Successful Direct Mail Is All in the Testing

Direct mail marketing can be very profitable, if you do it right from the beginning.
Lois Geller Marketing Group
July 03, 2012

As a marketing expert, I have had the following conversation hundreds of times over the years.

Company: “We’ve tried direct mail and it doesn’t work.”

Me: [As gently as I can] "Have you run any tests?"

Company: [Blank stare] “Tests?”

Me: “Yep, tests. They’re what make direct mail work. We test all the time.”

Company: “But you’re the experts. You shouldn’t have to test.”

And therein lies the counter-intuitive reality: Even experts have to run test. Amateurs think they can pull it off in one shot. And when that one shot misses, they decide direct mail doesn’t work.

Testing Fundamentals

At its most basic, testing involves the three big things: lists, offer and creative. Creative is about half as important as lists or offer; however, most small-business owners spend too much of their time on creative. I suggest spending more time on lists and offer. Here's a quick to-do list in these categories.

  • Find a list broker who will help you get small segments of lists of exactly your right target market.

  • Test at least two 0ffers so half of the list gets offer A and the other half gets offer B.

  • Track every response and where it came from.

  • Based on your responses, roll out the best combination of list and offer.

  • Create a mailing piece that appeals to your best prospects, and make sure it appears to come from a real human being.

Iterating Tests

First, we determine a “control” by making an educated guess about what we think will be the best offer and creative, and mail it out. And then we test against it.

It's important to test only one thing at a time, such as a control with a different offer, a control with different lists, or a control with a different letter (or other creative element). Mail the test and control out simultaneously.

The combination of best offer, best type of list and best creative elements that, when they’re put together, bring in the most inquiries or orders becomes the new control. We then test against that control. As we keep testing, trying to beat control, our efforts become more and more profitable.

More important, in the long run, we learn a lot about the market.

Unexpected Insights

We once developed a completely new and more expensive creative approach for a correspondence school. The client mailed it with the same offer to the same kinds of lists as the control. Our new creative brought in the same percentage of responses, so the client thanked us and said they’d stick with their cheaper control to save money.

Two years later our creative director ran into the client at a convention. The client said that our package had become the company’s control because, for some reason, it brought in a better class of customer, the kind of people who stick with the program a lot longer—and who are willing to pay a lot more money.

Direct Mail Tests as Affordable Market Research

One of the least-appreciated elements of direct mail is that your competition has no idea what you’re up to. Even if they see some of your efforts, they don’t know how many letters you mailed, whether those letters are tests or controls, what kind of people you've targeted or whether the campaign was effective.

This can give a terrific edge to marketers who don’t regularly use direct mail. They can use direct mail as a focus group to test new products, new bundles of products, new pricing, new colors, formats, etc. This is an inexpensive way to generate the best kind of feedback—people voting with their dollars rather than just giving their opinions. It can take a few months and several test efforts to perfect a focus-group-by-mail system, but eventually it will begin paying off with valuable information before an expensive public launch.

How have you used testing to refine your direct mail efforts?

Lois Geller is President and Owner of Lois Geller Marketing Group and headed agencies in New York and Toronto. Lois taught direct marketing at NYU and is the author of five marketing books, including Response: The Complete Guide to Profitable Direct Marketing. Follow @loisgeller on Twitter and visit her blog Joy of Direct Marketing for more marketing tips.

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