Avoid These 9 Direct Mail Mistakes


Some people say direct mail doesn’t work for small businesses – but they’re wrong; it works very well for all businesses when handled correctly. If it doesn’t work it’s because it’s being done wrong. In this article, we’ll discuss nine top direct mail mistakes and how to avoid them.

Here’s an interesting case study about how direct mailing can go wrong. Several years ago, the owner of a carpet cleaning company in Columbus, Ohio decided to try direct mail for the first time. Let’s call him Tom. He connected with a list company, rented a list of people with zip codes in his area, then mailed out a few thousand pieces offering a discount to new customers. Within a couple of weeks, he was convinced it bombed; he got one new customer. He decided direct-mail just didn’t work.

And he was right: it didn’t work the way he did it. The problem was, Tom’s business was located in a low-rent neighborhood. His entire zip code was nothing but low-rent neighborhoods, with a mix of low-end businesses and people who lived mostly in apartment buildings. Even 90% of those living in houses rented. Those are not the right kinds of customers for carpet cleaning.  To make a sad story a joyful one, Tom was finally convinced to do it the right way. He did a mailing to people in a neighborhood just two or three miles away, where most people owned their own homes — and business went through the roof.

This sort of direct mail misfire is common, and it’s what sours so many people on it. They don’t do a professional job, in that they fail to capture people’s attention and interest and make them respond, or they just mail to the wrong people.

That’s Direct Mail Mistake #1: Lack of focus. If you’re going to rent a mailing list, you’d better do some research into the type of list you need to succeed. All Tom needed was residents who had nice properties and took good care of their homes. Keep that in mind, especially if you’re selling something expensive: you have to go to the people who have the money. For other types of businesses, it’s smart to go with a mailing list of people who’ve bought something similar to what you have for sale. There is nothing more important to direct mail than the mailing list.

Mistake #2 is failing to make a compelling offer. People are hit over the head with so many TV, radio, billboard, Internet, newspaper, and magazine ads that they stop paying close attention after a while. Thousands of messages are constantly aimed at them. Your message has to stand out, piercing their shields of indifference. The offer must be so compelling it makes them want to do business with you quickly.

Mistake #3 is not using a deadline. Most people don’t bother with one. They make their special offer in such a general way that people think, “This might be something I want, but why don’t I set this aside for a while? Maybe I’ll get back to it later.” You know how that story goes. If you’re going to put it aside, chances are you’re never going to order it. So use a deadline. You don’t have to put the exact date they have to respond by, because sometimes mail takes a while to get there — though if you’re mailing to people in your area, it should be quite quick. Tell them that there’s a deadline for your fabulous offer, and after that it’s off the table.

Mistake #4: Failure to offer proof. Show people that your claims are real. You can do so by carefully explaining the benefits, overcoming each objection one after the other, or by using testimonials.

Mistake #5 is failure to take advantage of direct mail’s biggest benefit, measurable results. It’s much easier to tell when you’re getting results, and where they’re coming from, than when you use the local Yellow Pages or PennySaver. Tell people where your business is, what you have to offer, and what they need to do to get it — and then keep an eye on who responds. This is one reason most advertising people hate direct mail: you can prove precisely what is and isn’t working.

Mistake #6 is failure to follow up. If you do a mailing and it works to any degree whatsoever, go back to those people later with other offers. My colleague Russ Von Hoelscher likes to tell the story of the real estate agent who sent him mailings every month or so for years. She’d also send key chains, little calendars, and all sorts of things. Russ didn’t intend to sell his home at that time, but appreciated the fact that she kept sending him things. So when he did decide to sell, he called her and had her handle it for a commission of several thousand dollars — all for $50 worth of trinkets on her end.

Mistake #7: Failure to cut to the chase. Make an irresistible offer; don’t try to be cute or funny, or use the Madison Avenue style of advertising. I’m amazed by some of the ads on TV. Some are terrific and interesting, but when the ad is over, I don’t know what they’re trying to sell. Be very direct with direct mail.

Mistake #8: Bad sales copy. Too many marketers use boring, dry copy that puts people to sleep. Use language that urges people to take action. Use words that hit people over the head, so they wake up and really pay attention to what you’re saying. Learning to do this takes some time, so if you don’t feel you can write compelling direct mail copy, then by all means hire someone who can — until you can do it yourself.

Mistake #9: Lack of diversification. Many people focus too heavily on one kind of marketing medium, limiting their potential. Overuse of traditional marketing media at the expense of direct mail is a common. When direct mail is used wisely, it can make you all kinds of money. You should never, ever neglect it.

This article covers both sides of the direct mail coin, because by learning these nine major marketing mistakes, you also learn what you should be doing. There’s a lot of bad direct mail out there; and once you have a feel for the right things to do, you can usually spot it pretty quickly. If nothing else, do the exact opposite of these nine mistakes, and you should prosper in your direct mail efforts.

When you sit down with someone who claims direct mail didn’t work for them, you’ll usually find that they made one or more of these nine mistakes, violating the core rules for successful direct mail. Sometimes direct mail won’t work for some offers, and there are certain marketplaces where direct mail is less effective than it is with others. But more often than not it’ll work effectively, when you follow the rules and avoid the classic mistakes. But be careful; you can have all eight of those other items right, but if you’ve got just one wrong, you can fail.