There are many new ways to generate sales leads today, but direct mail remains one of the most powerful lead-generation tools.

Even successful online businesses are discovering that direct mail is essential for growth, since newer marketing tactics, such as SEO, social media, and email marketing, often have limitations because of the rapidly changing rules and technical issues involved.

While a mailer isn't as sexy as a viral video and it's not a hot topic at conferences, it's the most reliable way to reach people at home or at work. Its reach is wider and deeper than any other medium's. Plus, there are few restrictions on format and no message filtering or blacklisting headaches that plague email marketing.

Isn't direct mail expensive? It can be. But don't think that you have to create big, flashy mailers. In fact, when your goal is to generate sales leads, simpler, cheaper formats often work better. That's because the purpose of a lead-generating mailer is not to tell the whole story but to say just enough to get people to ask for more information.

Here are five basic direct mail tools that you can use to generate sales leads quickly and inexpensively.

1. Sales Letter

The letter is one of the simplest and most effective direct-mail tools available. It won't win any design awards, but if written well it's one of the few types of advertising that people will actually read all the way through.

To generate sales leads with a letter, you generally want to offer something free, such as a brochure, sample, demo, evaluation, or information kit. There's no need to get fancy when writing your letter. Keep it simple. Identify a problem, present your solution, and offer to send your freebie. Doing so allows interested prospects to identify themselves and gives you or your sales people a "foot in the door."

The simplest letter mailing includes a one- or two-page letter and a reply card in an envelope. You can enclose anything else you like, but remember that your goal is to get people to ask for more information, not to close the sale immediately. Less is more.

2. Postcard

Yes, simple postcards are a terrific way to generate leads. They're easy to print and as cheap as mail gets. If you're a small business, you can even print postcards through a variety of online printers and apply stamps and address labels by hand.

To get the cheaper postcard rate, the minimum size of any postcard you can send in the US mail is 3.5" x 5", and the maximum size is 4.25" x 6". You can certainly create larger postcards, and many businesses do. You simply have to pay more postage. Larger sizes give you more room for your message and photos or graphics. Just be sure to talk to your printer first to determine the most efficient size for printing so you get the most for your money.

Postcards are particularly good for generating a quick phone call or for driving people to your Web site. Since cards are small and offer little room for copy, your product or service should be familiar and easy to understand. Your offer should be simple and direct. People don't read postcards as much as they glance at them.

Your phone number or Web address should be big and bold so people can't miss it. If you're driving people to a retail store, make sure to give clear directions and a simple map if you have room. Telling people what you want them to do and how to do it is the best way to maximize response.

3. Flyer

You want simple and cheap? Print up a flyer on ordinary paper, fold it, affix a mailing label and a stamp, and throw it in the mail. This kind of guerrilla tactic is dirt cheap and can produce fantastic results for all kinds of businesses.

It's particularly good for small, local businesses (or businesses that want to appear small). Unless you're selling Mercedes sedans or Rolex watches, no one expects you to do fancy mailings anyway. In fact, in a pile of over-designed ad mail, a simple flyer from a local business stands out. People are subjected to so many clever ads, they develop "ad blindness." To get people to notice you, just mail them ugly flyers that don't look like ordinary advertising.

When you're mailing a flyer, you should fold it in thirds (called a "roll fold") and affix a tab to hold it closed so it can survive the journey. You will put your main message on the inside with teasers and your mailing information on the outside. And be sure to design the flyer so that when you read the address, the folded side is on the bottom and the tab is on the top. Most printers, even small ones, should know this.

4. Invitation

When you see the word "invitation," you probably think of small cards with heavy paper and elegant printing asking you to a wedding or formal dinner. But invitations can take almost any form. They're simply a way of presenting an offer that feels personal and important.

You can certainly go the expensive route if you have an expensive product or service. But you can invite people to an event with any of the formats above: a letter, postcard, or flyer. Just start the headline with the words "You are invited to..." then tell people what the event is.

You can invite people to an open house, special sale, party for your best customers, product demonstration, informational presentation, or anything that requires getting people to a particular location. The key is to make people feel that they are special and not everyone is being invited. Once they get there, your sales people can go to work.

5. Special Delivery

FedEx and other quick delivery services are far more expensive than regular mail, but this is a technique for a special "wish list" of your best prospects. If you have 100 key people you want as customers, spending the money to overnight a brochure or information kit may well be worth the investment.

This mailer is guaranteed to get opened. Who can resist opening a FedEx package? Inside, you should include a personal letter explaining who you are and what you are offering. You might send a sample with a note that says, "Here's a small sample of our product. If you'd like to see the real thing, call me and I'll have one shipped to you." Or you could enclose a disk with a video presentation or a white paper with detailed information about how others have used your product.

Once again, don't try to fancy it up. You are sending a message to a highly select group of people, so it should look like you've done it personally. This isn't advertising, it's a personal contact from you to them.

* * *

No matter what direct mail tool you use to generate leads, remember to follow up quickly once you get the lead. Hot leads cool off quickly. Ideally, you should respond to people within a week, two weeks maximum.

Give your leads to the salespeople and make sure they understand what was offered so they can follow up with a phone call.

Almost every day a new marketing technology or technique is developed. But good-old-fashioned direct mail hasn't lost any of its power for generating leads.

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Dean Rieck is a direct-marketing copywriter and consultant (, and publishes the popular Direct Creative Blog ( and Pro Copy Tips (