What to Do When Direct Mail Bombs

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There's an old joke about the six phases of every project: 1) Enthusiasm. 2) Disillusionment. 3) Panic. 4) A search for the guilty. 5) The punishment of the innocent. 6) Praise and honor for the nonparticipants.

You laugh, but that's what happens at a lot of companies, maybe yours. Unfortunately, I can't do anything about your wacky corporate culture. However, I can help you deal rationally with a direct mail test that unexpectedly goes south. Here are a few ideas for figuring out what when wrong and what to do next:

Check your data. Are your telemarketers entering tracking codes properly? Are response cards being sorted carefully in the mailroom? Do you have enough responses to make your results statistically valid? Have you done your math correctly? Do any of the numbers look way out of line? Are you tracking all the statistics you need to evaluate success or failure? They say numbers don't lie, but that's only if you're careful in collecting and calculating them.

Check your data again. Because even though I just told you to check your data, you just glanced at your spreadsheet, didn't you? Seriously. Check it. Then check it again. Then have someone else check it.

Look at your samples. I don't mean the samples from the printer. I mean the samples that arrived in your mailbox. You seeded your list with the names of everyone on your marketing team, right? Is your mail getting torn up by postal equipment? Is it covered with rubber stamps and corrected barcodes? Did you consult with your postal consultant before finalizing design?

Consider the obvious. Is your phone number correct? Is the return address correct on your reply envelope? Did you include an order form? Does your order form fit into the envelope? One of my clients called me and said a self-mailer was bombing. When my sample arrived, I discovered that a new piece of printing equipment had inverted the barcode so that the tall lines were short and the short lines were tall. Once corrected, results looked great. (What was really surprising was that the USPS actually delivered some of the mailers even with the screwy barcode!)

Revisit your offer. Technically, just giving your price is an offer. It's just a lousy offer. I can't possibly stress how important a good offer is. There's not a product in the world that can't sell more with a better offer. How about a free trial? Stronger guarantee? Free gift? Time limit? Better terms? Introductory discount? Your choices are endless. Be creative and aggressive.

Evaluate your product. A few years ago I created a subscription mailing for a newsletter that produced 100 percent more orders, 60 percent higher net revenue and a 55 percent reduction in cost per order. However, the client was upset that the return rate went up to 30 percent. And they were furious when I suggested it was because they were selling a lousy product. I doubled their sales (even with the higher returns) but lost the client. Go figure.

You have to be clear-eyed, honest and ruthless when it comes to your product. If it needs improvement, improve it. If it can't be improved, sell something else. Great advertising will kill a poor product every time.

Examine your list. Are you mailing to the best prospects? Are there other lists you should test? Is the data recent and reliable? Does the list need cleaning? A bad mailer will work if mailed to a good list. But a great mailer will fail if mailed to a bad list. I'm saying you need a good list. And you won't know whether a list is good until you mail to it. And you won't know what list is best until you mail to a lot of lists.

Retest. If you've identified some basic mistakes, make changes and retest. Even if you're not sure what's wrong, retest anyway. Retest any time you see dramatic results, good or bad. This will help determine whether your results are valid. Any valid result is repeatable. It's better to have two mailings that bomb than to have varying results you can't explain.

The eminent historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Boorstin once said, "The main obstacle to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge." So when a direct mail test fails, don't weep and gnash your teeth. Take advantage of the opportunity to set aside your assumptions and learn something. It may be a hard lesson but I assure you it will be a valuable one.


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