Mail Copy Techniques That Pay Dividends
by Robert W. Bly
Most business-to-business direct mail is designed to bring back sales leads. But many business/industrial marketers are unaware of which direct mail techniques increase response, and which ones discourage it.
Here are 10 techniques guaranteed to make your next mailing more profitable:
Talk about the reader's needs.
Too many mailings are manufacturer-oriented. They talk about the buyers' pet interests rather than the reader's problems and needs. But the reader is more concerned with what's on his mind than with what is on yours.
Here's the opening of a letter mailed to creative directors, ad managers, and editors:
"International Stock Photography Ltd. is a quality stock house serving the advertising, corporate and editorial markets. Our files contain some of the finest images available..."
This lead is advertiser-oriented. It boasts about the advertiser's firm, but fails to tell the reader why he should care or how the service can solve his business problems.
Compare this with the following letter from a company selling beach property:
"If you love the city...but long for cool ocean breezes and quiet moonlit beaches, then you should know that your dreams can come true with your own oceanfront vacation home."
This letter succeeds because it addresses a need - the reader's need to get away from the city on vacation. It is also effective because it promises a reward ("your dreams can come true"), paints a picture of the reward ("cool ocean breezes and quiet moonlit beaches"), and gets right to the point (you can own an oceanfront home).
Start off with a strong 'lead.'
Experienced direct-mail marketers know that the average reader scans a letter for just five seconds before deciding whether to read it or throw it away. So if your opening doesn't hook the reader within five seconds, you've lost him.
So it pays to put your strongest sales argument right up front. Don't "warm up" with chit-chat or secondary sales arguments. Don't hold back the most important point for the "big finish." If you do, most readers will never get to it.
For example, if your new heating systems cuts fuel costs 50%, don't start off with, "Good morning. I'd like to spend a few minutes chatting with you about an important subject. It's a vital piece of equipment that's keeping your toes toasty even when we speak...but one that's costing you much more money than it should."
Instead, get right to the point:
"Now you can cut your fuel bills by 30%, 40%, even 50% or more. The enclosed Technical Bulletin tells you how it's done..."
State the offer up front.
Many sales letters focus on getting the reader to send for free literature. The reader is told, "To receive a free copy o our new product bulletin, just complete and mail the enclosed business reply card."
This offer is usually made in letter's last paragraph.
You can increase response by stating the officer in the opening of the letter as well as at the end. Many people will only glance at the lead paragraph of a direct-mail letter and then throw the letter away. You can get some of these people to respond by putting the offer up front, as in this sales letter offering life insurance policies for children:
"There's no gift more meaningful...for the children you love, than the one discussed in a new free pamphlet. It is yours with my compliments if you'll just mail the enclosed card." The offer is repeated twice more - once in the fourth paragraph and again in the last paragraph.
A letter, unlike an ad or TV commercial, is a personal communication. And that's how it should sound - like one person talking to another. A formal, stiff, 'corporate' tone is inappropriate for direct mail. Pompous writing alienates the reader; friendly conversational writing wins him over.
You can't fool the reader into thinking direct mail is personal mail. But, if you write warmly, sincerely, and naturally, the reader will react as if you had sent a personally written letter...even though he knows you haven't.
Personal pronouns help make writing sound like natural conversation. So do contradictions and an occasional colloquial or slang expression. Here's a sample of appropriate copy style for direct mail. This is from a letter selling mail-order booklets on telephone technique:
I wish you could meet Helen...She's the woman who write "Your Telephone Personality," our special training program to improve the way people handle their telephone. She's so warm, perceptive, and pleasant, you couldn't help but be favorably impressed."
This mailing "comes alive," because it deals with a flesh-and-blood person and not just sales talk, statistics, and product specifications.
Narrow the focus.
The most powerful reason for turning to direct mail is that it lets you target your message to select groups of special-interest readers. Yet a surprising number of industrial marketers fail to exploit this opportunity.
Aim your mailing at a narrow audience and highlight the solutions your product offers for its specific problems. The same product may offer different benefits to different groups of users.
Take microcomputers, for example. Freelance writers are interested primarily in word-processing capability and reasonable cost. A small business might be more concerned with service and customized software. A large corporation would want to know if the microcomputer is compatible with current equipment and if multiple micros can be linked in a network.
A single mailing that attempted to cover all these points would have far less impact than separate mailings tailored to the three distinct audiences. Which of the two lead sentences printed below, for example, would have more appeal to freelance writers?
Focused: "I'm going to tell you how you can make a lot more money writing...without spending any more time on your work.
General: XYZ Technology Inc. Proudly introduces the latest in personal computers-the XYZ PC-160.
Know how much to tell.
A client asked me to prepare a mailing to generate inquiries about a new evaporator. The people on his mailing list were engineers already familiar with evaporators. So the mailings, which consisted of a short letter and a reply card, focused on the specific advantage of the client's evaporator over all others.
A month later, this same client wanted to do a mailing on a new type of inspection and maintenance service for waste treatment equipment. Since such a service was unique and had never been offered before by any manufacturer, the reader needed to be educated from scratch.
