5 Stupid Ways to Screw Up Your Mail

A famous chess player once told me how he wins so many games. I had expected some arcane theory or secret formula. However, what he said was this: “I try to avoid making mistakes.”

I’ve never forgotten that bit of wisdom. And I’ve turned it into a personal mantra that has served me well, especially in direct mail: “Avoid mistakes before seeking brilliance.”

What sort of mistakes? After working with nearly 200 clients in every imaginable industry, I’ve seen lots of smart people doing lots of stupid things. But there are a few things I see again and again, each guaranteed to screw up your direct mail:

Stupid Thing #1 – Hire a “general” agency to create your direct mail. One of the world’s largest chemical companies sent me a self-mailer to review. I could tell at a glance that a mass-market agency had created it. The copy was cutesy, full of pun-heavy, meaningless headlines. The design was garish, with wild colors and hard-to-read type styles. The offer was hidden. The response elements were buried. The central message was disjointed and unclear.

My review consisted of two words: “It stinks.”

I have nothing against agencies that specialize in mass market or brand advertising, but most of them simply can’t do effective direct response advertising. So keep a safe distance between your direct mail and any agency without a direct marketing track record – say, 500 miles or so.

Stupid Thing #2 – Plaster a clever teaser on every envelope you mail. A teaser is a technique, not a requirement. But some people seem to experience physical pain at the idea of mailing a plain envelope. A financial services firm asked me to write a lead generation package. I delivered it, and my contact called to say that some of my copy had been lost.

Me: Lost?

Client: Yes, there is no teaser copy for the envelope.

Me: I didn’t write any.

Client: Well, the envelope can’t go out like that. What would the board of directors say?

Me: Are you mailing it to the board of directors?

Client: No, but they want a professional-looking package.

Me: Really? They should want a package that gets the best response possible. And in this case, I think that means using a plain envelope.

Client: OK, well, our designer can come up with some teaser copy, I guess.

The decision whether to use a teaser depends on what you’re selling and your relationship with your prospects. And it depends on whether you want your ad to look like an ad. Sometimes it should. Often it shouldn’t.

Stupid Thing #3 – Spend two weeks on the flier and two hours on the letter. The old saying is still true: “The letter sells. The brochure tells.” So if you spend all your time on the tell, you aren’t going to sell.

A newsletter publisher sent me a sample of a direct mail package that wasn’t working. The problem? The letter was a four-paragraph snoozer – little more than “Enclosed you will find, yadda, yadda, yadda.” The company president said his secretary wrote it.

Look, if it’s in an envelope, it needs a letter. And if you enclose a letter, it should sell. That’s where you make the personal connection. That’s where you make your pitch. That’s where you close the deal. A package can work without a brochure, but it seldom will work without a good letter.

Stupid Thing #4 – Buy First-Class postage and third-class creative. One New York publisher had a trade magazine it wanted to sell. Could I help? Sure. I gave them a quote for a package, but they said it was too much. To save money, they did it on the cheap with some local people.

I talked to them again some months later, and guess what? The package bombed. Their “economy” mailing wasn’t very economical after all. They admitted this and said that’s why they were calling. Could I help them? Sure. I gave them another quote. Again it was too much. They said they were on a tight budget because the first mailing didn’t do well!!!

Just shoot me.

Do you want the cheapest brain surgeon? Do you shop for economy parachutes? Do you pinch pennies on rattlesnake venom antidote? You get what you pay for. Stupid Thing #5 – Guess, guess, guess instead of test, test, test. Despite the image our industry has for being a bunch of bean counters, a frighteningly large percentage of businesses don’t test. Or don’t test properly.

One guy wanted me to help him sell a software product. He was using a self-mailer, but I thought he needed an envelope package. He said he had tested envelope packages and firmly stated that they didn’t work. But after asking a few questions, I learned that he had done just one mailing … with a new offer … to an untried list … during a bad time of the year … without mailing it against his control.

Stand me up and shoot me again.

I don’t care how smart you are or how well you know your market or product. Until you run a properly designed test, you don’t know jack. And even then, you should test again just to be sure.

Avoiding stupid mistakes won’t guarantee success. But like the chess player, you will reduce your losses and thereby increase your wins.

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