Zen and the Art of Direct Mail

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Zen says to accept things as they are rather than the way I think they should be. I am not very Zen-like. I don't accept direct mail's anemic percentages.

For the record, I am a marketing specialist, not a direct marketing pro. In essence, that means I am more interested in finding ways to improve ROI rather than finding new ways to spend a client's money. For example: I don't believe for an instant that a list is 95 percent deliverable just because the broker guarantees no more than 5 percent will be kicked back by the post office. That's nuts.

To wit: 11 months ago, we subscribed to an online database that looked good on paper; it targeted the types of companies we wanted to reach and included names, titles, phone numbers, some e-mails and complete mailing addresses. This was a BTB project, and I used the database for an initial mailing of several hundred pieces.

So-called experts might argue that a couple hundred pieces isn't enough for a test, but I maintain that's just because they make more, easy money on big projects.

Anyhow, the objective of my mailing was to get visitors to an online presentation. I used a coded URL and was able to precisely track the returns. Let me add that response exceeded 5 percent, but in my universe that's a bomb. So I made some changes and tried again. Another bomb. This got me thinking, so I tried a more informative - and expensive - initial piece. Don't worry, I know the rule about not sending an expensive piece that hasn't been requested.

Because of the added expense of the new piece, and because of suspicions I was having about the list, I decided to phone each contact and verify their name, title and mailing address. I thought I was hallucinating. Errors approached 75 percent. Contacts were no longer at the company; titles were incorrect; contacts had nothing to do with the job description the list allegedly targeted; phone numbers were often incorrect, and ditto for addresses.

Here's what this nonprofessional deduced: Pieces addressed to the list were delivered to real addresses, but not necessarily to the companies, people and job titles the list claimed. The post office could do its job and deliver the mail, but the stuff would go into the shredder.

Don't know about you, but I receive plenty of mail from products and services that have no connection whatsoever to what I do. I also routinely receive eight identical pieces, six of them addressed to people who have not worked here since 1994. I make no effort to correct those errors. I just dump the stuff. Occasionally, I've thought of telling the mailer, but my experience with corporate America middle managers is that they don't want to know about problems because someone might find out they messed up. Besides, it's not their money being wasted.

"Updated Weekly!" Sure. The database I have been talking about is promoted as "the most up-to-date contact information for the industry." Initially, those claims made sense and influenced my decision. After all, the database is online and it would be easy enough to make updates every week. Guess again.

A few times I complained to the editor of the database about how horrible it was. I received a boilerplate excuse or no response at all. When I told them I was running the entire list, the morons didn't even bother to ask me to help them correct the errors I found. About a month ago I was contacted by a woman updating the list (our firm is on it). I told her I couldn't do it right then but she could call later. I never heard from them again.

I seriously doubt that the list is any better now than last time I used it. I recently let them know I wouldn't be renewing; I received a reply (from the new editor), but he didn't ask why. Duh.

So what's it all mean?

The initial mailings yielded about 3 percent returned by the post office. Via the verification process, I projected that the list was easily 30 percent misdirected (undeliverable), and quite likely higher. Should you validate your lists? Depends on how Zen-like you are, or better yet - whose money you're spending.

Thomas Amshay, Marketing/business development manager, Exposure-PLUS, Austin, TX/Akron, OH

TAmshay @ Exposure-PLUS.com

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