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The following article is based on an excerpt from the e-book titled "Getting Response in a Down Economy: 4 Key Principles to Boost Your Direct Mail Profits in Today's Difficult Market."

If you create or manage direct mail programs, the current economy probably has you pulling your hair out. Over the last couple of years, it's been crazy out there.

Budgets have shrunk. Response has been unpredictable. Costs have risen. And yet you need to make sales. What can you do?

First, take a deep breath, because the economy is beginning to improve. Second, don't do anything rash. Though closing down your direct mail programs would be an overreaction, taking huge risks wouldn't be the answer either.

Now is the perfect time to get back to basics and remind yourself of the following seven core principles of direct marketing.

1. Sell things people want

In general, direct marketing is not about creating markets, but about locating existing markets. It is a business-to-buyer avenue of selling that is streamlined, efficient, and profitable—but only when a market wants what you are offering.

For example, a few decades ago, only hardcore geeks would buy a computer via mail. Computers were neither understood nor wanted by the general public, but such purchases are now common because a wide market exists.

2. Don't sell mere products, sell solutions to problems

No one cares about your widgets. What people care about are their own needs and wants.

Bob doesn't want a drill; he wants a hole. Mary doesn't want a dress; she wants to look thin at Friday's party. Alice doesn't want an investment newsletter; she wants to find a great investment that will let her retire at 45. Ted doesn't want a recipe book; he wants new ways to impress friends at dinner parties and generate the compliments he thrives on.

3. Appeal to emotion first, reason second

Most direct marketers are number-crunching, logical people. It's easy for us to fall into a cold, left-brain, bullet-pointed, 714-reasons-why type of sales pitch. However, people make decisions using right-brain thinking, based on emotion. Then they justify that decision with logic (i.e., rationalization).

To set up a sale, appeal to emotion first. To close and confirm a sale, use logic.

4. Use proven techniques

Although there is no set of universal techniques that applies to all circumstances, a few are nearly universal. According to Bob Stone, the guru of gurus in direct marketing...

  • A "yes/no" offer usually outpulls offers without a "no" option
  • A negative-option offer usually outpulls a positive-option offer
  • An offer with a time limit usually outpulls an offer with no time limit
  • An offer with a free gift usually outpulls discount offers (especially when the gift closely matches your prospect's self-interest)
  • Sweepstakes usually increase order volume, especially for impulse items (though sweepstakes customers will not be loyal)
  • Benefits outpull features
  • The more involved you can get people, and the more they read, the greater your chance for success
  • Envelope packages usually outpull self-mailers

5. Value content over form

One of the primary reasons advertising fails is that ad creators too often get caught up in a creative vision but have nothing to say.

One agency has repeatedly sent me mockups of mailers and brochures with tiny blank spaces they want me to fill in with copy. When I ask about the purpose of the piece or point out that the design should be based on what needs to be communicated, I am gently told to just write something of the right length and everything will work out fine.

That is nonsense. Don't start with a "look." Start with content. Allow your design to develop naturally from your copy.

6. Make sure you're doing direct marketing

Every direct marketing message includes three basic elements: an offer, enough information for immediate acceptance of the offer, and a mechanism for responding to the offer.

Without each of those elements, you are not doing direct marketing. You are merely using media associated with direct marketing.

7. Consider two-step sales

You have two basic ways to make a sale in direct marketing:

  1. The single shot: You get an immediate order.
  2. The two-step: You generate an inquiry, then attempt to convert that inquiry into sales.

If your product is expensive, complex, new, or hard to understand, or if it requires a major commitment of some kind, two-step sales may net you more profit in the long run.

* * *

I don't know whether we'll ever again see the glory of direct mail days gone by. But maybe that's a good thing.

Maybe the market forces at work right now will encourage all of us to get back to direct mail basics, reminding us about how to be more effective and efficient.

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Dean Rieck is a direct-mail copywriter and consultant, and publishes the popular Direct Creative Blog and ProCopyTips blog.