For Better Direct Mail

Get ’em to call you back.


full-color mailer with a tired approach is no more a promotion than a Volkswagen Beetle painted red is a Ferrari. Think creatively to grab your readers’ attention; focus on a key idea; and make it worthwhile. “Mailings that offer a special promotion encourage a response,” says John Schulte, executive director of the National Mail Order Association in Minneapolis.

Small firm practitioners can strengthen direct mail efforts and double or triple current response rates by taking a strategic approach. Start your research by looking at the direct mail you receive every day to come up with ideas to make your mailings more attractive. If you’re still at a loss, the following tips will help you create a sleek direct mail campaign that generates more business.


The traditional mailing package consists of a letter, flyer or brochure and a postage-paid business-reply card in a standard business envelope. How can you make this sexy? From the outside in, these basics will make the mailing more appealing:

  • Personalize it. The first thing recipients see is the name on the envelope—so avoid mailing labels. Type, print or even write the address.

  • Use first-class mail, not bulk, so they know you care.

  • Skip tradition entirely—send a colorful postcard or a self-mailer brochure. (This approach works best when you’re promoting a workshop, report or new product or service.)

Set a goal and stick with it. What’s your goal? Every piece of your mailing should highlight why you are writing, what you are offering and the benefits and advantages of your service or product. If you use a flyer and a letter, both pieces should relate to your objective and complement your business-reply card. In short, if one piece is separated from the rest of the mailing, it should work as a stand-alone selling element.

Reinforce why you are writing. Your flyer or letter can address frequently asked questions about your firm’s services. Add a successful client case study; list your services in a break-out graphic.

Send it to the right address. A targeted mailing list can generate 8 to 10 times the response that a haphazard, poorly conceived one does. In fact, the mailing list is so important, you may discover that mailing to different, tested lists ups your response rate by as much as 60%.

Start with your house list—current clients and prospects you have been communicating with are your best bet for new business opportunities. Up-to-date house lists will do more to generate new business than a list you purchase from a broker or one you compile from directories or buying guides.

Most small firms don’t use house lists in a way that maximizes their full potential. About 55% of firms don’t even include their most promising prospects on their direct mail database (see exhibit).

Don’t forget your former clients. You should mail to them periodically; you never know when they may need to use your services, especially for special projects.

Direct Mail Resources

These lists, list suppliers, Web sites and publications should help you gain a better understanding of direct mail marketing and show you how to make it work for your firm.


Resources for mailing lists include list brokers, list management firms and list compilers. The Standard Rate & Data Service offers over 28,000 mailing and 700 to 800 e-mail lists for both consumer and business-to-business marketing. The service’s Web site directory describes the list owners, list formats, prices and other details; 800-851-7737; .


A number of companies compile lists derived from household and business directories:

Axiom. A consumer list of more than 90 million households and 160 million individuals; 800-945-5478.

American Business Information (ABI). A database of more than 12 million businesses; 800-947-5478.

Donnelley Marketing (a sister of ABI). A database of 195 million consumers and 105 million households; 800-947-5478.

Dun & Bradstreet. Segmentation by markets and other industry factors; 800-469-1007.

PostMasterDirect.Com. E-mail lists from more than 200 Web sites; 212-625-1370.


Direct Marketing Association (DMA). The world’s largest membership association specializing in direct mail, mail order, catalog marketing, direct response advertising and electronic/interactive media. Information on professional development, government affairs, events, research and industry statistics, trends and literature.

Mail Shop USA. Information and easy access to direct mail using postcards.

National Mail Order Association (NMOA). One of the best direct marketing associations for small and midsize companies. Directories, statistics, new product resources and direct marketing tips.

TM Tipline. A free weekly newsletter from the editors of Target Marketing magazine. Tips, news and resources for direct marketers.


Business to Business Direct Marketing: Proven Direct Response Methods to Generate More Leads and Sales, by Robert Bly. NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, IL. 1998. Topics such as boosting direct mail response rates, effective postcard marketing, getting more profitable response from sales brochures and getting more out of print ads.

Direct Marketing Rules of Thumb, by Nat G. Bodian. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1995. Guidelines and tested ideas and methods for getting the most profitable response.

Direct Marketing Techniques, by Lois K. Geller. Crisp Publications, Inc., Menlo Park, CA. 1998. Presents a solid overview of the methods and techniques of direct marketing.

