Making Direct Mail Work

Apr 04, 1994

A solid majority of firms who use direct mail are less than thrilled with the results. In fact, according to our newly published Marketing Survey For A/E/P and Environmental Consulting Firms, 12.5% consider this the least successful marketing strategy they have employed and only 5.2% consider it part of their most successful strategy. While I believe that was the experience of those who responded to our survey, I know from my own experience that direct mail can work if it’s implemented properly. Here’s where we see firms go wrong: The firm doesn’t have a large enough prospect list. This is the most common problem for A/E or environmental consulting firms using direct mail. Many firms think someone should not be added to the list unless he or she has done business with the firm or is known personally by a principal or other key staff member. But the list is not the place to pre-screen opportunities— it should include virtually everyone who could buy or influence the decision to buy your firm’s services. The firm is not mailing frequently enough. Direct mailers in other industries often call it “Chinese water torture” when they mail to the same list over and over until the respondent finally breaks down and buys something. That may mean mailing to the same group 12, 18, or even 24 times in a year, not just two or three times. There are a number of reasons why firms won’t do this. Some erroneously think it’s too expensive. In fact, most mailings can be accomplished for under 30 cents per piece, if bulk mail is used and the cost of printing is controlled. Or they’re finding it takes too long to design a mailing with all the necessary approvals. That’s often because every principal wants to put his or her stamp of approval on it, bogging down the process. The firm has unrealistic expectations for a response rate. I often hear numbers like 5% or 10% bandied about as targeted response rates, but believe me, if those numbers were possible to get consistently, we could all retire tomorrow! A 1%, or even .5% response rate is the norm— but that’s not bad. If you have enough numbers on the list (2,000 or 20,000 instead of 200 in a specific market sector), and you mail often enough, a 1% response rate on 2,000 pieces of mail to one group of clients would produce 20 inquiries. And it might cost you as little as $600! One technical person with a $75-per-hour billing rate could easily chew that up on one sales call. The firm doesn’t know track its results. You need the numbers to know what’s going on. When you know what kind of results you are getting, you can control the risk. I haven’t figured out how firms know what works and what doesn’t— I’ve only seen a handful in my entire career that actually track inquiries from new clients and their source. The firm aims its direct mail at all clients instead of just one group of clients. “Shot-gunning” as opposed to “rifle shooting” is another big problem with direct mail use in an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm. It seems just about everyone does it— even the largest firms. We’re seeing more companies sending out super-expensive, flossy and glossy four-color magazines, covering everything from work in Siberia to new offices acquired in Nevada to park preservation projects in South Georgia. There is no way all of that could interest any one particular client. The result is a lot of expense and little reaction— because of confusion and perceived lack of specialization in serving clients of the reader’s type. The firm doesn’t get a response because it doesn’t ask for one. You should always ask for a response or give away some information that the respondent will value (see point #7). Failing to ask for a response is like sending out a catalog and not providing an order form or 800 number. The point of all this is that we want clients to call and buy the services the firm provides (or at least give the firm a chance to investigate the need and see if they can help). The firm uses direct mail to brag instead of to provide information valued by clients. Most of the direct mail we see boasts about past projects, new capabilities or who was promoted to “senior associate.” Direct mail should instead inform clients of important regulatory changes, share research results from unique studies they’ve completed or offer other truly helpful information the client will keep close by for easy reference. The bragging stuff just goes in the trash can. Before your firm closes the door on direct mail, consider that the problem may lie in how you implement it, not with the concept as a whole. Good direct mail should be a part of your firm’s complete marketing program. Originally published 4/04/1994

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