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7 Dangerous Myths of Direct Marketing

In every industry, ideas and traditions arise that are misleading and counterproductive. Based on my experience with more than 170 businesses, here are seven myths that plague direct marketers today:

• Your goal is 100 percent response. If you try to sell to everyone, you will actually reduce response because your message will be diluted in its attempt to be all-inclusive. The most productive messages talk boldly and directly to the ideal buyer. If that is just 1 percent of your list, then forget about the other 99 percent. Sell to the people who want to buy what you are selling. The rest are irrelevant.

• Aggressive techniques create sales. They do, sometimes. But do not get too enamored of your own communication prowess. You cannot make people do anything they do not want to do. All you can do is get the right offer into the right hands at the right time and try to make the transaction as attractive and easy as possible.

Instead of twisting arms, try to make a genuine effort to be helpful and relevant. For example, if you are a bank wanting to increase deposits, do not just send out a sales letter that barks, “Open your new account today!” Offer a free booklet that educates your customers about how to use your services, perhaps with a title like “How to earn more interest with your money.”

• Turn all features into benefits. Don’t be too hasty. There are some market segments that thrive on features. It is part of the enthusiast mentality where dwelling on the thing itself is the whole point of the buying experience. Dedicated woodworkers bask in details about carbide-tipped saw blades and chisel-sharpening angles. Serious mutual fund investors wallow in verbiage about modern portfolio theory and decile rankings. Avid car buffs revel in talk about horsepower and torque.

There’s an old saying: People don’t want drills; they want holes. True. But for the enthusiast, the drill itself can be as important as the beautifully straight holes it makes.

• Image doesn’t matter. Many influential direct marketers came up through the ranks selling books, magazines and informational products to a core audience of readers and direct-mail-responsive buyers. There was little need for a carefully crafted image or for subtle psychological techniques.

But today, almost every industry is using direct marketing methods at one time or another. And in this wider market, image matters. Mailers with screaming headlines, big red stickers and promises of retiring rich may be appropriate for a newsletter, but not for a respected investment firm.

It is true that image does not sell, per se. But people give a higher belief rating to what they see than to what they read. So your “look” must complement your copy.

• Succeed by imitating others. A very dangerous myth indeed. It rests on what I call the efficient marketing theory. That is the idea that all direct marketers are smart, careful testers. And if a mailing or advertisement works, they will keep using it until it stops working. If it does not work, they will test something new.

Nice theory. But many direct marketers do not run well-constructed, thorough tests. Some do not test much at all. And many businesses that do not rely on direct marketing for the bulk of their income do all sorts of stupid things because they make little difference to the bottom line.

It is certainly good to see what competitors are doing and to borrow whatever you think might work. But every product, list and offer is different. So you must always do your own testing.

• All rules are tested and trustworthy. This is a corollary to the fifth myth. And it is utter hogwash. We often act like our carefully crafted rules are handed down to us from on high, carved in stone tablets. But many are nothing more than personal preference or ideas based on narrow experience and exaggerated anecdotal evidence.

One guru I know professes that fear is the only appeal you need. Another guru preaches that envelopes should always be plain. Nonsense. In reality, there are no rules, only rules of thumb. And even these must be taken with a grain of salt.

• Start with a creative concept. In the world of mass marketing, your job is to create awareness and establish brand preferences for future purchases. Here, a memorable, well-thought-out concept can indeed help. But direct marketing is about selling directly to customers, not later but now. What you need is a powerful offer, enough information to let people make a decision about that offer and an easy means of responding to that offer. More often than not, a creative concept just gets in the way.

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