Most of the causes for poor success in direct mail stems from a lack
of examination of the many factors that comprise an effective mailing 
program and commission of what I like to term, "The Seven Deadly Sins." 
Whenever a prospective client mentions to me that his company tried 
direct mail once, but it didn't work, I always invite him to dig up 
the offending piece and go step by step over what was mailed and who 
it was mailed to. Invariably, I come up with the commission of at 
least five of the seven sins. Here they are, along with comments on 
how to avoid them:

Sin #1 - "The World is Our Oyster"

A primary problem facing companies with products that can be used by
the masses is that the very magnitude of the market overwhelms them.  

I once consulted on a project for a company that offered a service 
that could be used by more than 40 million people. I caught a glimpse 
of their business plan in which they projected they could capture four
million of the prospects or one of every ten mailed in the initial 
test drop. "Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?" they asked. "I don't think 
so," said I. Then I patiently pointed out they were a a Johnny-Come-
Lately to a marketplace already dominated by two of the largest cor-
porate players in the country -  they had no marketing presence in 
the industry - they had a minimal promotional budget - and they were 
flying in the face of the old marketing dictum that in mass markets 
there are generally: the leader and the runner-up with megashares and 
the field with minimal market share. Sure enough, the best test cell 
we tested produced an acceptance rate of just 1.6 percent.

Unless a client is filthy rich (and how many are these days?), I'm
an advocate of the "pebble in the water" school of marketing. When
a pebble hits the water, it creates a series of concentric circles.
I say, market to the first concentric circle before proceeding to the
next and so one. It's a lot easier and generates sales much quicker.

Moral: Even if you have a world-beater of a product, narrow your focus 
if you want to be successful. Tackle the geographical area closest to 
your home base. Establish realistic projections both in terms of 
response and conversion to sales. And try to do it differently if 
you're now an also-ran in a multi-company race.

Sin #2 - "We'll Buy A List And Then Mail"

It's obvious that a list is the most important segment of the direct-
mail strategy. Then, why do so many people ignore it? Renting a list 
is more than making one short telephone call and one quick decision.  
Smaller companies, in particular, are prone to calling the first list 
broker they find in the telephone directory and ordering the list that 
sounds closest to their market. No differentiation between compiled 
and response lists; no questions about age, gender or geographical 
location; no "hot line" or other segmentation specifics. Just ready, 
fire, aim, as the saying goes.

The list ordered goes directly from the broker to the mailing house
and there's the end to it. (I wish I could tell you the number of
times I've encountered instances where the wrong list was shipped to
the mail house and the client never knew it was addressed to the
wrong group because it was mailed bulk--non-deliverables not returned 
--and he neglected to put his own name on the mailing list to see what 
it looked like in the mail.)

Moral: Spend twice as much time investigating good lists as you do
creating the mailing package. It's a lot less fun, but means hundreds, 
if not thousands, more dollars in the till.

Sin #3 - "Offer, Offer"

It happens all the time, the right list is chosen, the mail package
is functionally beautiful--yet the mailing pulls a disappointing
response. Most often the problem can be traced to insufficient con-
sideration or formulation of the offer. If the proposition presented 
to your reader doesn't somehow differentiate you from the competition, 
how is the recipient to know why he should pick your product or ser-
vice over that of your rivals?

Moral: Search for that unique selling proposition and express it as
clearly as you can.

Sin #4 - "What I Meant To Say Was This"

Once you've stated your offer, have you expressed it clearly enough?
Direct mail is a one-way medium, for the most part. That means you'll 
never have a chance as you do in conversation to explain what you 
really mean. One good way to tell if you've gotten the point across 
is to either go to the expense of running a focus group, or, better, 
show the mail package to some people to see if they understand the 
basics of the offer. I know of one major company that selects customers 
at random and surveys them to see if they understand what the point of 
the mailing is.

Moral: Say what you mean, and mean what you say. The best way to do 
this and stay on track is to picture a sample prospect in your mind's 
eye and write to that person. This has the double benefit of keeping 
you focused on a single individual instead of a large group, and your 
copy will automatically have that one-to-one feeling all good direct 
mail should have.

Sin #5 - "Front End Goes In First"

"Front end goes in first" works fine for Tinker Toys and the like,
but generally turns out lousy for direct mail. Campaigns too numerous 
to count have failed because the back-end fulfillment was not clearly 
thought through before the mailing went out. If you doubt this, con-
sider the salesman's classical complaint. He either has too few or 
too many leads. And in my experience, too many is worse than too few, 
because you've generally wasted more money on the former. Another 
proof: Good copywriters work on the back end initially by writing the 
response device first when creating a DM package, since they realize 
that, if the response card proposition is phrased correctly, the letter 
and any accompanying brochure will be on target.

Moral: Don't wait until the first minute to determine what you're
going to do with leads or orders as a result of your mailing. If you 
wait, you may find that the mechanism you thought would be in place to 
help you may indeed not be there because of a change in management 
policy or strategy. If you're going to generate leads for salespeople, 
work that back end first, too. Let them know about your campaign and 
solicit their thoughts as well. You, as the general in this on-going 
marketing war, can't afford to ignore the good intelligence provided 
by your foot soldiers. But use common sense. Filter the usual gripes 
and complaints to get to the gold beneath.

Sin #6 - "Neglecting The New DM Math"

Many firms new to direct mail decide to test the markets with a
sample mailing to gauge response. They might be better served by 
calculating in advance if the mailing has a chance for success. It 
saves a lot of money and long faces.

The math is easy to do. First, figure your cost of the mailing. Then, 
estimate your response realistically. Does the number of responses 
and probable sales at least equal the cost of the mailing?

Here's where we may part company. In asking a broad base of companies 
what type of response they get or expect to get from their mailing, 
I get answers that vary from 10 percent down to 2 percent. Anyone 
who cites a figure within that range (except the fortunate few who 
have a truly unique product or new service needed by many) is demon-
strating a lack of knowledge.

I know how easy it is to generate response on things that don't
produce sales. Example: I did a survey for a company to its clients.  
We generated a better than 60-percent response. It was even higher, 
if the truth be known, because we stopped counting at 62 percent
when responses petered out.

Get ready for the real world. My response rates now on conventional
products and services are running anywhere from 0.025 percent to a 
full 2 percent on a wide range of offers. Not many DM pros are doing 
much better than that if the truth were revealed. As you can see, the 
average response rate I'm generating is below the so-called 2-percent 
rate for industry that everyone quotes.

Moral: Put your pencil to paper before even thinking about doing a
mailing. If you think that it's going to take a 6-percent response 
for you to break even, consider carefully before going ahead with your

Sin #7 - "Ignoring The Art In DM"

What do you do when your response is borderline, not good, but not
bad either? Do you stop or take a leap of faith by rolling out to the 

Moral: There's an art, as well as a science, to direct mail. If you
think you have a winner, go for it. If there's one single item that's 
true about direct mail, it's that continuous mailings succeed in the 
long run and single shots don't.

This resource is (c) 1996 by, and excerpted from, Direction newsletter.