Six Strategies For Catalogers Considering Direct Mail

With postal rates going up again, it’s a good time to look at your mailing options from all angles. And one of the least-considered options for cutting costs by catalogers is using noncatalog direct mail. Let’s look at the reasoning and the opportunities available.

Often, those sending catalogs are to the point where printing more books is not costing them that much per book incrementally. The longer the press runs, the cheaper your catalogs are to produce. And historically, direct mail has come in more expensive than catalogs, when the quantity gets that high. But direct mail doesn’t have to cost that much…and there are factors other than the cost of the mailing that should be part of your decision. So why use direct mail, and how can it work better? Consider the following strategies.

1) Make the right decision on format. Direct mail is a loose term that can refer to everything from a small postcard to a mammoth package (I’ve put 12-in. x 18-in. pieces in the mail successfully) or even a box, called a dimensional package. So some mail is naturally going to be more expensive, particularly when there are multiple pieces to load into an envelope, and personalization. But it’s not necessary to make your mailing one of the more expensive formats for it to work. In fact, it may be less advantageous for you to do that.

2) Consider more than the price. Choosing the cheapest to print and mail may not be a good idea. While you can mail a 4-in. x 6-in. card at postcard rate, this is not a particularly responsive size. I tend to choose different sizes and shapes to get my prospect’s attention.

3) When prospecting, think print. As expensive as paper and printing can be, testing proves again and again that mailing even a postcard for prospecting will outperform any prospecting e-mail list you have access to. House lists are another story, but for prospecting, nothing beats the U.S. Mail for most clients. That’s true for personal and business mail.

4) Employ direct mail experts. Putting traditional catalog designers and writers on a direct mail project is almost always the road to a flop or at least a “less than great” performance. This is because the direct mail mindset is different from catalog. For example, if you asked most catalog designers to do direct mail in which multiple items were sold in a package, they would go for it. But this would most certainly be a failure in the mail, based on the testing I’ve been involved with. The prospect looks at direct mail in a completely different way.

5) Make it worth the prospect’s while. All direct mail and all direct marketing base success on offers. These past five years, about twice each year, I’ve been getting direct mail from apparel merchant Talbots. I’m a customer who buys by catalog, by Web, and in the store—but the direct mail drove me to the store with a great offer. What was that? A free T-shirt, the kind women love wearing under our suits and sweaters. If Talbots had made me a 10% off offer, the card would never have been used. A 15% off offer? Hmmm…maybe, maybe not. But the free tee? I’m there, in the store, and I’m buying something else while I’m there. Their cost of goods is a few bucks. The value to me is more than the $15 the shirt costs…it’s the recognition that Talbots appreciates my business. Would this have been as credible on a catalog cover? No way. The power of direct mail made me feel this was really just to their best customers, and I fell for it. And got a gift. And they got my loyalty and another purchase bigger than a T-shirt.

6) Be clear on your objective. If you’re using direct mail to generate a first purchase, you may try selling one high-end item in a direct mail package or a small magalog, much like Drew Kaplan did years ago with his bread baker. But if you want to draw them into the catalog or your Website—the creative, the offer, the call to action…it’s all quite different. And as soon as you try to do too many things in a direct mail package, postcard or self-mailer, you’re as good as throwing the money into the trash.

Sounds like a challenge to make direct mail work, eh? But the good news is that direct mail–to both your prospects and your house list–is something that, if done right, will get more response than a catalog since you’re hitting them in a new and different way. And with so many really dull direct mail packages in the mailboxes these days, you don’t need a miracle to get a fine response—you just need to do it really well, keep your message clear, and make it exciting.

Don’t wait to include direct mail in your annual mailing strategy. It’s one more fresh and new way you can get your customer’s attention and dollars.

Carol Worthington Levy is creative partner for San Rafael, CA-based catalog consultancy Lenser.

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