If ever a winner-take-all match took place among the marketing heavyweights—direct mail, telemarketing, and the Web—our money would be on direct mail, hands down.

Simply put, the best pound-for-pound method for targeting a large audience and gathering data is direct mail. Armed with the right data, message, and creative, direct mail can be a lean, mean, marketing power puncher that can hit your target like a ton of bricks and deliver a substantial return on investment. But if you plan to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" when using this exquisite discipline, you have to get a handle on the rules of the ring—because knockout direct mail isn't easy to control or leverage without a few lessons in direct marketing generalship and the sweet science of postal regulations.

To be effective, direct mail requires the careful combination of three key ingredients: the right audience, the right message, and strong, complementary creative. Unfortunately, many marketers get taken in by the glitz and glamour of creative design—the colors, folds, and converted envelopes—and forget just how crucial data and messaging are to coming out on top.

After all, showboating for the crowd is never a substitute for technical skill, and for direct mail to really do its thing and live up to its potential, it requires the right mix of people, language, and looks—in other words, strategy, strategy, strategy.

Lead with data

It's your jab. Your rangefinder. Data is what lines you up and gets you within striking distance. Overemphasize its importance is impossible. Diligence and methodical preparation will not only lay the foundation for your campaign but also ensure that you save on postage and improve deliverability when your processing procedures include best practices such as cross-referencing NCOA (National Change of Address), de-duping, and the appending of extended ZIP codes. As in boxing, it's hard to win if you haven't taken the time to size up your opponent; similarly, direct mail doesn't stand a chance without qualified, healthy data. So, long before you even start thinking about what you're going to say and what your mailing's going to look like, understand your market and source appropriate data.

Getting in touch with the right person at the right time is the most important factor in direct mail or any direct marketing effort, and the process begins by reviewing your house list and identifying who your best customers are and what they have in common with each other. Once you've established a list of reasonable criteria—those traits common to all of your best customers—it shouldn't be difficult to source suspects (potential customers) who will hopefully rise up and be worthy of the "prospect" designation.

Initial direct mail efforts are generally best for developing an understanding of a given database that will allow you, once the relationship gets rolling, to leverage additional direct mail campaigns to secure customers and loyal advocates (supporters and proponents of your business).

Follow with messaging

Once you've identified your audience, figuring out what to say is fairly easy—it's how you say it that can be challenging. We are a nation of scanners, not readers; simplicity is therefore key, and tried-and-true devices like subheads and call-outs can do wonders for guiding a "reader" through a letter. Including a postscript provides tremendous benefit, as recipients typically first look at the signature, to see who the letter's from—so having a PS that actively recaps your message/offer can quickly engage interested parties and prompt a closer review and better opportunity.

Johnson boxes are timeless and will always have their place—regardless of whether you've seen them before and think they've had their day—because they work extremely well at attracting attention and providing an encapsulated reiteration of your call to action.

While industry jargon is great for impressing readers with your expertise and placing you in the trenches alongside your audience, anything too technical will prove to be a wasted flurry that will ultimately distract from your call to action. The quicker you can tell your readers exactly what they need to know in order to conclude that your product or service is clearly the best choice, the better. Believe it or not, longer copy, which historically have been known to out-pull shorter ones, have been supplanted by less flavorful but highly effective staccato jabs that tell the tale more quickly, to combat ever-shrinking attention spans.

It's all about heart

Not really. But it's certainly not all about looks. Creative design can have an impact on how a mailing performs, but the role of creative cannot even begin to compare with the necessity of sourcing the right data and perfecting your messaging. Creative design is the showmanship. The footwork. The movement. How you bob and weave. It's the slipping and dodging of punches.

Making a spectacular spectacle can undermine the credibility of your message and earn your mailing a one-way ticket to the circular file—the wrong end of a direct mail TKO (technical knockout) for sure. Hype is fine, and putting on a performance is one thing, but too much glitter and flash just scream "junk mail" and make it difficult for recipients to take a mailing seriously.

Choosing the best vehicle to deliver your message isn't to be taken lightly. Format is extremely significant in how well a mailing performs, with the most affordable "package" not always the best for the task at hand. For instance, letter packages are proven to out-pull postcards and self-mailers under most conditions—but not always. Be sure to make your form-factor selection based on how you want a recipient to interact with your piece—not strictly on production and mailing costs. But don't forget that the more creative you get in terms of a mailing's overall design the higher the cost per unit—making a higher response rate that much more critical in terms of justifying investment.

Creative design needs to complement your message and compel recipients to open and read what you've got to say, so you have to be hard on your creative and evaluate it objectively to see whether it's helping or hurting.


To be a direct mail champion—to score the knockouts and be satisfied with the decisions—you have to plan ahead. You have to prepare yourself and recognize that there will be bumps and lumps along the way. Put your time in up front: Develop clean data, a solid message, and just enough flair to win over the crowd.

When done right, direct mail can be fast, affordable, efficient, and extremely effective—and exceptionally reliable. All that's required is that you give strategy a thought or two before you come out swinging.

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M.L. Hartman is the creative director with Allendale, New Jersey-based integrated marketing and communications firm Interactive Marketing Group (www.imgusa.com). He can be reached via email at ml.hartman@imgusa.com.