I’m trying to understand Direct Marketing, January 22, 1993

Learning the basics of direct mail can be as simple as taking a look in your mailbox and studying what you find there.  As I discovered recently, despite my years in the direct marketing industry, I can be just another eager prospect when an intriguing envelope shows up in my mail.

Basic direct mail rule number one: the courtship for a customer begins or fails with the envelope.

In my case, I was enticed by a closed face (no window) 6 x 9″ white envelope, properly addressed to my office in Markham, apparently, by good old-fashioned typewriter…not really, but a very good facsimile. I was immediately impressed that my name was spelled properly (no hyphens). Further, it included the politically sensitive salutation of “Ms”.

So far, so good.

Now, there were a couple of dead give-aways that this was not a birthday card from Aunt Sadie. First, the postage. Not a first class stamp. Nor, on the other hand, a pre-printed bulk rate indicia. It was metered for bulk rate at twenty and a half cents and post marked Ottawa.

Second give-away was the return addressee–“The Honourable Barbara McDougall, P.C., M.P.”–definitely not Aunt Sadie.

But, I was still interested. Why?

The envelope had accomplished a couple of things. It had established credibility through the use of good quality personalization. Although it wasn’t stamped, being metered gave the perception of better quality than a pre-printed indicia. Plus, it did look as though there was a real letter inside. And, from one of our nation’s notables, no less. So, I opened it.

Primary mission accomplished. Get the envelope opened.

Sure enough, it was a letter , again, properly, personally addressed.

Lost it a little with “Dear Mr. Gruchy”, but, I was willing to allow that a computer couldn’t figure out my two part surname.

The nice, hefty, buff-coloured paper could reasonably pass for Barbara’s official, everyday letterhead. Two, single-spaced pages were printed, one side only, in the, now familiar, pseudo-typewriter style. (One might argue that printing both sides saves wasted paper, postage and promotes environmental consciousness, but that’s another column).

You know what’s great about political mailings? No expense is spared. You get to experience the epitome of direct mail execution–all the things we’d all love to do but can’t ever afford.

And, what a letter!

“The Prime Minister and a small leadership group of The 500–a prestigious group of generous Party supporters from across Canada–have asked me to recommend several individuals for membership in The 500.

I consider it a special honour and privilege to recommend you to the Prime Minister.

The 500 membership is designed exclusively for key Canadian men and women who are leaders in their business and professional fields, as well as in their communities.”

There are those who might now argue that the role of the letter in a direct mail package has changed and can be down-played or eliminated. However, there are also many more vastly-experienced practitioners who insist that a well-written and executed letter is still essential to getting good response. And, they’ve proved it.

Did my letter qualify so far?

For starters, with the nation’s leader running a distant third in popularity polls, most likely 85% of those who opened the envelope threw the whole thing away after reading the first three words, so, I think, the opener could have been better thought out.

But, setting political sentiments aside, was it a good direct mail letter? Yes, provided the recipient was susceptible to somewhat saccharine forms of flattery. I must confess, I did read it with some interest–and, that’s the point–get the letter read, and your story told. But, there’s more to it than just that.

What totally blew it for me was the next sentence: “You are certainly recognized as such a leader in Western Canada.” Oops!

A direct marketer’s classic nightmare!

As with so much in life, in direct mail, it’s the little things that count. Murphy is always at work and he gets more help than he ever needs from that chronic computer virus called “human error.”

Direct mail lesson number four hundred and thirty-two (The one that’s only ever really learned the hard way): Check, check, double check, triple check, up, down and sideways. And, in this case, run live samples to check that whatever triggered “Western Canada” (probably the postal code) printed “Southern Ontario” , “Toronto Area” or whatever it was supposed to, correctly.

Untold dollars (of our money) had been spent on creative, mailing lists, printing, computer time, mail preparation, and postage. And, for what? To blow all that credibility, prestige and flattery I had soaked up higher than a hot air balloon.

So, what happened to the eager prospect next?

