In 2004, direct mail enjoyed a response rate increase—up 12% from 1999, according to the US Postal Service. A USPS news release says, "While 57 percent of households say they check their email only once a week, 98 percent of households collect and assess what's in their mailboxes every day."

DM News agrees. It reports that 73% of mail gets opened and more than 50% of adults prefer receiving ads through the mail. The American City Business Journal reports that the profit of one company, Vertis, increased 40% in its third quarter thanks to its sending more direct mail.

With such statistics, direct mail remains a successful way to reach customers. The trick is, of course, getting customers to act on the mail.

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Wanted: High returns on direct marketing responses

I am planning a direct marketing campaign to businesses for training and workshop-creation services. I have worked with my customer database to better understand their needs and how my services meet those needs. Now that I've done the analysis, I am preparing the direct mail contents, which include a letter, brochure, an article about the business and a reply envelope. What can I do to increase the response rate?

—Elana, President

Hire a copywriter for high impact

The advice given for the best returns on a direct mail campaign runs the gamut from hiring a copywriter to using different types of collateral with the same message to reinforce your offer.

The most frequent suggestion is to hire a copywriter rather than write a direct mail campaign yourself. Copywriters know what trigger words to use and how to reel in prospects. They can also help you craft your unique selling proposition (USP).

Douglas Kwong, e-commerce marketing intern with Allegro Medical, provides tips on what to include in the letter and other mailing materials:

The letter can include why the letter was sent to that household and the method of data collection used in the customer database. Also, the letter and its reply contents should be short and a welcoming read. That way it will be easier for the consumer to justify taking the time to reply to the direct mail. As a recipient to direct mail contents, I am more likely to respond if I understand why and how I was chosen to participate.

The brochure must fully explain what the consumer can get from the offer. It must create a benefit that will help the database in general. An article develops a company's credit. It should be an article that shows that the business has expertise and trust from the consumers it has serviced. All these things combined can develop value for the consumer.

Professional copywriters are also excellent at developing a compelling call-to-action statement, which makes the difference between getting a response and hearing back nothing.

Incorporate testimonials and clean up your database

Testimonials and referrals are also helpful because some customers value the reactions or advice from others who have used the product or service. Also, before you seal your package contents, check your database. Does it target your market? Perhaps it needs weeding out, as you don't want to spend your time and money on those who aren't going to benefit from your product or service.

Test your package on a small group first

Consider using two letters and testing to see which one works better. Keep testing until you see a clear winner, and use that as your letter. It's better to test to a small market and find the best direct mail piece than to send out a piece to everyone all at once without knowing what they want and need.

Repeat the same message in different vehicles

Another trick some marketers find useful is to send different types of mail, such as postcards, letters and brochures, as long as you keep the message consistent. The article "110 Ways to Improve Your Direct Mail Response" provides many ideas on different types of direct mail pieces and on shaping your campaign.

In summary, be sure to include excellent copy with benefits, your unique selling proposition supported by testimonials from other customers, a strong call to action and a targeted list. Test your direct mail materials out on a small group first, then repeat the same message in a series of mailings. These are your best bets for getting the highest return on your direct mail investment.

Next Marketing Challenge: Can You Help?

Sensing the magic, marketing budget number

I'm responsible for sales and marketing in a small company. I have some ideas about what would improve the way the company markets its products and have researched what those ideas would cost to implement. How can I determine what makes a reasonable budget? Is there a magic formula that says, "If you historically have made $X in sales, and want to increase that by $Y, don't spend any more than $Z on marketing"?

—Carla, Director of Sales and Marketing

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.