By Dean Rieck, direct mail copywriter
Direct mail is a highly effective medium. In fact, it’s the most reliable and direct way to reach nearly every consumer with a home address. 
But every time you send a direct mail piece out into the cold, cruel world, there’s a chance something bad will happen. 
Maybe you don’t get the response you want. Perhaps the piece doesn’t get delivered correctly. It’s conceivable that a piece you’ve successfully mailed a dozen times just nose dives. There are countless ways for a mailer to meet an untimely demise. 
What do you do when it happens? 
Here are six simple steps for a “direct mail autopsy” to help you determine what went wrong so you can make your next mailing more successful.

• Analyze the results. You can’t fix a problem until you know what the problem is. So take a stiff drink and sit down with the numbers for awhile. Is the response rate low or non-existent? If it’s a two-step, is the problem on the front end or the back end? How about your return or cancellation rate? What about net profit? Crunch your numbers every which way to see if you can hone in on the problem. 
• Double check essential elements. A mailing I did for one client bombed so badly they called me in a panic to say they were getting no responses at all. Not one. I calmly asked to see a sample piece as mailed and noticed something weird about the barcode. Somehow their addressing software had inverted the bars so that the short bars were tall and the tall bars were short. With the ZIP wrong, no one was receiving the piece. But it was an easy fix. 
Sometimes you can get so caught up in the creative aspects of a direct mail package that you forget to check things like those barcodes, addresses, phone numbers, Web site URLs, and other standard information. But you need to check them every time. 
Also check to make sure that you have: a reply form; the form is sized to fit into your reply envelope; you have included the reply envelope; there are no other missing pieces; the right mailing list is used; your tracking codes are correct; etc. Always have samples of the piece printed with your mailing list and go over it with a fine tooth comb. Fill out the form, call the number, go to the Web site, check the entire response process. 
• Compare it to successful pieces. Take a hard look at your offer. Has it changed? Weigh the information included. Is there more or less? Are you speaking about your product in a different way? Are you using a different format than before? Are you asking people to reply in a different way? Does the design look wrong for what you’re selling?
Technically, if you’re testing correctly, you will change only one element at a time, and you’ll always know why something fails or succeeds. If you’re not testing that way, now you know why it’s a mistake. 
• Look for the “muleta.” That’s the name of the little red cape bullfighters use. They wave it around in one hand to distract the bull from the sword they hold in the other hand. In a direct mail piece, the muleta is something that distracts potential customers from your offer, message, or product. 
One direct mail piece I saw recently had a teaser on the envelope that read, “Stop monkeying around.” There was a big picture of a goofy-looking monkey holding a wrench. This piece was selling a set of high-end automotive tools, but the verbal and visual puns were a muleta serving only to confuse people. Jokes don’t sell. 

• Be honest about your product. I once created a direct mail package for a well-known publisher and was told later that the mailing bombed. But when I asked for details, I learned that the response rate was double, the net profit was double, and most of the numbers were fantastic. However, the cancellation rate was around 30 percent and that didn’t go over well with management. 
I gently told them it probably indicated a product-related problem–more people were trying the product because of my mailing but a lot of them didn’t like it. The publishing company didn’t accept that explanation, didn’t want to change the product, and didn’t seem to care that they were making twice as much money, even including cancellations. Apparently, they preferred to make less money so they didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of admitting they had a bad product. Good grief. 
• Hire a professional. I know that sounds self-serving, but I have to be honest with you. Few business owners have the skill to create good direct mail. And often they don’t have anyone on staff who can do it either. Sometimes when they farm out the project, they hire someone local and cheap. Big mistake. A failure may mean you need to bring in a hired gun to get your direct mail on track. 
If budget is a problem, many consultants offer some sort of analysis service that can identify problems in a direct mail piece and provide potential solutions. It’s not as good as having a direct mail piece created from scratch by a pro, but it’s a smart compromise.
Don’t feel too bad if you have a direct mail loser. 
To use a baseball analogy, everyone remembers that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. But few remember that he also had 1,330 strike outs. That’s because people generally remember successes and forget failures. 
So when you have a mailing that strikes out, don’t panic. Just figure out your problem, fix it, and step up to the plate again. 

—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.