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With 25 years’ experience creating marketing action plans, writing ads, direct selling ads and direct mail packages, and assisting small and medium size firms with their marketing and direct marketing, certain questions have come up repeatedly throughout my career.

What the heck is marketing, anyhow?

So many people are involved in marketing, but most people don’t know the definition. Even when you ask marketing people the definition, they hem and haw. Perhaps it’s because marketing is such a broad-based term, it’s like asking for the definition of "Business." My definition runs "Marketing is selling to a defined audience."

When you offer your products to anyone, that’s selling. When you place your customers in groups you can define, and separate them from everyone else in the world, and target your sales efforts specifically to them, that’s marketing.

What is direct marketing?

A manufacturer takes out an ad in a consumer or trade magazine. Someone sees the ad and calls and orders the product—or, more likely, sends an inquiry. The firm sends literature, then the customer places an order. Simple. Lots of business sales are direct.

Direct marketing means you have no sales force to move your products into the marketplace, and you solicit buyers by selling directly to them. No representatives to get your products onto retailers’ or consumers’ shelves. And no retailer or wholesaler link in the distribution chain. You do it all yourself. To me, direct marketing is selling to a consumer or business directly from a magazine or newspaper campaign, direct response TV ad, or from a direct mail package. I’m not really concerned with whose shelves our goods wind up on, just that they move off our own shelves and we get paid in a timely fashion.

What is a good response to a mailing?

Probably the most-asked direct marketing question, ever. And people are usually looking for a number like 2%, 10%, or 25%.

A successful single mailing (for orders) is any mailing that breaks even or better the first time out. Because you learn from this mailing, the chances of tuning it up for the second time to increase the response are very good.

Percentages are no indication of success. If you are offering a free watch, you may get a 90% response for the watch, but no sales on the back end. If you are offering a free brochure about your $2 million printing press, response can be .002%—but if one press is sold, the mailing is a success. Without knowing the mailing objectives, profit per order, the offer, the list, and the audience, any percentages have little meaning.

The simplest formula for success in a direct offer is the cost of the mailing, plus the cost of fulfillment, subtracted from the amount of money you received. Even when you plug in this formula, the additional credibility you get for your next mailing is not taken into account.

To take a guess at percentages—which is probably why you’re reading this—1% to 2% for an offer is usually considered good to excellent. When planning for success, figure out if you will break even at 1%. If not, better rethink your package, offer, product, or price. As important: Is your offer hard or soft (do you ask for money with the order, or bill later?), and are you asking for an order (direct sale) or for an inquiry (lead generation with a two-step selling process) so you can send a harder-hitting, longer package? Then, what is the lifetime value of the customer (will he order again and how often)? Will all this additional hoopla convert your mailing to being profitable? Most magazine publishers would be happy at.5% conversion to subscription rate; some of our own free-gift-with-inquiry offers have drawn 20% to 25%.

Which works better, long or short copy?

Copy is king, but it can be a real killer. Professionally drafted, well-written long copy works best. But&ldots; and like my Aunt Mildred, this is a big but — if the structure is incorrect, if it is anything but the most intriguing, spellbinding, interesting writing, if the benefits are brought in too late, if the offer is too late or misplaced in all the clutter, or if any of a million different bad things that can happen with long copy happens, there is a much greater possibility you will lose your reader, and as he drifts away, your whole package will be trashed rather than read.

If it is poorly structured or uninteresting, most people will place your expensive marketing material in the pile to read sometime between later and never, and it’ll wind up just getting thrown out. Unless it’s forceful, motivating, and drives readers to read the entire length and act now, they will just file it in the round file without ever a second thought.

Sending a direct mail package is like owning a retail store: the longer you keep your potential customer in your store, the more likely he is to make a purchase. The longer the reader stays in your package, the more likely he is to send for your product. For example: Publisher’s Clearing House’s big magazine-stamp mailings. They hide the free prize stamps deep in the package—the longer you look for them, the more likely you are to find something you like and place an order.

For the majority of offers and packages, I recommend short copy. And I say that short copy is best because it works best in most packages. However, for the ingenious, and for selling higher- priced products: If you can keep your customer tightly focused, your chance of sales is greater with long copy.

Should I use envelope teaser copy?

The first word on teaser copy is YES. If your mailing is commercial, sent bulk, and has the look of anything that is not a personal letter, use teaser copy. Yes, yes, yes.

But there is also a grave danger in using envelope teaser copy. The big danger inherent in teaser copy: being too specific. If your envelope copy is too specific and your teaser is not of interest to the largest segment of your audience, your offer on the last page to give away that new lawnmower to the first 10,000 respondents won’t even be seen. The whole envelope, unopened, will be tossed out. It’s the biggest danger in all of direct mail.

Teaser copy can make your package really work hard for you, but it can really work hard against you if it isn’t appealing to your entire audience. When in doubt, don’t. Stick to tried-and-true openers: Free Offer Inside…New Pricing Enclosed…See What’s New…Limited Time Offer – Please Open Immediately. They’re boring, but still effective.

If your mailing piece is sent first class, chances are it will be opened even without teaser copy, especially if it has just your own name and address in the corner card (no company name). The only copy to enhance this (if you want to) is to say "FIRST CLASS MAIL" under the stamp area.

What is the BIGGEST mistake made in marketing?

This mistake is made by 99% of the companies marketing products or services. It’s a mistake made by almost every firm I have worked with in the past 25 years. The biggest mistake in marketing—and not just direct marketing, but any marketing—is not following up multiple times. This mistake is made by people who spend a lot of time, energy, and money on an ad or an inquiry-generation program. When they receive the highly qualified lead it brings in, they send a brochure and a letter. At best, they call about a week later. When a sale is not immediate, they hang up, and they never call back or send another letter. Then they say their campaign failed. What a mistake. A single letter and brochure is not a campaign. A campaign is not a single effort of anything—why do you think they call it a campaign? A campaign is a sustained effort over time.

I recall some books quoting that a face-to-face sales call costs $172, and that most larger sales are closed on the fifth contact. It always amazes me that otherwise intelligent people send a letter and brochure to their best prospects and call it quits when those prospects don’t respond with an immediate purchase.

Why would anyone think it’s faster or easier to sell a product off a page or two than sell something in person? Why should it take five in-person meetings to make a sale and only one contact in print? The biggest mistake made in marketing is not contacting a well-qualified buyer, who has expressed an interest in your product or service after the first mailing, a second time with harder-hitting additional marketing material or letters.

What is the biggest mistake you can make in a mailing?

Without a doubt, mailing to the wrong list will ensure your mailing fails. The mistake is not doing enough research into which lists to test and mail to. In direct marketing, the list IS your market. Do your homework by finding the absolute best possible list, then test it.

Additional time and thought here won’t be wasted. No glitzy brochure, exceptional offer, and great free gift will make a tuna canning factory purchase bottle caps. If you use a list broker, make him do his homework and EARN his commission by digging deep and buying the best.

This article is ©

This Marketing Contributed Content article was written by Jeff Dobkin on 3/1/2005

Jeff Dobkin is the author of How To Market a Product for Under $500 and Uncommon Marketing Techniques. He is also a speaker, writes response-driven sales letters, engaging web content, persuasive catalog copy; and exceptional direct mail packages. He also is a marketing analyst for direct marketing packages, ads, catalogs, and campaigns. To place an order, or to speak with Mr. Dobkin call 610/642-1000. Visit him online at
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