The mailing consisted of letter and reply card plus an additional element - a pamphlet explaining how the program worked. More complete information was needed because the reader was unfamiliar with what was being offered.
Here are some guidelines for determining how much information to include in your mailings:
If you are offering a product through mail order (office supplies, machine parts, books, courses), give the fully story.
If you are offering free literature, describe the highlights of what the reader will learn from the brochure offer key benefits of the product it describes. Your letter should wet the reader's appetite for the information you are offering.
If you are selling a familiar concept, stress its one or two strongest advantages over similar products or services. If your concept is unique, you need to educate the reader -let him know what it's all about.
If you want a large number of leads, keep it short. If you want fewer but more qualified leads, give more information - complete technical details, prices, specifications.
Try the simplest format first.
The most basic direct mail package is the letter and reply card mailed in a number 10 envelope. This format is both effective and inexpensive-printing costs run about $140 per thousand. But add a pop-up, a premium, a color brochure, photographs, diagrams, special envelopes, or other extras, and costs quickly skyrocket.
Does this mean "creative" mailers and gimmicks should be shunned? Not at all. But you should try the basic typewritten letter before any other format. Remember, the most profitable mailing is the one that generates the best response at the lowest cost, A gussied-up four-color mailing may tickle everyone's fancy, but it is a waste if it pulls the same 5% as the plain but powerful one-page letter.
Start with the plain old letter. Then add a new element-a second color, a photograph, a see-through envelope, a circular, a product sample. If response goes up enough to justify the cost-great! If not, go back to the tried and proven letter.
What gimmicks work? Which
ones don't? Here's a partial list of popular direct-mail techniques along with an evaluation of their effectiveness in business-to-business selling.
Three-D. A solid object enclosed with the mailing can boost response dramatically, because people almost always open an envelope that feels bulky. But even a cheap enclosure can increase mailing costs by 50 cents to $1 a piece or more.
Product sample. When mailable, these add considerably to the selling power of direct mail. But beware, if the product is too intriguing or fun to play with, it may distract your audience from your sales message.
Personalized letters. Personalization can increase response if it looks authentic. In business mailing, word processors are used to generate computerized letters that look identical to hand-typed. The old-style "ink-jet mailings"-the gaudy letters with the person's name noticeably inserted into a form letter-don't work in business-to-business direct mail.
Circulars and self-mailers. Mailings without letters-circulars, broad-sides, and self-mailers-are usually not as effective as mailings that include a letter. The exception is when you regularly mailing sales notices and special offers to your list of current customers.
Postcard packs. These produce a large number of leads at low cost. But because recipients request free literature based on reading a minimum of copy, the quality of the leads is questionable.
Premium. If you offer a free gift (a book, calendar, key ring, coffee mug, pen set), you will be flooded with responses. But most of them simply want your "freebie" and have little interest in your product. Premiums should only be offered in mailings aimed at lists of highly qualified buyers.
Teaser copy. With the right message, teaser copy - printed only on the outer envelope - can arouse curiosity and get more people to open your mailing. On the other hand, the danger of teaser copy is that it alerts readers with the message, "Here is junk mail. You can save time by throwing it away." And many people do just that.
Writing teaser copy is a task best left to experienced direct-mail pros. If you're unsure of your teaser, leave the envelope blanks. A bad teaser can do more to reduce response than a great teaser can to increase it.
Make it painless to respond.
The easier it is to respond to your mailing, the more responses you'll get. This is why many trade magazines now use peel-off address labels that can be attached to the reader-service card. The label saves the reader the trouble of writing in his name and address on the card.
Always include a reply card with your mailing - preferably a postage-paid business reply card. To leave out the card is to tell the reader, "Don't bother responding to this letter."
Also, most readers just want to receive a brochure and won't respond if they think they'll be called by a salesperson. So if you plan to follow up with a phone call or personal visit, don't mention it in your mailing.
Some mailers include detailed spec sheets or questionnaires they want the reader to fill out and return. The information provided by the reader helps the manufacturer quote a price or size the product.
However, many prospects - even those who want to buy - don't want to bother filling in a detailed questionnaire. So if you use a spec sheet, also include a reply card the reader can mail to request a brochure. Then, when you follow up the lead, you can get the information you need in person or over the phone.
Choose the right mailing list. A skilled copywriter can produce a mailer that pulls two to three times the response of the previous mailing. But selecting the best list over the worst list can increase response tenfold.
The best list names buyers with proven interest in what you're selling - your list of current customers and people who inquired about you company or its products through advertising, publicity, trade shows, or contact with salespeople and distributors.
Second best is a list of people who are proven buyers of the type of product you're selling. For example if you're selling a lubricating oil, mail to a list of people who have purchased lubricating oil within the past six months. This list is far more valuable than a list of people who merely have the "right credentials," (i.e., people who have a particular job title or who fall under a certain Standard Industrial Classification).
A direct mail consultant or list broker can be of great help to you when it comes time to select mailings lists. Consultants and brokers advertise their services regularly on publications covering direct marketing.