Does Direct Mail Still Work? (Short Answer: Yes)

Dear Copy Bitch: We’re an HVAC company, and we keep encountering marketing consultants who say we should abandon direct mail marketing altogether. But here’s the thing: our direct mail pieces convert. The ROI is great. Still, I wonder if this is just an anomaly, and if I should get out while I can and redistribute my marketing dollars elsewhere. We have an optimized website, we add engaging content regularly, and we’re delving into social media. Should we put all our focus in those things, or is it okay to still have some of our marketing dollars going towards direct mail? What say you, oh wondrous Copy Bitch? And if you do think there’s still a place for direct mail, can you give some examples of effective direct mail pieces? Thanks for the great blog!

–M.H., Atlanta, GA

ANSWER: The death of direct mail has been greatly exaggerated, methinks. A good direct mail piece can still work — and might even have a greater chance of working today, thanks to the fact so many people are abandoning this marketing method (i.e. if done right, your piece has a great chance of standing out since there are fewer pieces of junk mail, at least in my mailbox).

Now as my regular readers know, I drink at the Altar of HubSpot, and I worship Saint Godin. HubSpot is all about inbound marketing, but it recognizes that outbound marketing tactics — like direct mail — still have a place in a company’s marketing plan. Saint Godin is all about what works and what makes sense for your business and, most importantly, your customers.

So, in essence, you’ve answered your own question: your direct mail is working, people are responding to it, you’re seeing conversions, and you’re experiencing great ROI. You have marketing dollars invested in inbound marketing efforts as well. Sounds like you have the right mix right now. The key is monitoring and measuring results. What works today might not work two years from now. But it sounds like you’re well aware of that.

So what does work? Here are three direct mail pieces that were delivered to my mailbox that caught my attention (for the right reasons):

  1. A free DVD of the Oscar award-winning movie Smile Pinki from Smile Train, a charitable organization that I support. Who wouldn’t love to get a free movie in the mail? And this movie has a great way of reaching other potential donors, since I’m bound to share it (and talk about it, like I’m doing here) with others.
  2. Coupon booklets – I always thumb through the coupon booklets I get and often use the restaurant coupons.
  3. The book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. He didn’t send me his latest book because I ordered it. He sent it to me because I’d bought books from him in the past and he thought I’d enjoy it. Of course, I’d planned on buying the book on my own. I hadn’t placed my order yet, but in the letter that accompanied the book, Saint Godin said that if I already had Linchpin, then I should pass on this extra copy to someone else who could benefit. (Is the guy brilliant or what?)

Here’s a piece of snail mail that caught my attention for the WRONG reasons:

TruGreen and Lowe’s sent me an over-sized postcard with a coupon for $29.95 off my first custom lawn treatment. Problem is, I’m in an apartment building. All of us in the building got this postcard. Someone wasted marketing dollars on a mailing list that included apartment numbers, a field that could have been easily filtered out, had someone been paying attention to the details.

Customer Retention Strategies: Make it Easy to Cancel Memberships

So here’s the story. There will be a quiz at the end.

