelling Offer

Once you’ve decided what you want your prospects to do, you need to choose the best method for presenting your offer. Offers drive promotions so your offer strategy has a lot to do with achieving your direct marketing goals. The ability to recognize a weak or noncompetitive offer – while finding ways to strengthen it – will prevent your subscription offers from leaping into the nearest trash can. Some hints about identifying strong offers include:

* Use of the word Free

It’s still one of the most powerful words in the English language. Use it carefully and be sure you fully disclose the exact terms of the free issue (or trial) as well as how to cancel, should the prospect decide not to continue the subscription.

* Exclusivity

Charter offers for new magazines are pretty much standard for this reason. And, people like to belong to clubs, so membership privileges as part of a subscription offer can pay off with increased response. There are also limited time offers – but use this only if the offer is actually available for a limited time only.

* Credit terms

The use of credit improves gross and net response.

* Premiums

If you sell subscriptions with a premium, the premium must have a high perceived value.

* Savings

Be sure you highlight any price savings, because people like to save money and specifics sell.

* Guarantees

Always use the strongest guarantee of satisfaction that you can and be sure it is featured throughout your direct mail package.

Your offer must be clear, easy to understand and free of hyperbole. Although it must be scrupulously honest, there is nothing dishonest about adding some sizzle. If you have a real price advantage, sell it hard – state savings off your newsstand price or regular subscription price. Add a respond by date to help move prospects to action for fear of missing out.

Send Your Offer to the Right People

It’s only junk if you mail your subscription offer to the wrong people. Take pains to be sure you know exactly who your readers are – how old are they, are they primarily male or female, what’s their education level, their profession? Periodically reevaluate your subscriber profile, because markets change and you need to be up to speed on whether there is something you could do to target your market more precisely. Have you tested different selects – household income, gender, membership affiliations, and geographic selects? Are you using your house lists effectively? It could be worthwhile to try and forge partnerships with others in your market in an attempt to expand your mailing universe. Your list strategy is the most important element in the success of your mailing.

Everyone knows it’s getting harder and harder to find good direct mail lists. But, I think a lot of people overlook one of the most effective strategies for overcoming this problem – the follow-up mailing. Instead of keelhauling your list broker, think about using some of the same names twice. To make this strategy work, all you need to do is:


Remail only your best responding lists.


Mail the follow-up effort 10 to 21 days after your initial drop.


Use a second, inexpensive format such as a double postcard.


Request permission from list owners for second usage. Most will negotiate a discount for the remail.


Mail the follow-up at the same postage class as the initial offer.

You can anticipate an increased response of at least 25% from the lists you remail – sometimes the results are even more exciting. But, never remail marginal lists – you know, the lists you wouldn’t mail if you had a choice. A follow-up will make a good list more productive but it won’t make a poor list better. I don’t know why this technique works, but it does. Perhaps because some Standard A mail is never delivered, not having received the first wave, prospects respond to the second offer.

Marketing a magazine with a smaller than optimum mailing universe causes severe circulation stress. Using a follow-up can help keep the stress level down. So when you really need to mail more names than you’ve got to work with, mail the best ones you have a second time.

Copy and Design for Your Subscription Offer

There are very few circulation marketers who are equipped to write and design their own direct mail packages. After all, it takes a certain amount of skill and experience to write advertising copy and showcase it effectively. Yet, as the person responsible for the success of your magazine’s direct mail efforts, you need to be able to recognize strong creative and champion good creative strategies for your magazine.

This is another reason to understand the magazine’s reader profile. You have to be able to recognize copy that appeals to and makes sense to your prospective readers. Copy has to target the prospect’s wants, needs and desires with benefits your magazine offers that can meet those needs.

Good direct mail copy has to connect with readers emotionally by getting inside their heads. This makes it possible to choose your magazine’s strongest benefits to promote. Good writers can do this because they understand that security means one thing if you’re 24 but quite something else if you’re 64.

One picture is not worth a thousand words in direct response advertising. Your direct mail package needs to start with warm, personal copy that prospective readers can identify with and actually want to sit down and read. This means the copy has to be good – entertaining as well as informative. Copy needs to be written before the package is designed.

There is no way to “write to fit” the space in a direct mail effort. The writer sets the tone and style, decides on the strongest benefits, writes about the most significant features of your magazine and determines what components are needed to tell your magazine’s story. Good direct mail writers also understand and use good direct marketing technique.

This is not to minimize the importance of design. Just like a good man, good design is hard to find; you always get the other kind. (Apologies to songwriter Eddie Green). One of the reasons for the scarcity of high quality direct mail at the moment is that many people have lost sight of the fact that ownership of a Mac and design software doesn’t make someone a direct mail designer.

Subscription promotions need design that sells. Direct mail design calls attention to the magazine being promoted, not to itself. It works hard to get envelopes opened. A good direct mail designer understands that some envelopes need to whisper while others must shout to be opened.

You can count on a good direct mail designer not to use anything other than a typewriter font for a letter and to avoid hard to read fonts and point sizes. Good direct mail design means a well organized, easy to read and use order card and the ability to make a package flow. Flow and movement avoids boredom.

Design is problem solving and organization. It creates order from chaos and makes your prospects pay attention to your offer. It makes letters look easy to read and moves prospects along to the order card. It never cofuses and it’s 50% of the success of any subscription package.

Approving New Creative Work

When you’re approving new copy, don’t read it with a pencil in your hand. Read it several times without editing to be absolutely sure you know what the writer and designer intend. Evaluate the complete package – don’t try to approve new creative one component at a time. You need to have the copy and layouts for the entire package in front of you to understand the creative concept.