The New Direct Marketing: How to Implement a Profit-Driven Database Marketing Strategy, 3rd ed., edited by Rajeev Batra. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1999. The theory, ideas and execution of successful database management—methods to boost direct mail marketing efforts. Covered topics include data mining, modeling, data warehouses, Internet and statistical analysis, among others.

Winning Direct Response Advertising, 2nd ed., by Joan Throckmorton. NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, IL. 1997. The methods, techniques and tested ideas behind profitable direct marketing, from creative planning to successful execution. Examples of profitable programs from leading direct response copywriters.

The World’s Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters, by Herschell Gordon Lewis and Carol Nelson. NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, IL. 1996. Some of the best response-oriented letters in 11 categories. Letter openings, attention-getting paragraphs and how to increase your responses.

Write on Target: The Direct Marketer’s Copywriting Handbook, by Donna Baier Stein and Floyd Kemske. NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, IL. 1997. Focus on key direct mail issues and guidance on writing effectively. Letters, brochures and response forms.


1 to 1. Published by Direct, Intertec Publishing; Stamford, CT; 203-358-9900. Well-rounded articles on print and electronic direct marketing, including case histories.

Direct. Published by Intertec Publishing; Stamford, CT; 203-358-9900. Industry trends applicable to direct mail marketing. The magazine’s two supplements: TeleDirect and Business-to-Business.

Direct Marketing. Published by Hoke Publishing; Long Island, NY; 516-746-6700. One of the first magazines to address direct mail as a successful method of marketing. Articles on copy, design and getting more responses from your marketing efforts.

DM News. Published by Mill Hollow Corp.; New York; 212-925-7300. Weekly newspaper articles on direct marketing.

Target Marketing. Published by North American Publishing Co.; Philadelphia; 215-238-5300. The practical side of direct marketing, including mailing lists, direct mail packages, ads and Web sites.

Stay in contact. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. Back up your direct mail campaign with e-mails and telephone calls. Direct your prospects and clients to your Web site for updates and new postings. If you make a special offer or promote a new service, follow up with a second mailing two weeks after the first. The second drop should be designed to reinforce the message of the first.

Add something special. Include promotional offers in your mailings to help you increase your response rate. The envelope should alert your clients and prospects to something in the direct mail package they can use, such as an offer for a free service or seminar. Larson Allen Weishair & Co. in Minneapolis annually sends out coffee beans and mugs with the firm’s logo as a promotion.

To get your firm’s name in front of the client and keep it there, you might send a booklet with relevant information on accounting and tax issues and your name on every header or footer, suggests Schulte. Another idea is offering your entrepreneurial clients a password-protected business information section on your Web site. You will increase your response rate if you include a cut-off date for your promotion. Inform your readers they must respond by a certain date to receive the promotional item or service. Be persistent: You may want to try as many as four different mailings a year.

Pace Yourself—How to Use the House List
  1. Mail to your most profitable clients (the 20% that give you 80% of your business) at least six times a year. Each mailing should feature a new service or a promotion such as a checklist or tax-tip booklet.
  2. Mail to your second-tier clients (the 50% that generally use your services for monthly or quarterly tax services) three or four times a year.
  3. Mail to your third-tier clients (the 30% who use your services only periodically and are least profitable) at least twice a year.

    Some businesses segment their lists according to how recently clients have used their services—“recency”—and designate first-tier clients as those who have used services within the past three months; second-tier, six months; third-tier, 12 to 24 months.


Letters and promotions from CPA firms often sound stodgy or bureaucratic. Many CPAs make the mistake of addressing the reader as just one among thousands. Firms tout how wonderful they are but neglect to mention that the partners understand the needs of individuals and families as well as businesses.

It’s therefore important that you write your copy with the reader’s benefits, rewards and goals in mind. How will your services add to his or her long-term success? Create a relationship with the reader by using the word you instead of the word we. Back up your promises with client case studies that prove your performance. And zero in on what makes your firm different from the pack. Highlight how your special services are tailor-made for your client’s success.

Again, it’s vital that you set your goal and make a strong offer—your readers need a reason to call back and ask you to tell them more. For example, write, “We specialize in employee-focused programs for growing companies like yours, including employee stock ownership plans, 401(k) plans, stock options and deferred compensation programs.”

