Four Direct Mail Horror Stories

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Direct mail is unlike any other marketing medium. Have trouble with a TV ad you placed, or a magazine placement? "Make goods" are available. But in direct mail, disasters happen just days before the drop-dead mail dates. And then it's too late. All is lost. With direct mail, disaster can lurk in a million locations, often where least expected. So take heed of these four horror stories.

"The Perfect Barbecue." A production manager had the same printer print all the components of his mail package at the same time: the outer envelope, the reply envelope, the generic letter, the lift note and the four-color brochures. He also decided to have all those materials shipped to the mail shop simultaneously. That sounded wise. The mail shop would get all the required materials at the same time, and then the job would be ready to mail after the sample package was approved. What could be more efficient?

Well, this was during the dead of winter in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, so getting from point A to point B wasn't something to take for granted. The semi truck transporting all of those beautiful envelopes, letters, lift notes and four-color brochures slid on the ice-covered road, turned over, rolled down an embankment and burst into flames. The fire burned for four hours. Guess why? Yep, all that volatile fresh ink. Luckily, the driver was OK. But because every single mailer was inside that truck, the whole campaign was sunk. All that money spent, and nothing to show for it. Needless to say, the mailing didn't go out the day it was promised. The state troopers called the resulting firestorm "The Perfect Barbecue."

A not-so-perfect fit. A designer was asked to create a special "response device." But it wasn't verified that the device would fit into the dimensions of the package. Everything just went to the mail shop for mailing. Then the production manager got the telephone call that ruined his day. The rep at the mail shop said, predictably: "We would love to mail today as you demanded, but your response device doesn't fit into the #10 envelope. If you want, we could trim half an inch off the reply card. But given how many pieces you have it's going to take a week."

With every item in the package approved by the client to be a certain way and expected to be mailed no later than a certain date, the production manager had to break the news to the client. You can guess how that must have gone over.

Tough pill to swallow. A major telecommunications company wanted to advertise its prestigious data recovery capabilities. Its direct mail agency devised the following concept: The package would be a large, shrink-wrapped plastic pill bottle with a brochure/letter inside, with the theme "First Aid for Your Data Network." The local post office approved the design for mailing but the client decided it wanted to mail from a different post office, and the actual mailing post office was not contacted to look at and approve the design.

This was just after the 9/11 attacks, and the "anthrax through the mail" scare was a major concern. So when the 50,000 bottles arrived at the client's chosen post office, all 50,000 were promptly rejected. They all needed to be shipped to the post office that approved the mailing in the first place.

But the worst came after all the bottles reached their recipients. The client got 70 phone calls from prospects and customers expressing outrage over receiving such a "scary" package.

Time runs out. I saved the best for last. This same telecom company wanted to remind clients to sign up for a particular time-sensitive "free trial offer." So it followed up its initial mailing with a mail tube containing a sound chip of a ticking clock, which activated when the tube was opened.

But something malfunctioned with how the sound chips were affixed to the tube caps, and the sound chips activated en route to the post office. The post office, as you can imagine, rejected the whole shipment immediately. Who's going to mail something that sounds like a ticking time bomb?

These are just a few examples of what can go wrong with a direct mail campaign. Disaster can lurk in many places. If you're using direct mail, bring on advisers familiar with the kinds of things that can happen. Even the best direct mail talents are sometimes in awe of the ingenuity of "Murphy's Law" creeping in and spoiling your mailings. But go with an experienced professional or agency that has experienced these types of disasters so you will be not the client that we can all learn from.

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