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19 Powerful Direct Mail Strategies to Boost Your Leads, Sales and Profits

By Kent Komae
Eleven-time award-winning direct response creative director and copywriter

What sets a select few direct mail promotions apart from the plethora of letters, self-mailers and catalogs that fill our mailboxes?

What makes a direct mail promotion so good that it’s a virtual "money machine," pulling in orders year after year?

Here are a few "secrets" of the most successful direct mail promotions I have been involved in as a copywriter and creative director...

1) Cut the "warm-ups". Start off your letter with one powerful, attention-getting statement that commands the attention of the reader.

A letter from a natural health doctor, one of America’s foremost experts on clinical nutrition, began this way:

"You stand a 51% chance of being misdiagnosed in a U.S. hospital today. The wrong treatment or drug could harm, even kill you!"

This promotion, which exposed the dangers and rip-offs of traditional medicine, went on to be this doctor’s all-time best "control" piece for this natural health newsletter.

In fact, he doubled his customer base within four months, and the mailing continued to bring in thousands of orders for the next two years. This piece also won a First Place Award from the Newsletter Publishers Association.

2) Make sure your direct mail promotion has a clear, consistent, central "theme" that is repeated over and over again.

For an editor of a stock newsletter, I developed the "Double your money" theme. This theme was carried out with the "big promise" headline: "The Secret of Doubling Your Money By 1996 Then Doubling It Again By 2000." It was also used in the main premium: "24 Double Your Money Investments For 1994."

This piece went on to be one of the most mailed letters in 1992 and 1993. On just one of the many rollouts, the client turned his $135,000 costs into over $340,000 in sales, bringing in over 14,100 new subscribers.

3) The chance of "winning big" is always a greater motivator than a "sure thing".

My assignment from a Central California oil company was to generate as many new gasoline credit card holders as possible.

I tested two offers: $5 worth of free gas vs. a chance to win free lottery tickets (with a Grand Prize of 2,000 tickets). I wrote successful letters for each, but the lottery letter pulled in 4 times as many responses.

Overall, the packages were so successful, the client had to hire 14 temporary employees to handle them all.

4) For a lead-generating campaign, a free special report of high perceived value can lead you to spectacular results.

A Northern California client produces turn-key computer systems for larger garden centers and lumber & hardware stores. My challenge was to generate the maximum number of quality prospects.

I wrote a direct mail letter that highlighted new trends in successful garden centers, all tied to a Free Special Report, "8 New Ways Garden Centers Are Reducing Costs and Boosting Profits."

The client was ecstatic about the response, writing: "We are just 10 days into our response, and we already have a better response than we have ever had from any advertising effort."

5) The "fear of loss" often pulls better than the "promise of gain".

New among "associations" is a type of membership organizations made up of investors from a certain mutual fund family.

A new membership acquisition package I wrote for them was headlined: "The 6 Greatest Mutual Fund Blunders". The subhead: "How these mistakes can cost you a fortune."

This letter has been so successful, it has been the control for the past 3 years, bringing in over 30,000 new members.

6) Make sure your mailing stands out of the crowd.

Let’s face it, the average direct mail-responsive prospect gets 7-10 direct mail promotions a day. Send out a generic-looking piece and you’ll probably get mediocre results.

An commodity client of mine needed a package to stand out of the crowd and to show examples of its commodity charts. So I wrote a larger 11 x 14 size "tabloid" magalog filled with valuable information, trading tips and charts.

The client said: "The promotion you created has been our best ever. Response has been phenomenal, pulling twice as much as our old control piece." This piece has subsequently been rolled out to hundreds of thousands of prospects, and continues to be the control after two years.

7) If you are marketing higher-ticket items to a very select audience, multiple 3-D mailings can be very effective.

I was assigned a very challenging task: Get the attention of busy marketing managers and trade show managers and introduce them to a revolutionary, cost-saving product for custom trade show exhibits.

This lighterweight but durable material could cut shipping costs by 40%, drayage by 25% and set-up and tear-down costs by 25%.

I designed a two-step, 3-D mailing to this select group. Mailing #1 was a 9 x 12 box filled with a pair of scissors and three invoices that could be cut. The message: "GilCor can slash your trade show costs."

This was followed up one week later by mailing #2. This was a 9 x 12 box filled with a one dollar bill and a two dollar bill. The message; "Turn every dollar you spend on trade shows into two."

The mailings were preceded and followed-up with phone calls.

The client wrote: "Our goal was to generate appointments from 10% of the target audience. Your very creative direct mail program helped us garner over 20% response. Fantastic!"

8) If you can, play up current events that are hot.

A London, England-publisher of an "intelligence" newsletter covering little-known political and economic news the media usually glosses over needed help in marketing his publication.

One of the most successful pieces I wrote for him was headlined: "America in Somalia...the Untold Story. Why 30,000+ U.S. troops were REALLY sent to Somalia."

When this piece hit, Somalia was "hot" news, and this letter went on to be one of the year’s biggest success stories. It also won a "Silver Award" from the Newsletter on Newsletters.

9) A free "kit" often sells better than individual premiums.