Make as few changes as possible. Packages edited by committee never read the same from start to finish and, therefore, don’t work as well as those with one creative vision. If you need to make revisions of more than a few words, explain what you need and why to the writer and have the writer make the changes. The same holds true for design. Don’t make the changes yourself.

Read the package from the outside in – look at the envelope, the letter, brochure (and other enclosures such as a lift letter or buckslip) and finally the order card. Although no one knows for sure how people actually read their mail, the envelope is the first thing your prospects see and, hopefully, you’ll have the package inserted so the letter is facing the back of the envelope so most prospects will read it first. In other words, look at everything the way you think prospects will see the offer. Then, ask yourself some tough questions about each component.

The Outer Envelope

Study the copy and graphics. Ask yourself if they work together and target your market. Look at the envelope size and color(s) to be certain you consider everything appropriate for the magazine and the prospect universe. Are you convinced that what you see will move prospects to open the envelope and get involved with your offer?

Keep in mind that there are different ways to get prospects to open your envelope. Well known approaches include:

* Curiosity

The idea of making a prospect wonder what’s in that envelope so he or she will feel compelled to open it.

* Involvement

A short quiz, a token or peel and stick device often moves people inside the envelope.

* A promise

Copy that promises a benefit, savings or something free is a legitimate envelope opener.

* Recognition

If prospects recognize your magazine’s name, it might make them open the offer to take a better look.

The Sales Letter

Once prospects open your offer, the sales letter becomes the most important element in the package. It includes all the features and benefits of your magazine, the credibility for the company; it presents the offer, provides involvement and moves the prospect to action. That’s a tall order for any single component, but good writers who understand direct response rules and formulas – technique – do it all the time.

In checking your letter, be certain it looks easy to read – wide margins, short paragraphs, sub heads and underlining help move prospects along to the order card. Is the copy believable and clear? Are you satisfied that the copy is personal and written only to the prospect’s viewpoint? Does it have the you attitude? You copy is generally benefits copy and as we all know, benefits sell subscriptions.

We is features copy. Describing features of the magazine is important, but these features need to turn into advantages (benefits) for prospects for the letter to do its job effectively. The letter should close with a call to action and tell readers why they should act now, not later.

Read your offer carefully and decide whether the offer strategy is believable and based on the desires of your market. Is the offer strong enough to make prospects stop and order now?

Does the Brochure Do Its Job?

A brochure is used when it’s necessary to supplement the letter with more information. Newsletter promotions usually don’t need brochures. However, most magazines have visual appeal and can show covers, spreads and tables of contents plus other images the magazine owns in a brochure.

Whether four color is necessary depends on the subject matter and your budget. A brochure may be any size but it should have the following characteristics:

*It compliments other package elements;

*It shows features;

*It answers every question about the magazine;

*It includes only the strongest visual benefits that have previously been described in the letter.

Check to be sure all the type is easy to read and that the graphics reinforce your sales message and assist in its communication to prospects. Dropping out large amounts of type makes it more difficult for readers, so avoid that as poor technique. There isn’t anything worse than a jumbled, confusing brochure. If you look at the one in your package and can’t decide where to look first and its folds don’t work logically, it’s poorly designed and will turn off prospects.

The Order Card

Everything in your package exists to move prospects to the order form and, by the time they get there, you want them to be ready to say, “Yes”. Testing has shown that easy to use, well-organized order cards work best in selling subscriptions. Your order card should restate your offer, keep choices to a minimum and carry your guarantee.

Since extraneous material can depress response, make sure you have only what you need to enter an order unless your test results indicate otherwise. However, involvement devices usually improve response, so tokens, scratch offs and stickers won’t get in the way of your orders. Neither will response motivators such as respond-by dates.

Direct mail doesn’t always make sense. It’s important for you to know that certain things work and others generally don’t work, but if you’re asking why, you’re asking the wrong question. Many times there is no why.

Other Useful Components

Your package may also include a lift letter and/or buckslip depending upon what the writer decides is necessary to making your magazine’s sales story clear and compelling.

A buckslip can be used to highlight an important benefit, a premium or to simulate last minute news. The lift letter is a second, smaller letter that rides along in the package. It’s used to give prospects another reason to buy from an entirely different viewpoint. That’s why someone who did not sign the main letter should sign the lift note.

There is usually copy on the fold that targets those who will (or won’t) respond. Copy can be used to introduce a new benefit or to reinforce your offer. Extra components also add some involvement to your package.

The Famous, Final Scene

Once you’ve studied each component in the package, be honest with yourself. Did it hold your interest and keep you moving ahead? Were you bored, intrigued, indifferent? There should be a feeling of continuity about the package – the same tone and style should be evident throughout each of the components.

In other words, it should sound and look as if the same person is responsible for the entire creative effort. You don’t want to start your offer sounding like Sir Laurence Olivier and end it talking like Ozzy Osbourne. (No offense, Ozzy, I bleepin’ love you!)

And, I know you might think this is crazy but you also need to check to be sure everything in the package is machine insertable and will fit into the outer envelope. We still see components that an inserter can’t handle, order cards with the address area in the wrong position and brochures that are too big for the outer envelope. Don’t let a mistake of that magnitude work its way into the lettershop. By then, it will be too late to correct.

Once you’ve assembled all your knowledge of direct marketing, your magazine’s reader profile and its market, relax. Everything will be fine.

Elaine Tyson is president of Tyson Associates, Inc., a circulation consulting and direct mail agency based in Ridgefield, CT ( ).

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