  • Once upon a time, I subscribed to an eCard company that I’m going to call Colorful Peaks. (I’m sure the smartypants out there will be able to figure it out.)
  • I subscribed to Colorful Peaks over ten years ago. I know this because when I recently went to put in my old standby password to login, it didn’t work, nor did any combination of password I’ve been using for the last ten years.
  • I can’t remember the last time I sent an eCard through Colorful Peaks.
  • This past Saturday, at 6:30 a.m., I received an email from Colorful Peaks reminding me that it was renewal time and that my credit card was going to be charged $15.99. The email also said this: If you prefer to discontinue your membership, you can find easy instructions on our Help pages. Go to <redacted link>, sign in, and click on ‘All About my Paid Membership’.
  • I immediately clicked on the link, thinking I’d cancel my membership right then and there.
  • I did not read the above “rules” carefully, and only clicked on the link and did not sign in. I was on a main Help Center page. I’m a savvy user, however, so I clicked on the section that said, “How do I…” This brought me to a page that listed a bunch of FAQ links, including “How do I cancel my subscription?
  • I clicked on the link, and was told I needed to login if I wanted to read the answer.
  • GRRRR.
  • So I entered my email address, which was the user name, and tried every combination of password I’ve been using for the last ten years. Nada. So I went through the “Forget password? Click here” rigmarole, and waited for the password to be emailed to me.
  • I got the password, actually said out loud to no one “Wow!,” reflected for several minutes on how much my life has changed since using such a password, got depressed, thought about putting tequila in my coffee, pouted because I had to be somewhere at 8 a.m. and didn’t want to go because I would rather wallow in my depression (I’m a sadist that way), and then rallied because I needed to cancel the damn account, shower, eat, feed the cat, go through my obsessive compulsive routine of shutting off the stove and checking the lights three times, and get out of the house.
  • So I quickly logged in, poised for an easy cancellation process, ONLY TO BE TOLD THIS: To request a cancellation of a subscription, please contact our membership support center by calling 1-888-254-1450, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. EST.
  • DOUBLE GRRR.
  • Let’s recap here: they send me the reminder at 6:30 am on a Saturday, try to confuse and depress me with the process of trying to figure out how to cancel my account, and leave me hanging for 48 hours before I can possibly attempt to cancel said account since they sent me the reminder on the weekend, and, no doubt, were hoping I’d have forgotten about it by Monday (they hadn’t counted on the fact I’m an angry blogger with no life).

Here’s the quiz: Couldn’t the folks at Colorful Peaks have put the cancellation information in the email to begin with? Yes or no?

Answer: Yes. Yes they could have. They chose not to.

I don’t understand why companies don’t let customers cancel online. Okay, I do understand why, and so does Saint Godin who talks about the reason in his recent post about stamps.com, but that doesn’t make it any better.

However, I could have forgiven Colorful Peaks for this requirement if the folks running the show had inserted the cancellation instructions in the body of the reminder email, which, by the way, had a subject line of “Important news about your Colorful Peaks Membership.”

Here’s your homework, business owners: when it comes to customer retention strategies, don’t follow this example. If you’re already doing something like this, go fix it. Now.

UPDATE: I drafted this post yesterday, but I just called to cancel my account. I started out with an auto attendant who decided my request was too complicated and handed me to a live person. This person was nice enough and efficient and of course wanted to know why I was canceling. I decided to see how she would respond to “I just can’t afford it.” She said they could lower the price to $11.99. I said no thanks.

Outbound Marketing Fail: A Real Life Story

I’m a huge advocate of a marketing philosophy called “inbound marketing.” This term was coined by a company in Cambridge, Mass., called HubSpot. Basically, the idea is to focus on getting your company found by people who are already interested in what you’re offering. In other words, it’s much easier to sell a rhinoplasty, for example, to someone who is already looking to reduce the size of her nose than it is to sell a rhinoplasty to someone who is perfectly happy with her nose.

Inbound marketing includes:

  • Optimizing your website for search engines so people looking for your products and services can find it
  • Writing content that attracts, engages, and converts visitors – this can be done through myriad ways, such as blogging, tweeting, interacting with a Facebook audience, providing free/useful content on your site
  • Nurturing leads every step of the way
  • Nurturing current customers and helping them to spread your message

Outbound marketing, such as unsolicited emails, direct mailers, radio spots, TV commercials, etc., casts a wide net that may or may not include people who are interested in your services. You end up spending more money, yet you usually end up with fewer conversions.

Okay…lesson over.

Here’s a real-life example that just happened to me. Tell me what’s wrong with this approach:

  • I received an email with a subject line: newsletter
  • The body said, “Do you have a newsletter?” and came complete with a signature. The guy’s signature included a title (account executive) but the company name could only be gleaned from the guy’s email address.
  • I responded (a bit skeptically, I’ll admit, since I have a newsletter sign-up on each page of my website and a clear “newsletter archive” in the navigation). I said that I did indeed have a monthly newsletter and I provided a link to the sign-up and my archive.
  • The guy responded right away with this:

I would like to introduce myself, my name is Sam (last name redacted) at <company name redacted> leading providers in email newsletter management solutions.

