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In an economy where only the bare essentials survive budget cuts, it's tougher than ever to promote products or services that aren't "mission-critical" for your audience.

But no matter how steep the odds, it's still possible to generate surprisingly good response rates - while attracting quality leads - by making your lead-generation offer irresistible. Here's how:

1. Solve a problem common to prospective buyers. Be sure to promise information or tools that can help your target audience solve a problem - one that identifies them as a candidate for your product or service.

Wrong: Enterprise finance software publisher offers a free booklet on how to better plan business trips (the offer solves a problem, but targets the wrong group, and may draw poorly qualified leads).

Right: An 8-page report on common financial forecasting mistakes and how to avoid them (those who are intrigued are also likely to have some level of interest in finance management - and are suffering the "pain" (lack of accurate forecasting capability) that your software can solve

2. Don't cater only to active shoppers. Your offer should appeal to prospects whether or not they're ready to pull out their checkbooks. Otherwise, you'll miss out on connecting with the larger subset of your audience that simply has a problem your product can address, even if they don't perceive that problem to be so acute that they're shopping for a solution. Maybe they'll be ready to buy 6 months from now - don't you still want their name and e-mail address? You bet you do.

Wrong: Free report on how to choose enterprise finance software (assumes prospects are ready to buy, or at least shop).

Right: Tip sheet on 10 ways to get control of spiraling transaction processing costs, article on methods for compressing reconciliation ("closing") cycles, etc. (these appeal to prospects with finance-related problems - and who might influence software solutions purchases, now or later).

2. Include an impartial, objective view. Ideally, your offer will include some kind of independent assessment of your product or, better yet, an analysis of the entire product space. Examples include analyst reports, article reprints, and research pieces by recognized experts.

But be careful not to rely on an article that merely presents one of your recent press releases, unless you can legitimately "sell" the piece as a source of other helpful information (such as a case study or product category analysis).

3. Give your offer "media appeal." People really respond to offers that promise any kind of "interesting" media: CD-ROM, Video or Audio Cassette, DVD, etc. The content doesn't have to be award-winning; just make sure it's on-topic.

Wrong: "We'll also rush you a copy of the Oscar™-nominated Joe vs. the Volcano starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan!" (you might generate a huge response, but cinema lovers may or may not want financial management solutions).

Right: "We'll also include a CD-ROM featuring a multimedia software demo and a compelling, instructive interview with corporate finance guru Bob Dubach." (Many prospects will see this as an easier way to absorb the information you're offering.)

4. Prove your point with case studies. Some people will respond to a "real-life case study" when white papers and analyst reports hold no interest for them. Ideally, case studies focus on well-known companies solving problems relevant to your target audience.

But note: even "typical success stories" about vaguely-identified companies - appropriate when you haven't yet received customer approval - can have real pulling power. So it's still a good idea to include something like:

"You'll learn how an international construction firm and a giant in the insurance industry both saved millions and boosted their stock prices using a new generation of software …"

5. Trials and demos: the ultimate involvement device? Include a free trial or demo where appropriate. This could be fully-functional software that stops working after 15 days, a free
3-week subscription to an online service, or anything else that lets prospects discover the benefits of your product.

But be careful: free trials appeal most to prospects who have already decided to buy something, and are in evaluation mode. Make this the main thrust of your offer and you'll likely fail to attract the much larger audience who might not yet be shopping.

6. The premium that separates true prospects from mere mortals. One great way to boost response rates is to offer a premium that (a) has a high perceived value to this audience and (b) wouldn't necessarily be perceived valuable by others (ideal example: timely, topical book)

Acceptable: "Respond quickly and you'll be entered in a drawing for a free digital camera valued at $399." (Danger: you'll attract more amateur photographers than good prospects.)

Much better: "Be one of the first 25 to request your stuff and you'll also receive a free audio cassette copy of Growing on Trees, the hot new corporate finance bestseller." (You'll raise response and improve overall campaign results by attracting more people with issues and challenges that your product addresses.)

7. Don't limit your offer to product collateral - but do include them. Whether already in shopping mode or not, few prospects will respond if you offer only information that promotes your own product.

On the other hand, it's smart to include materials that promote your product or service - you'll add a measure of objectivity and value to the other offer components by doing so.

Wrong: "Send today for our full-color brochure on the world's finest enterprise finance software."

Right: "Along with your free report/kit/widget, we'll include details on Enterprise Finance Magician, the award-winning software solution for …"

8. Easy to get … Some people want information right away and prefer to download it. Others (often 50 percent or more) prefer hard copy, and you risk losing their response unless you offer a hard-copy offer.. Wherever possible, give your audience choices.

… and easy to use. Make responding easy for everyone by offering as many practical options as possible. For direct mail, include toll-free phone, through-the-mail reply card or form, and Web options. For online campaigns, it's okay to limit response method to Web-only, since anyone who might want to respond is already online, or probably will be soon.

A final word on cost. Does an irresistible offer cost more to create and deliver? Sometimes. But without a compelling offer, the remainder of your campaign investment - lists and media, creative, and your precious time - will almost certainly have been wasted. An investment in making your offer more attractive will almost always pay for itself by generating a higher response.

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