Boosting Profits With Cheaper Formats

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One of the beauties of direct mail is that it allows you to send prospects just about anything you can print. In addition to the standard envelope package, there are plenty of alternative formats you can test.


Often, your response will be lower with these formats, but the idea is to lower your costs while maintaining enough response to offset the difference and net more profit.


* Reduce costs with a self-mailer. It offers low cost and a quick read - good for quickly recognized content. It also helps speed response because it's not as in-depth as a full package and looks more urgent and newsy. To make a self-mailer work at peak efficiency, combine elements of a standard direct mail package and a print ad, including:


• A strong headline in bold type.


• Copy in easy-to-read sections.


• Bullets, boxes, borders and subheads to help convey information quickly.


• Strong visuals.


• A clear offer.


• A reply card and toll-free number for easy response.


• A message or mini letter printed near the recipient's address.


• A feature list, testimonials, guarantee and other elements as needed.


* Signal exclusivity with an invitation. To make an offer special, you can issue an invitation in the appropriate format, usually a smaller envelope and letter on higher-quality paper with an RSVP. This works best for offers targeted to higher-income prospects, professionals and executive level positions; for events such as conferences, meetings and presentations; or for offers that need a quality feel.


* Add urgency with a telegram. This is a good idea that is, unfortunately, wildly overused. It can be little more than an envelope design, such as "Urgent Gram," "Speed Gram" or some variation. Or it might be an envelope and letter combo resembling an actual telegram printed on yellow paper with tractor-feed holes down the sides of the letter. One way to make this format work is to create your own urgent-looking envelope for fulfillment materials. This allows the envelope to get noticed - which is the whole point - and assures that the contents will be relevant and interesting, instead of boilerplate.


* Create an official look with a snap-pack. This format is often used for official notices or statements, so it gives your ad message the same feel. And because the recipient has to rip open the edge of the envelope and pull out the contents, it's naturally involving.


It's good for generating inquiries or for organizations with recognizable and trusted names. It has been used with particular success in the nonprofit sector to deliver what appears to be an urgent, cheap appeal for money.


* Generate quick leads with a postcard. Direct sales are possible with postcards, but only for simple offers such as magazine subscriptions. They are much better for building traffic for local retail or for generating inquiries for familiar services, such as real estate or carpet cleaning.


However, because response is so easy, lead quality is often low. But it's worth testing. Just remember to telegraph your message: clear benefit headline, strong tangible offer, a picture, lean copy and a bold call to action.


* Use dimensional mailings cautiously. Boxes, bags, tubes, folders and other unusual formats are great for getting attention. But, while there are plenty of examples of successful campaigns, these formats are usually misused - wasting money on a novel format when a standard format could deliver a more powerful message and net a greater response or profit. Most of the dimensional mailings I have seen are simply a way for ad agencies to jack up their fee and obscure that they don't have anything to say about a product or service.


* When in doubt, use an envelope package. The classic direct mail package consists of an outer envelope, a letter, brochure, reply card or order form, maybe one or more inserts and a reply envelope. The reason this format is a standard is that it has been developed, tested and perfected over many years. And it works. Test other formats, but don't be different just to be different.


* Test formats head-to-head. The important point in format testing is to keep the offer, copy, graphics and all creative elements as similar as possible so that you are testing the format itself and not a new crea-tive treatment. And, always test a new format in a head-to-head mailing with the old format. Never make a change until you have proven results.


Dean Rieck is president of Direct Creative, Columbus, OH. His e-mail address is DeanRieck@compuserve.com.
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