Several clients in your industry use our service. The reason I contacted your organization is because we provide a solution to help you better manage and broadcast your email campaigns (e-newsletters).

I would like to show all possibilities that our program can give you. Would you be available for a short conversation this week? That won’t take much time but will give you fresh ideas and show other opportunities.

Ugh. (Yes, that was my reaction, although I spouted it in a more earthy term.) I decided to respond, only because I was curious how far Sam would take me on this fishing expedition. Here was my response:

Thanks, but I’m really happy with my current vendor.

Never heard back. Sam didn’t engage me further (which, in this scenario, was a smart move). But what a waste of time–on his part and mine.

I realize the email software industry is crowded. But this isn’t the way to stand out. What should Sam be doing? Here are three ideas off the top of my head (and this goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: as an email software vendor, Sam shouldn’t violate the #1 rule in email marketing by sending an unsolicited email. Duh!)

  1. Have his current customer base – his current tribe, as Saint Godin would say – refer him potential clients. Start a referral program or simply call up a very happy customer and ask the customer to introduce Sam to a few of his colleagues (there are ways to get more creative with this…again, I’m just thinking off the top of my head).
  2. Optimize the website for people who are actually looking for email software. They’re out there–including people who are looking for the first time and people looking to make a switch. Provide engaging content and figure out how you’re going to persuade me to use your software rather than some other software (yes, this might require you to take a step or two back and conduct some marketing and messaging research).
  3. Hold webinars on the product’s capabilities and on email marketing in general (it shouldn’t all be self promotional, but rather it should share tips, best practices, etc) – a great way to introduce people to your platform is by holding free webinars…people who sign up might be looking for the first time or they’re looking to make an immediate switch or they’re shopping around – all of these are good things and people you can continue to nurture and market to because they’ve shown an interest in what you have to offer.

I was going to “out” the company and website but have decided not to. (Trust me when I say that the website isn’t optimized.)

Yes, You Have Competitors (Even if You Think You Don’t)

Dear Copy Bitch: I have a copywriter working on my website copy, and she recently asked me who my competitors are. Here’s the thing: I know it’s a standard question, but we really don’t have competitors. No one does the work as well as we do. We really are different. How do I explain this to the copywriter? Her copy should be focusing on what makes us so great, right?

—Awesome Company, Boston

Answer: Sure, from your perspective your nearest competitor is so far behind you that there’s no way anyone would possibly opt for said competitor over you, right? That’s a fine and dandy attitude to have if you’re, say, eight and still thinking the world revolves around you. But how ’bout putting on your big boy or big girl pants and looking at it from your prospects’ perspectives?

Your prospects don’t know you’re the be-all end-all in your industry, and they certainly won’t “get” it just because you tell them so on your website. Your copywriter is smart for asking about your competitors. Why? Because it’s important to look at how your competitors are positioning themselves, their services, and their products so that you can figure out what they’re doing right (because they will be doing something, I guarantee it), what they’re doing wrong (ditto), and how you’re really going to demonstrate your company’s unique qualities (i.e. your unique selling proposition).

Remember, your website (and any other marketing vehicles) should be about your customers and prospects first. Acknowledge their needs, worries, fears, and pain and then demonstrate how your company fulfills those needs, relieves their fears and worries, and eliminates their pain.

There’s an adage in creative writing: show, don’t tell. The same is true here. Telling me you’re the greatest and that any “so-called” competitor is a lying heap of horse manure won’t be as effective as showing me how well you take care of your current customers and what makes you different from the competition.

Pretending the competition doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough or is too far behind you to catch up is dumb-ass marketing. Don’t do it.

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