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Direct Mail Is Selling, Not Advertising

December 27, 2000

"Direct mail? We tried it once, and it didn’t work."

That’s what many businesspeople say after sticking a product brochure into an envelope, mailing it and waiting for the orders to roll in.

Of course it didn’t work. That’s not direct mail, it’s advertising.

Mistaking direct mail for advertising is all too prevalent. The misconception creates strategic and tactical errors that not only waste money but also keep businesses from enjoying the increased sales and profits that direct mail can bring.

The primary goal of general advertising is to create image or product awareness and acceptance so that when customers go shopping, they will be favorably disposed toward the product. The distance between the advertisement and the purchase of the product can be great and involve many elements, including timely distribution, attractive store displays, promotions and pricing.

In direct mail marketing, the bottom line is to turn recipients/prospects into customers immediately by evoking a response or action now. Positive awareness of the product that one day may turn into a sale is not enough. That’s what makes direct mail such a challenging form of marketing, and that’s why it’s not the same as general advertising.

Before deciding on how to promote your business or product, clarify your goals and look at the important differences between general advertising and direct mail marketing.

• In general advertising, information moves passively from the advertiser to a broad population. In direct mail marketing, it’s exactly the opposite. Direct mail marketing is an interactive process that captures valuable information from identified prospects by mailing to carefully targeted audiences and urging responses. The purpose is to build a market of potential customers whose loyalty and satisfaction will lead to repeat sales.

• While advertising focuses on selling product, direct mail sells offers. An offer is a benefit that the prospect can receive instantly, simply by acting now. It is something tangible, such as financial savings, if a reply is received within a certain period; a gift with the purchase; or specific, free and exclusive information that can be useful immediately.

• Advertising usually has emotional appeal, while direct mail marketing is factual, functional and obviously practical. A good direct mail piece will stress the practical benefit of the product and make the recipient a "nothing-to-lose" offer: "With this CD-ROM, your child will learn to read in 30 days or you get your money back."

• Advertising copy tends to be short and look pretty. Effective direct mail copy is geared toward overcoming inertia, breaking through normal sales resistance and getting a stranger to respond to your message.

Focusing on the prospect’s needs rather than on the product’s features, a classic direct mail marketing package usually has several key elements, including: an outside envelope with teaser copy that shouts, "Open me now!"; a letter long enough to cover the subject but short enough to retain interest; a circular or brochure with information about the product, clearly distinguishing the benefits from the features; a response form that reiterates the offer and is easy to understand; and a business reply envelope that makes responding easy.

While the classic direct mail marketing package historically has served as the industry workhorse, the same results often are achieved by testing and using the individual elements as self-mailers.

• Advertising is generally regarded as an "art," while direct marketing is a "science" where the key components of the program can be tested over and over to obtain more profitable rates of response. The type of offer, time limit on the offer, length of the sales letter or format of the response card can be altered, with responses evaluated for different mailings.

Throughout the history of direct marketing, there are tales of many large companies that thought they were doing direct mail marketing when they were actually advertising. They were the ones that said, "We tried it once, and it didn’t work."

Conversely, there have been thousands of small companies that have made millions because they knew the difference between the two approaches. They used direct mail regularly, identifying prospects, determining what they wanted, making them offers they could not refuse and watching the responses roll in. n

• Gregory P. Demetriou is president of American Mail Communications, Bethpage, NY. His e-mail address is

Gregory P. Demetriou, American Mail Communications


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