12 Direct Mail Advertising Best Practices

(This blog post also appears at DirectMarketingIQ.com).

The bar continues to rise for creating successful direct mail. Direct Marketing IQ recently asked me to present a webinar titled Direct Mail: 10 Mistakes to Avoid. It didn’t take long for that number to increase to a dozen, on a diverse range of topics including crunching numbers, flow charts, mailing lists, and perhaps most importantly, a creative and copywriting process that I use and has resulted in direct mail campaigns with significant response increases over control packages.

These 12 mandates for success are based on my experience analyzing winning direct mail from B2C, B2B and non-profit direct mail campaigns.

1.      Run the numbers. Begin first with an assessment of the financial risk you’re willing to take. Whether you’re risk averse, or willing to gamble, ask yourself how much money you’re will to put on the line. Then calculate Allowable Marketing Costs, so you know how much you can spend, along with a Long-Term Value model. Do this whether you’re marketing to existing customers (who should return a profit to you) or prospecting for new customers (which will probably result in a loss). More on this topic on my Four-Part Series on Marketing Costs.

2.      Flow Chart Every Step. As you plan direct mail, be thoughtful about how you’ll follow-up with those who respond versus those who don’t respond. Whether you call it a flow chart, or work flow, this is essential for thorough customer follow-up marketing. Nurture marketing, often through marketing automation software, can be game-changing in engagement and conversion to sales. Once someone is in your sales funnel, let the software automate direct mail and email deployments.

3.      Mailing List Selection. An oft cited direct mail rule is that 40% of your success will come from your mailing list. This is a good rule-of-thumb whether you’re mailing a specific segment of your customer list, or if you’re using outside lists including models and response files. Make sure your mailing list selection is appropriate for your creative message (or more appropriately, make sure your creative message is geared for your audience).

4.      Test! Test something, but resist “testing around the edges.” That is, don’t only test a new headline. Instead, test completely new story, positioning, offers and more. And make sure you have at least a basic understanding of statistical confidence intervals so you can validate if one direct mail package really outperformed the other when it’s rolled out to higher volumes.

5.      Identify the Persona. Begin with basic demographic data, but you must get into your prospective customers’ mindset using behavioral data. Get started by having a basic profile run of your existing customers (easily accessible from data vendors, and ordinarily quite affordable). Look for behaviors that you can cluster into several personas you can describe and name. For example, “Money Matters,” “Adrenalin Seekers,” or “Did I Matter?”  Key: knowing the data is merely a start. You must analyze and interpret the information. Assign the persona into one of your identified types (I have pegged ten different types over my years in the business, three of those are listed above). Once you know the persona, you’re ready to move into creative strategy.

6.      Stimulate Emotion. We possess advanced human brains. However, as in most animals, at its core, our amygdala—the primitive “lizard brain”—reacts instantly with fight or flight instincts. We are alerted to basic needs including anger, fear, and reproduction. The left amygdala retains both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. The right amygdala retains negative emotions, especially fear and sadness. It’s no wonder that negative works.

7.      Calm the Mind. After stimulating emotion, you must calm the mind. Assure your prospect there is a solution that addresses fear, uncertainty and doubt. Direct the reader to emotions that offer pleasure, reward, a pleasant memory, new learning and moderate the mood.

8.      Position/Reposition: Create new memory for your prospective customer or donor by giving your product or organization a distinctive positioning with your unique selling proposition (or unique value proposition). Differentiating you from your competitors is essential to creating new memory that can linger on for your product or service.

9.      Use Storytelling Techniques. Story is effective because it offers new perspective and solidifies the new memory holds for your prospect. New memory is embedded into the mind with a compelling story that’s well told. Magnetically pull your reader into your story, and encourage them to step into the storyline. Consider how you can use ancient storytelling methods.

10.  Interpret the Outcome. The right brain interprets abstract stimulus and can slide back into negative emotions. You must interpret the outcome of possessing your product and avert abandonment by your prospective customer when you translate features into benefits, use testimonials and a strong guarantee to overcome skepticism.

11.  Permission to Respond. The left brain is logical, and mathematical calculations are processed here. This is where your prospect determines cost to value and influences how the individual will act. Introduce financial cost, and present a perceived return on investment. Naturally lead your prospect to say “This is good, this is smart, I give myself permission to respond now.”

12.  Analyze Results. A basic step often overlooked is analyzing your results with hard numbers. Metrics can include response rates, conversion rates, cost per response or cost per order. Match how your direct mail program actually performed compared to your benchmarks established in point #1.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.