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7 laws of direct marketing

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - July 1996
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Zsolt Kerekes - Publisher
The late Isaac Asimov managed to write volumes of entertaining stories which revolved around his three fundamental laws of robotics...

The stories showed that complex behaviour can result from apparently simple origins. Asimov's fictional robots would be an unpredictable enough bunch of individuals to market to. The problem for direct marketers in real-life is that we are constrained to use mechanistic methods to mass communicate with large numbers of quite illogical humans who are driven by motivations and programming that we can only guess at from our remote perspectives.

Some of the books which my wife Janet Downes recommends in her marketing courses include literally hundreds of rules or checklists. Instead of hundreds of rules - below is my list of 7 simple rules which are based on my practical experience of being involved in hundreds of clients' mailshots in the business to business computer systems market.
1 Get your message to the right people.

The worst designed communication, can still get results if it goes to the right people. If they have a desperate need for your product, and your competitors haven't got to them first, you might still succeed in getting a response...

But, the best designed communication in the world can't make up for a business proposition which is not compatible with the needs, interests or aspirations of the recipient. An offer which is uncompetitive, unsound, or irrelevant, does not improve your business by being better packaged.

2 Get your message noticed at the right time.

If a prospect sees (or hears) your communication when they have a strong need and interest in that subject, there's a good chance they will try to contact you, even if your mailer is very badly designed, and even if they have to look up your number in the phone book! On the other hand...

If the same prospect sees (or hears) your communication just AFTER they have satisfied their need for that product, they may be interested to see what they missed, but it's more likely they will ignore it (or never notice it because they have stopped "looking"). So your chances of getting an order, from this well qualified person who is still receiving mailshots, and is in your ideal segment, are exceedingly remote.

This is a good argument for regularly mailing your target segments (if their buying times are random) or synchronizing your activity with your market's buying cycle if there is an element of seasonality. But you also need to consider rule 3.

3 Make sure you can afford it.

Your direct marketing should contribute to your profitability and business goals. If it doesn't, then spend less, or investigate ways to improve. If your direct marketing is unsustainable.. one day someone will pull the plug.

If your direct marketing is profitable, consider increasing or decreasing your volume until you are getting the optimum benefit for your business needs. If direct marketing is a big part of your marketing mix, you should constantly measure and analyse its effectiveness, as with any other part of your business.

4 Practise makes perfect.

If you hunt in the forest every week with a bow and arrow, you will eat more game than the tourist who comes down once a year armed with the latest rifle. Books and courses can prepare you with the fundamental do's and don'ts. But regular testing in your market is the only way to keep in touch with how your customers will react to what you communicate. Regular testing is a good discipline and means that you are always ready for that moment of truth when your company needs results fast, throws a large budget at you and expects you to bring in the bacon.

5 Ignore other people's response rates and focus on your own profitability.

Hearing about another company's 20% response rate while you get more "returns to sender" than positive inquiries may harm your morale and divert you from the straight and narrow. Resist the temptation to seek a high response just for the sake of it. But in some cases it may be better to get a 1% response rate from people who have self qualified themselves and have genuine interest in your products, than getting a 20% response from people who may not even be sure what your product is about. The "don't knows" can waste valuable telemarketing and personal sales resources to take you back to the genuine 1% (if they are in that sample at all).

Absolute percentages are meaningless. If your average order size is $100,000 and you get 10% order conversion from a 1% inquiry rate, you could be doing better (or worse) than the company which sells a $75 software package and gets 20% inquiry rate and 20% conversion. It depends on the profit margins of each product, the likelihood of repeat sales, and your related marketing costs in qualifying and following up each inquiry. Percentages are very important when you are comparing your own trends. But setting a goal for a response rate in isolation to profit means your motivation and results will be off the target.

postscript... you have to know the "lifetime value" of customers in each of your target segments. Then it's a simple job to compare that with your customer acquisition cost and do a break-even analysis. Some segments have much higher customer values, and therefore rate higher costs. Note. This is about the customer, not individual products, and the relationship which your company has with him/her. Since writing this article in 1996, a new marketing concept called CRM deals with these issues. See also CRM portals.

6 The only important rules are the ones that work... ...for you in your own market.

If markets and technologies never changed, and all people behaved the same, you could probably write a set of rules and software to do your direct marketing. Luckily that's unlikely to happen anytime soon in this market. If it did, the output from such a process would become boring, and the market would switch to favour the first company which broke those rules.

Your experience shows you that the "killer mailer" from last year might not work quite so well today. You have to work hard even to stay in the same place in your market's awareness. The expectations of your market change with every day, and with every communication they receive from you, your competitors and from other sources.

Direct marketing is really a black art. True, quite a lot of Science is used: as a tool, as a measurement device, even as part of the product delivery. But when all the lights and mirrors are taken away you're looking at trying to affect the behaviour of large numbers of people you will never meet to take a more positive look at a future product which may not even exist yet. The wonder is not that it works so well, but that it works at all.

7 Keep it legal, decent, honest and truthful.

This rule is from the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom. We should always remember that our communications operate within the legal and cultural frameworks within which we operate. Sometimes assumptions which are valid in one framework may be invalid in another. Therefore a mailer which is accepted as normal in one country, may actually be illegal in another. Similarly, a photograph or verbal proposition which is effective in one country, may be offensive or misunderstood somewhere else.


I wrote this article for the original 1996 incarnation of MarketingViews. The only things I've added are some new links, and these important bullet points, below.
  • internet address errors. Get someone to type in the web address and email address of any offer which is mentioned in your mailer. If they don't work, then hold the mailing. You'd be surprised how many times I've seen "page not found" or "email undeliverable" errors in quite expensively produced but otherwise incompetent mailers.
  • color discrimination problems. Chances are that your graphics designers have perfect color vision. Others are not so lucky. Get someone who really is color blind to check over the mailer. I've often been unable to read text which is poorly contrasted against the baclground. That goes for web pages too.

Thanks for your time...

Direct marketing enables your company to be seen at its best (or worst) by one person or your whole market. Done right - it can help your business develop and grow. Done wrong - it wastes your valuable resources. We hope you've enjoyed this short article and will look at some of the other resources on our web site FAQs for connected IT marketers