Content, content, content. Make your message clear and to the point by using short sentences and avoiding buzzwords and esoteric information. Close your message with a request for action, such as “Call to set up an appointment at....” Include a postscript—readers often are drawn to the P.S. before they read the body of the letter. The postscript should repeat the big idea or special offer, or it should present an additional incentive. It might state, “Call for your free business tax-saving guide, and we’ll also send you a copy of our checklist: ‘21 Ways to Reduce Taxes This Year.’”

Upping trust. Smaller firms like to raise the confidence level of prospective clients, especially growing businesses that think they need larger firms to handle their affairs. Build a level of trust by including credible testimonials of clients of comparable size. You also should mention your involvement in the business community by listing your memberships in professional organizations and accrediting bodies and professional and trade organizations. Include your participation in the local chamber of commerce and the Better Business Bureau. (See the sidebar for additional techniques to improve the response rate to your direct mail efforts.)


See how easy that was? It’s not hard to be creative; it just takes a little extra time and effort. By now you’ve made it through busy season, so make the time to sit down with your partners and do some brainstorming. You soon can be sending a direct mail product that is as good as—or even better than—the ones that turn your head today.

What Works in Direct Mail

The following tried-and-true techniques
should increase your response rate.

Be direct. Zeroing in on a key idea usually is more effective than trying to cover too much.

Write a better letter. The letter is the most important part: Make it interesting, inviting, clear and effective. Make it a personal, one-to-one communication.

Differentiate. Copy that integrates your firm’s strengths, abilities and accomplishments with client success stories usually does better than copy simply listing your skills, experience and services, or that says your firm is wonderful.

Have some style. Copy set in upper- and lowercase type is easier to read than copy that’s all capitals. Use subheads, bullets and highlighted words as eye-catchers; intersperse with paragraph indents to break up long blocks of copy. Avoid phrases conveying uncertainty such as we think, it appears, it seems or you might find.

Lay it out with panache. Graphic layouts should be clean, organized and well balanced. The best layouts lead the reader through the mailing pieces just as a good retail store layout leads shoppers through aisles to key displays. (This principle applies to Web page design, too.)

Feature one image. The main photograph or illustration should convey your most important point while others focus on secondary ideas. Pictures showing activity get more attention than those that say very little. A photo of your client receiving an award for “best turnaround business” will generate more interest than a photo of your office building. Illustrations increase readership by as much as 25%.

Don’t use reverse print (white or yellow copy on a black or dark background). It is too difficult to read, and it’s expensive to produce.

Do not fold (and mutilate). The first thing prospects and clients should see when they unfold your mailing is what you consider the most important message, so be sure to avoid folds that run through key visuals or design elements.

Make sure the design permits flyers and brochures to fit into their envelopes. Check with the post office for weight and size specifications if you contemplate anything out of the ordinary. It probably has a template you can use as a guide.

Personalize your letters. Letters addressed to specific people get better response than those with “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam.” Functional titles such as “Dear Commercial Real Estate Investor” can be effective salutations.

Two-page letters that are specific and informative usually outpull one-page letters filled with generalities. The copy should appeal to the reader’s self-interest and present a parade of advantages: “The more facts and benefits you tell, the more you sell.” And if you can afford to, add a second color to liven up the page.

Include two letters in one package. One California CPA firm tested a direct mail package with two letters: One was from the client account representative and the other was signed by the founder of the firm. The founder’s letter talked about the firm’s accomplishments and abilities and its specialties; the account rep’s letter expanded on the founder’s letter and presented readers with two successful case studies.

The two-letter direct mail package was tested against a one-letter package. After six months, the CPA firm found the two-letter package had 21% more responses than the one-letter package.

Design sophisticated flyers and brochures. Brochures and flyers that are busy and look cluttered tend to be perceived as “low end” or designed for a less sophisticated audience. Conversely, those that are well organized and make use of generous white space are perceived as organized, systematic and professional.

Put your most important message up front. The first page of your mailing acts like a headline in an ad—as many as 70% of your readers won’t read beyond the first message if it doesn’t present a big benefit, an irresistible offer or an interesting story.

Make them an offer they can’t refuse. Tell your readers what you are offering and why they should respond. Think of special bonuses that will help solve a particular client problem or improve business performance. For example, a free yearend tax cutting guide offer will elicit more interest than a desk calendar.

Richard Siedlecki is a marketing and business development consultant in Atlanta. He specializes in direct response marketing. His e-mail address is .


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