The secret weapon that drives qualified prospects to your site: direct mail

Now that the dust has settled in the web world, ecommerce players are finally past the ‘trying to stay alive’ phase and are seeking ways to grow.

The ultimate survivors have been catalogs, who have mailed aggressively for years and utilize their catalog to draw the great majority of traffic that enters their sites.  They also utilize the mailing of their catalog to remind their customer base of the products on the web, and catalog mailing is actually at its best performance when reactivating customers – I’m sure this is no surprise.

Their close cousins, eCommerce Sites (without a printed catalog) depended for the past few years on the availability of unsolicited email as one growth option, plus the various search engines, banners and technology that would entice prospects into their site. But the truth is, once they turn to direct mail (and printed catalogs), that’s when their numbers start growing profitably.

We all know what’s happened to unsolicited emails.  But, aside from that, what makes direct mail so appealing, even with  those other e-alternatives? It’s the power of today’s mailing lists.

With the capability of digging through databases to identify your prospects in order to match the profile of your best customers, direct mail can deliver more hits to eCommerce sites out of sheer volume – direct mail lists are deep and can be very accurate.  While your average order sizes may be higher for the web-generated hits, both direct mail and web-generated prospecting need to be part of your healthy marketing mix.

And the juicy part of mail, of course, is that by contacting experienced buyers from catalog and mail (the mailing lists used should have that feature), you’ve got access to the top tier of prospects… the ones who are willing to buy, sight unseen and untouched, and have it sent to them. Laugh if you want but that number never seems to get much above 50% of the US audience, willing to suspend fear of a failed purchase and buying in other than retail.

DMB Realty Sliverleaf landing page and brochure cover

Seduction by hotbuttons

Nearly any company who has a web site can benefit from using smart, well-executed direct mail to draw attention to the site. DMB Realty has, for example, developed a program that includes direct mail and space advertising to draw prospects into their site.  The mailing lists they use weed out all but the highest level prospect who might be interested in, and be able to afford, a multimillion dollar property.

Silverleaf direct mail brochure doubles as lead generation collateral

When the mail drops, DMB sees a surge of activity on their site – although out of their need for privacy, many won’t actually register at the site until they feel they’re truly ready to look at the property. Meanwhile, at the web, the prospect gains in-depth knowledge about the progress on the properties, the golf course and clubhouse, and even get a sense of who their neighbors might be. Direct mail with this much information would be unwieldy and inappropriate for lead-generation… but the web is a perfect place for all those details.

Notice one of the key ingredients to the success of this combination – the brand is apparent in all of them.  Through careful consideration and development of brand standards, DMB set the stage for what is a relatively cohesive program between direct mail, space advertising and web. While those standards must be adjusted here and there, the outcome still has that strong, branded look.

For example, the brand called for some paper choices that were luxurious, but expensive. Manufactured envelopes of the suggested paper would have been difficult to address without smearing, and also might have looked uninteresting in the mail with its smooth surface. We chose instead to manufacture the OE, letter and reply form from a ‘classic columns’ paper that’s rarely seen in the mailbox – and would likely get the attention of a high-level prospect.  All of the paper choices, including the brochure, were downgraded but none of the elements looked cheap. The savings from that came to many thousands of dollars in paper alone! These were necessary breaks from their brand standards.

However, in the long run, what really mattered the most was the ‘act of seduction’ that took place when the direct mail landed in the prospect’s mailbox – showing the golf course, the privacy, the unspoiled beauty of the area were just the hot buttons needed to generate acceptance by the prospect. The repetition of those hot buttons at the site increased the prospect’s comfort level when they ventured from the printed piece into the web.

QCharts direct mail elements address each concern an investor may have.

Showing your prospect a brighter future

Another example of driving activity to the web using direct mail is Terra Lycos and their online financial/investment service, QCharts.  The pictures you see here confirm again how consistently the brand look and feel is supported in the direct mail, so that when a prospect arrives at the web, they know they’re in the right place and will likely stay and look around.

However, notice again where the differences are: in the actual copy/concept. In order for direct mail to be responsive, it needs to address the hotbuttons of the prospect as soon as possible. This particular package confirms the fact that making money is, for this prospect, ‘what it’s all about’ …. And QCharts is just the tool they need to make more of it.  So the mail is far more conceptual and hardhitting than the site, since it has the task of driving the recipient into the web, prepared to consider the service.

It doesn’t have to be complicated … but it had better be good.

While direct mail is at its most trustworthy as a solid direct mail package, often times the postcard or self mailer is a fine way to pull prospects into your site. Again, the most important elements of this mail are addressing your prospects needs and seducing them with the promise your product or service can deliver, in a compelling way.