After a good laugh, I read on. Why? Because I still wanted to know what it was all about. Would anyone who’s not in the direct mail business? I doubt it.

Next came some background on The 500, which, according to the letter, is actually 1,500 people (That’s Ottawa-style counting, I guess). Then, an appeal to the future of my children and grandchildren (I don’t have any). And, an attempt to justify the “courage and strength” it takes to make the PC Government’s “unpopular decisions” under Brian Mulroney. This was based on the notion of being “right for our nation…our people and…our future.”

Finally, it got to the point.

Turned out the purpose of the letter was to soften me up to receive a “formal invitation ” from the big chin himself!

Just to make sure I got the point, there was also an enclosed, personalized card announcing my nomination for membership. Such was the quality of the piece, I expected to find small print somewhere saying “Keepsake, suitable for framing”.

I now knew this was going to be more than a one-night stand and I could look forward to a prolonged courtship.

Ten days went by.

This time the envelope was closed face, business size. Again, “typewriter” personalization of my name, a return address on “Slater Street, Ottawa, and first class, metered postage.

Inside: “It has come to my attention that a letter…erroneously identified you as a resident of Western Canada”. I knew that!

The next sentence spoke legions: “Mrs. McDougall was informed immediately of our error and was disappointed that her message was incorrectly presented.” Signed: “Brian O’N. Gallery, The National Chairman, The 500.”

Wait a minute, wasn’t that her letter? Who was this guy? I’d never heard of him. Why wasn’t Barbara doing her own apologizing?

So, now there was additional expense for another mailing, but the thought didn’t count for squat. Why?

The basic lesson missed, and it applies not only to direct mail, is the best and proven approach to damage control. Have the “courage and strength” to make an “unpopular decision” to face the music head on. Remember Tylenol!

The letter went on to express regret and encourage me to “give every consideration” to Mrs. McDougall’s letter (too late) and the PM’s invitation.

I could hardly wait.

Another four days went by. Then came a closed face, buff stock, business size envelope, personalized, metered at twenty cent bulk rate, addressee “The Right Honourable”, himself. Inside: letterhead, complete with gold-embossed Parliament Hill, two pages, one-sided, single-spaced.

“Dear Mr de Gruchy: One of the finest Cabinet Ministers ever from Ontario, the Honourable Barbara McDougall, has nominated you for membership in The 500…” No comment.

The letter went on to extol the virtues of the PC party and exclusivity of The 500; blamed our economic woes on past governments and “the chaos they left behind”; mentioned that ” The 500 members…will be key to moving our renewal agenda forward and to winning the next election.”…blah, blah, blah.

Enough, already. What was in it for me?

The seventh veil finally dropped on page two, paragraph five: “Your contribution of $1,000 or more…will give our organizers the political tools they need now to build a winning campaign.”

That wasn’t all.

There was another personalized, invitation-like card requesting the favour of a reply. And, a personalized RSVP form (with French language option). And, a postage pre-paid, cheque-sized reply envelope. And, the pièce de resistance, a slick, gold-embossed-plus-special-colour-PC-blue brochure outlining the virtues of The 500 which “requires” a “personal contribution” of $1,000 per year.”

And, here I was all set up to think they wanted me for my “leadership”!

But, there was a meager sop for my injured pride: “Your membership fee may be partly returned to you in the form of a $450 tax credit.” Oh, joy!

Final direct mail lesson for today.

This is the 90’s. Perceptions have shifted.

Successful appeals only to power, prestige and one-upmanship have gone the way of Michael Milliken and friends.

If you want money, say so, and why–simply, clearly, without wasting time or paper.

If you’re selling something, talk about yourself, your company and your product only in terms of direct benefit to your prospect.

And, please, if you make a mistake, don’t look for a fall guy or waste more paper and postage.

Imagine if Brian’s letter had begun: “Sorry, we blew it…” Wouldn’t it have fostered a much more positive impression? Then again, in his case, maybe not!

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