A Startling Look at How Customers Read Your Direct Mail

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By Dean Rieck, direct mail copywriter
The way some people create direct mail, you’d think it was art and that people breathlessly ran to the mailbox every day to gaze lovingly on their new “acquisitions.” 
Clever headlines. Cryptic photos. Subtle calls to action. These are the hallmarks of gorgeous mailers that win design awards but don’t sell. 
But if you could watch people go through their mail the day your direct mail piece arrives, what do you think you would see? Let’s take a look. But I warn you, this is like stepping into a sausage factory. It’s gruesome and guaranteed to turn your stomach.
When your mailer arrives, only about 20% of the people on your list even consider reading it. No matter what you offer, no matter how you offer it, about eight out of 10 prospects simply chuck your mail into the trash with barely a glance.
Feeling a little queasy? You’d better chew on an antacid. It gets worse.
Those who remain are willing to grant you about 15 or 20 seconds of their attention. They glance at headlines, subheads, pictures, captions, offer statements, and other hot spots. But they’re not reading. They’re just scanning to see if your mail is interesting or relevant or valuable. And about half quickly conclude that it’s not.
Into the trash.
Of all those to whom you originally sent your mailing, about 10% remain. These people start skimming to get some details. They pay particular attention to bullet lists, charts, diagrams, tables, illustrations, and bits of copy here and there. They’re interested. They want to say yes. So you’re home free, right? Wrong. 
Soon, about half of these skimmers run across some detail that brings everything to a dead stop. Or they don’t find something they’re looking for.
Into the trash you go.
You’re now down to about 5% of those mailed. These people are firmly in a yes mode but are not yet convinced. They look for confirmation that saying yes is a good decision. These are the few, the proud, and the brave who start reading your carefully crafted body copy. And how many of these actually respond? Maybe half, if you’re really, really persuasive. More likely, a quarter or less.
So out of every 100 people who receive your mailing, perhaps 1% or 2% buy your widget.
And all this assumes you’ve done most things right. If not, what we see isn’t pretty at all. The numbers plummet. Your sales fade away to nothing.
It’s okay to cry. Let it out. 
But after you dry your eyes, think about what you’ve learned from this depressing spectacle. When people sort your mail, they’re quick. They’re brutal. And if you don’t instantly capture their attention, you’re dead in the water.
The solution? Don’t waste your time rewording the seventh paragraph on the back panel of your brochure or tweaking your logo color so that it’s a very specific PMS green. If you want to improve your results, don’t spend most of your time where the people on your list will spend the least. Get down to basics. Consider the big issues.
Test lists. Test lots of lists. Crummy mail sent to a good list can make you money. But brilliant mail sent to a bad list will fail every time. This is where you win or lose the most because, as you’ve just seen, that first garbage sort is a killer. 
The best lists are those made up of proven mail-responsive buyers. Like it or not, some people will respond by mail and some people won’t. Your list broker can tell you a certain amount about the list, but the only way to know anything for sure is to test. 
Sell a good product. Can you say, “Duh?” A lot of people I talk to think that direct mail is a magic path to riches. Just slap together any old gizmo and, presto, the money tree starts blooming. Wrong. A good product is always easier to sell than a piece of crap. And people decide quickly whether you’re selling a winner or a dud. 
What’s a good product? It’s something people want or need right now. Something they already understand. Don’t try to create a new market unless you have deep pockets and lots of patience.
Make an enticing offer. When people glance at your mailing, they’re looking for what you’re selling and the deal you’re making to sell it. So make it good. Make it fast. And make it clear. Doubt fills trashcans. And for goodness’ sake, make your offer more than just the price. Offer a free trial. Throw in a premium. Beef up your guarantee. If you don’t give people an outstanding reason to accept your offer, they won’t.
Spend time with your copy. In particular, spend lots of time writing your headlines and subheads and less time tinkering with body copy. Include plenty of information, enough to answer every question and ease every doubt. Point out the benefits. List all the features. Make every word clear. Make every picture relevant. Present a clear call to action. Make response easy.
Does this sound like Direct Mail 101? It is. 
—Source: Dean Rieck is a leading direct mail copywriter. For more copywriting and selling tips, sign up for Dean’s FREE direct response newsletter and get a free report, 99 Easy Ways to Boost Your Direct Mail Response.