An investor’s association was seeking new members. So, as part of the offer, I put together a unique "Profit Kit" that included a number of valuable Free Special Reports and Bonuses. Individually, the reports sounded good; combined as a kit, they sounded great.

The client wrote: "Not only have we added thousands of new members, but you’ve raised our average unit of sale by 16%. Thank you for making this our best promotion since pre-1987." This piece was also a 1992 award-winner.

10) For best results, make sure you test "significant" elements.

Some marketers make minor changes and hope to gauge response. Wrong. The most accurate mailing tests compare significant difference.

For example, for a leading telemarketing company, I wrote a lead-getting letter with two distinct outer envelopes and lead-ins.

Version A was a cartoon of an obviously incompetent telemarketer and the headline "Who’s really answering your phones?" Version B was a headline that read: "Special Management Update: 4 Surprising Telemarketing Innovations!"

Version B was the clear winner. The client said: "Thanks to your creative promotion, we’ve never had so many leads...great work!" This piece won the 1993 Business Communications and Marketing Award of Excellence.

11) If you can, ride the coattails of a well-known personality.

A client with a remarkable food product from Japan, chlorella, wanted to generate a stream of new nutritional doctors. So I highlighted Dr. Bernard Jensen, one of the industry’s leading experts, as the "spokesperson".

With the credibility that Dr. Jensen brought to the project, it was a great success, generating hundreds of responses.

12) If used wisely, eye-catching "extras" can boost your response.

For a letter to California CPAs, I attached a small "sticky" note to the outer envelope. The note read: "Be sure to read the note on a surprise ruling...see page 2 inside." The note referred to the headline: "The little-known, landmark tax case that could save your clients thousands."

This package was a big winner, producing 12% over minimum client objectives.

13) Make sure your letter does more than just "sell".

A client of mine needed leads for its bar code printers. So I wrote a letter than updated prospects on new industry standards and trends that could help increase their company’s profits.

The four-page letter was filled with facts and interesting bits of information, all tied to the company’s unique bar code printers and a Free Special Report.

The client said: "Thanks for a great mailing package [that has produced] many quality leads."

14) Boost your response and bottom line by giving an extra free bonus for phone-orders.

This is one of the most overlooked techniques for boosting response. For client who writes a stock newsletter, I created a special free report: "The #1 Small Cap Stock to Buy Right Now." The catch was you could only get this bonus if you called in your order.

There are two reasons why you want to get more phone orders. First, you’ll increase your "impulse" buyers. Second, you can then upsell the caller to a bigger order.

For this client, 60% of all orders came in over the phone, giving him excellent opportunities for upselling. This was his most successful piece of all-time, a winning mailing for almost three years.

15) Auto credit card billings mean almost guaranteed re-ordering or renewals.

Make it easy for your prospects to order and to re-order. For any subscription offers (like magazines or newsletters) or products that get used up (like vitamins), try to get as many people as you can on an "auto pay" plan.

This means you will charge the customer’s credit card to begin (usually smaller payment), then automatically charge that same amount every quarter. Subscription direct marketers love this because renewals are very high, even as high as 90%.

16) White vanilla won’t sell your product or service...but creativity will.

A client who does estate planning for some of America’s richest families needed a marketing piece that would generate leads and be used by his staff as a sales piece.

So I wrote a 28-page magalog that looked like a magazine. It was titled "Financial Estate." It was filled with interesting and entertaining information, case studies of famous people who made very costly estate planning mistakes, examples and testimonials...all leading to a free offer of a video and a book.

This was a highly successful piece. The client wrote: "At last, someone who really understands how to market my business."

17) The "informational approach" will be the key to your direct marketing success.

Let’s face it. Many prospects are skeptical. You must give them all the information they need to make a positive "buying" decision.

For a unique gold mutual fund, I helped write a follow-up kit that was very "informational". It explained the "case for gold"...why this gold mutual fund was so unique...why the market (at that time) was poised to explode...and how safe and easy this investment was.

Just by reading the material, the prospect learned some valuable information.

This mailing was so successful it won an Echo Award for Recognition.

18) Bumpy packages get opened.

If appropriate, send along a "bumpy" item in your mailing. My target audience was buyers of games for department stores and gift shops. The product: The all-new Flintstones 3-D Chess Set. To introduce this set, I created a mailing with the theme: "Introducing the King." The outer mailing had prehistoric graphics.

The key? I sent along one of the chess pieces, King Fred Flintstone. This letter was a great success.

19) "Personalization" can be a powerful tool if you use it correctly.

This client wanted to reach owners of hair salons with its innovative "private label" hair care products. This means a salon can imprint its own name on a bottle of shampoo and sell it as its own "brand".

I created a mailing with a double window. Showing through the large window was a bottle with the salon’s name imprinted on it. The headline: "Why this bottle holds the key to boosting retail sales...enhancing your image...etc."

This mailing has been very successful, now on a rollout.

As you can see, many different strategies come into play in the creation of a direct mail promotion.

Picking the right combination of these strategies can make the difference between a winner and a loser.

For information about Kent Komae's Creative Directing and Copywriting services, please contact his agent, John Finn, at 310-373-0743.