Amazing cure-all wonder drug: Direct Mail as Magic Elixir for Sender

Let me start by saying that I’m a strong believer in direct mail. When done right, it’s a powerful sales and marketing tool. When done wrong, it’s a huge waste of time and money.


I was reminded of this the other night in talking with someone who specializes in direct response writing. I have tremendous respect for people who can drive action with just a few words. We chuckled over the requirements that go unnoticed by those not in the field — understanding emotional triggers, getting quickly to the point, having a clean list and strong offer, timing, tracking, and of course, easy response mechanisms.

Ironically, a few days later, I encountered an associate who was Hell-bent on sending out a postcard to reinforce an email. Now, there’s an immediate disconnect. Email is timely, postal mail is not, so either the postal mail should have be timed to dovetail with the email, (perhaps via overnight delivery) or the postal mail should contain enough information to trigger an independent response. It did not.

Aside from serious graphic violations,  this well-intentioned card did not identify the company that sent it, other than to display a logo new to the brand i.e. little recognition. The copy did not name the product or show it in use. There was no phone number, e-mail address, location, or URL. There was no incentive, price, or offer. The announcement was actually wrong – it implied that this service was new when in fact, only the product was new. (Yes, accuracy counts). To their credit, there was a conscious attempt at cleverness.

Unfortunately, the universe was so small, that with a typical return of 1 – 2%, only 3 to 6 people would be engaged.

I asked gingerly why they were doing this and was told they thought it would be “nice” to send out a postcard. Now, “nice” is a lovely word for puppies, sweaters and pies, but “nice” is not justification for doing a direct mail campaign. Descriptors like “strategic,” “timely,” or “tactical” would be more fitting.

The misconception that it would cost “only $300” further exacerbated the crime. How easy it is to forget the cost of talent, list prep, sorting, labeling and of course,  postal expense, which would be surcharged here because the concept ignored postal ratio.

And yet, this person felt so good about sending it out, I hated to dash his spirit. That made me want to figure out what makes direct mail such a wonder drug for senders? Maybe it’s because direct mail is tangible, empowering, and provides a sense of reach — regardless of the fact that unless it is done right, senders are talking to the bottom of a trash can. I did venture to suggest that the logo be placed on both sides of the card because one can’t predict how a piece of mail will land, and not everyone will bother to turn it over.

Interestingly, I once worked for a doctor who recognized the phenomenon of sender gratification.  He published a health letter for employees that made employers feel good.  OSHA violators were particularly receptive because distributing the newsletter allowed them to claim they were doing something to remedy the situation whether it was true or not.

So back to the postcard… It will no doubt deploy in a couple weeks. Without a code or link, there will be no way to track response. A designer (hopefully called in) will make a few dollars. That’s good. The printer will kill a few trees. That’s bad. The Post Office will collect a penalty fee. Unfortunate, but they need the money.

I’d be embarrassed if somebody thought I produced the card, but maybe there’s something to this cavalier, magic elixir attitude after all. Enjoy the direct mail high! Who cares if it works? It’s a small investment compared to a Ferrari. Besides, if you don’t seed the list, no one you know will even see it!

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