A lump of coal in your Christmas stocking—that's what the most recent holiday mailing you managed may have felt like.

For starters, it's the kind of project where, sooner or later, you inevitably make a mistake (e.g., wrong title, wrong address, or something else out of date). And, because of the nature of the human ego and the importance of clients/customers/referral sources, there's no such thing as a small mistake.

Plus, there's insult to add to that injury. The cards that do manage to find their way correctly to their destination are buried or otherwise forgotten in the end-of-the-year avalanche.

So, while the pain and memory are relatively fresh, let's take a look at some smarter ways to get out a holiday mailing, assuming that angst of holiday mailings is a fact of life for most businesses.

But, in the process, why not explore better ways to get favorably noticed and remembered... which is why we expose ourselves to this agony in the first place!

The Silver Lining

If nothing else good or worthwhile comes out of any mailing, it gives your company or client an excuse to clean up its database. That never-ending process probably got a recent jolt when the returns from the last major mailing you did started to come in.

But face it. Despite software that makes such grooming relatively easy, there will be errors. The only way to avoid errors completely is to have a huge back-office and uniformly super-motivated client contacts relentlessly bird-dogging every name, address, and title change.

It's rare, however, that you get all of this in any organization. It's just not a reasonable expectation for most businesses.

Heresy No. 1

If a big mailing list invites errors, one work-around is to shrink the list. In other words, mail only to names that have been checked and double checked.

If the person responsible for Client A won't affirmatively take responsibility, don't mail to Client A. No ticket, no laundry.

Quit trying to mail to the world.

Heresy No. 2

Ask yourself whether mailing a holiday card or newsletter is worth the trouble and expense—even if you've winnowed or proofed your way to 100 percent perfection. What good it does you or your client to have just one more card taped to the door or one more newsletter tossed?

Doubtful? Then explore an alternative to the run-of-the-mill card.

Maybe not a card at all. Maybe a letter or something that stands out creatively.

Or, maybe a letter or card that expresses something other than Peace on Earth. Such as a donation made in the name of a client to a children's charity or some other cause.

Heresy No. 3

Maybe you've come to the conclusion that no card or mailing is worth it. Or maybe you've adequately taken care of the 20 percent of your client base that account for 80 percent of your profits... and bagged the whole idea of a holiday mailing.

If so, you're more highly evolved than a lot of businesses I know. Maybe you're ready to hear some ways you can better use your limited resources... and avoid adding to the clutter out there.

The Gospel of Repetition

Some say it takes five. Others say seven.

Whatever the number, it takes more than one note, holiday card, letter, ad, or phone call to make a lasting impression on a prospect.

The What

First, make sure you're on steady footing with the What of what you send out.

I've discovered that writing to cut through the clutter boils down to two words: BE THEMATIC.

I start by asking myself Why am I writing this letter (or whatever)? Then, Who's reading it? And so on.

By the time I'm finished, I've put every word, sentence, and paragraph through the wringer. I've examined their right to exist and their proper place in the landscape of the page.

Sometimes, it's easy. Sometimes, I merely go back to basics. I use or introduce topic sentences... which are, by their nature, thematic!

I use other tools, too. I've learned that readers use both hemispheres of their brains. So, there are voices I summon to better earn the right to get read and remembered. Humor, rhythm, and imagery are three.

But being thematic is on top. By far.

The When

OK, but what about the "when?" How does when you make one of your impressions matter?

Here's where I've learned to appreciate the notion of asymmetry.

An example: Remember when your kid appeared as the third tree from the left in the second-grade pageant? Remember how "exit stage left" for everybody else somehow suddenly became "exit stage right" for your little one?

Remember how you noticed? The same applies in business communications.

Consider these examples of asymmetry:

  • Why get lost in the card-sending deluge at holiday-time? If anything, this is break-even table stakes, not one of your five to seven impressions quota.

  • Instead, pick a date that will stand out from the crowd. An old friend of mine, a PR pro named John Meehan, used to mail funny, patriotic postcards on the Fourth of July. I prefer Derby Day (since I live in Louisville) for some of my quirky mailings, but I still remember John's cards.

  • I like the first of the month. Or the end of the month. Any month. I'm liable to leverage that slender hook into an opening for a lot of my making-a-lasting-impression letters. "Dear So-and-so: I save my best ideas for the first day of the month. That's why I'm writing you today."

  • If your firm advertises, go quiet in the dead zone of the summer and winter holiday months. No one's thinking about business then anyway. When you come back, you'll look fresher.

  • You can see that asymmetry can also save you money. But, then, who's counting?

The How

We've talked about being thematic—the "what" of business communication. And, we've looked at asymmetry—the "when" side of the equation.

But what about the "how?" Are some written means of B2B communications better than others?

First, let's recognize that there is no universally perfect way to reach a business client or prospect in writing, even a narrow band such as those in the C-class. So, take the following suggestions with a grain of salt:

  • Emails are the greatest blessing with which we've ever been cursed. Sure, they have their place. They're fast, handy... and impersonal. If you're letting someone know you're thinking about them, there are lots of better ways. Ways that leave a more personal, lasting impression. And that don't add to our cluttered inboxes.

  • Show some class. Nothing stands out and gets remembered like a hand-written note. Especially nowadays.

    Demonstrate—don't merely assert—that you care. Even a simple, handwritten "Thinking of you" in the margin of a clipping is better than another email.

Nothing, however, makes a tangible, I-care impression better than a handwritten note on engraved stationery. If you don't have any engraved stationery, get some. Pay for it yourself. If the firm pays for it, they'll just gather dust.

  • If it's a personal relationship, keep it personal. Personal note cards are the right way to go when you have something personal to communicate. For example, sending an expression of condolence. Don't use the firm's letterhead or engrave the firm's name and address on what's supposed to be your note card.

  • Make it hard to throw away. At least, to throw away immediately. That's why I love to send postcards. Most of my clients, for example, live outside of Kentucky, my home state. So, I figure they'll at least remember the Kentucky Derby postcard I send them.

In other words, the only wrong way to stay in touch is to strive for perfection... and do nothing.

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Doug Stern (www.doug-stern.com) is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or stern.doug@gmail.com.