The effort it takes to produce a great postcard is sorely underestimated.  I frequently receive postcards that look carelessly designed, given to a junior, poor copy and so on.   Just a little more effort could make these cards so much better a site activity generator. For example, a stock photo sends me a postcard to announce the fact that they have a fantastic array of unusual photos, such as those from National Geographic. Their fatal flaw on the big picture side is in the execution – they chose a very complicated photo, and the card image is so confusing that it loses all appeal.

The other, huge error by many who send out postcards is remembering what the customer sees first. Yes, there are great deals on postcards with a process color on one side and black ink only on the other side. But considering that the prospect sees the address side facing up, that most often means that the prospect will be confronted with a boring, type-only card with their address on it. And the chances (statistically) that they’ll turn it over are surprisingly small.  So that savings in the printing  (color on both sides typically doesn’t even add 20% more to the printing cost)  is penny wise, pound foolish, since response is depressed.

Let’s be clear – you have something on your site that you want them to see.  You want the site to look like a place they’d like to explore. Therefore, both sides of your card need to be glorious color and show off your site and its offerings at their best. Your prospect needs to see variety to draw them into your site. You can choose a hero for the big picture side – or one hero and three separate smaller insets – but it must be absolutely clear what you’re selling, and it needs to look really good, or you’ve wasted your money.

Cost effective and highly effective: offer-driven mail to Isuzu prospects generated new customers and great ROI

Make me an offer

Probably one of the strongest tools in effective direct marketing – mail included – is an offer.  Yet most mailings meant to drive prospects to the web completely miss out on that.  An offer doesn’t need to be expensive, it just needs to be something imaginative and something that sweetens the pot so your prospect will take that extra few minutes to visit your site. After all, this is their time you’re asking for … and these days, time is an extremely valuable commodity.

If you’re a site like QCharts, that offer could be a free ‘test drive’ of your software or service site. If you’re an automotive company looking to draw prospects to the web to see your latest vehicle, you might try a monthly polo-shirt giveaway for all who register at your site and answer a few questions. If you’re a restaurant chain trying to show people your new menu, posted on your site, you can offer them a printable coupon for a free dessert when they come and register, and look over your improved menu.

There’s a stock photo company out there who has monthly drawings for gadgets like iPods, and every time you visit the site and check in, you get another entry into the drawing.  If you’re a wine merchant, you can’t offer free wine (by law) but you CAN have a sweeps for a trip for two to wine country, or a colorful free bottlestopper worth $12 retail when they make their first purchase of $60 or more.

These offers are very little money in the grand scheme of things, but they make your direct mail – and your site – newsworthy. And that’s one of the ingredients needed to get your prospects logging on to your site.

Mail that doesn’t ask them to do anything…huh?

As a frequent customer of Southwest Airlines, i get a nice - and often funny - birthday card annually.

One of my favorite kinds of mailings is the well-timed Thank You mailing. For a company like Southwest Airlines, who needs the majority of their prospects to visit the web, it’s a bold move to maintain a birthday card mailing for every customer in their database. Every year I get one, and it never, ever promotes the site – it just wishes me “plenty of birthday cheer to go around”. And as hokey as this may sound, this just plain feels good.  It reminds me of the nice individuals who make up Southwest, whose primary function it is to get us on planes quickly and efficiently, and deliver  us safely home.  They don’t need to put their website address, or a free drink coupon, or even a phone number in this mailing. The sheer power of its sincerity pays off for Southwest time and again, making their customers visit their website to order tickets, again and again.

How can I tell if it’s working?

Of course, a key to discovering what your ROI is in these direct mail efforts is to measure them religiously and accurately – this is very possible with the web, through individualized landing pages and other technology – and testing efforts against each other to find out which one brings you the best customer for your site. After you run your program and continue to track that customer activity, you’ll be able to determine your ROI. For some of you, you’ll have that information in a matter of months. For some lead generation programs for expensive items like real estate or automotive, it may take six months or a year. Be patient and keep testing and measuring.

If you’ve never tried using direct mail before to promote web activity, or if you have, and it’s been disappointing,  now’s the time to try this vibrant media out again, using this article as a checklist. When you do, you’ll discover how direct mail can help your site grow and flourish with an ROI you can live with. And if you’re frustrated by a mail effort and want to brainstorm on what happened, I’d be glad to check out the effort and help you get your breakthrough.

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Filed under Copywriting, Creative Share: my weekly critique, Creative Strategy, Design

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