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Ten steps to direct mail success

October 11, 2010
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Carwash owners are used to being jacks of all trades. Repairs, maintenance, marketing, customer service — you tackle it all. So your latest promotional mailing might just have been something scratched out on a piece of paper and sent off to your nephew, the graphics whiz.

Effective direct marketing, as it turns out, is a bit more complicated than that. But that doesn’t mean you have to shell out big bucks on an advertising or sales promotion agency to get big-time results from a mailing. Direct mail is something managers and business owners can create for themselves — if they know some of the basics.

Over its history, direct mail has evolved into something of a science. Certain graphics, text, and even offers are known to be more enticing than others. Within these fundamentals you still have an amazing ability to get creative, injecting the right personality and excitement for your business and your customer base.

With this in mind, here are a few time-honored steps you can use to significantly improve your response rate, your car counts, your average sales — and the return on investment of your next direct mail campaign:

1. Focus, focus, focus
One of the most common mistakes business owners make is putting too many ideas into one mailer. Focus your piece on a single offer or idea, and drive the point home with crisp, active copy. Better to sell one idea with dozens of powerful words, than a dozen ideas all at once.

A related concept is to focus on your advantages, not on advantages anyone in the business can claim. Talk about your composite foam brush technology, your spot-free rinse system, or your free vacuums. Mention that you’re near the interstate, making your store easy to reach from any part of town, or that you sell gas. Specifics set you apart and make you more appealing than your competitors.

2. Pile on benefits, not features
Obviously you want your mailings to have substance. After all, no one wants to spend money on copy that’s all fluff. But in your drive to deliver facts, don’t forget to sell. Communicate benefits.

A feature of your store may be the addition of a second tunnel. The benefit, on the other hand, is expanded wash choices, the ability to accommodate oversized vehicles, or a clean car in eleven minutes or less.

Transform your advantages using words that energize and entice, and you’ll enjoy greater response.

3. Create “social proof” using testimonials
People never believe testimonials, right? Wrong. Actual experiences from satisfied customers are among the most influential appeals you can make. Psychologists call it “social proof”— people want to know that others have successfully gone before them.

Ask your most loyal customers to stay and talk for a minute about their experience. Offer them a 10 percent discount if they’ll tell you what they like about your detailing shop.

Solicit responses from people who have benefited from your “rainy day special.” These positive experiences can turn mail prospects into customers. (Be sure to get permission before using any attributed quotes.)

4. Think visually
According to a study of 2,000 consumers, print ads that consisted of 50 percent visuals (photos, illustrations, graphics) were seen and recalled 30 percent more often than ads with no visuals. This principle holds true in the direct mail world as well. Pictures speak louder than words.

Today, it’s easier than ever to include great photography in mailers, thanks to new photo capture, editing and printing technologies. However, nothing takes the place of well-composed, properly lit pictures. If you haven’t got the knack for it, find someone who does — even if you have to pay.

These days there are also many sources of high-quality photos on the Internet. Unless you are willing to pay royalties, however, make sure the shots you use are in the public domain or you may be open for a lawsuit.

5. Don’t neglect color
While a simple word-processed letter printed in black-and-white on a piece of stationary can be very effective, full color mailers (better known in the industry as four-color because of the four inks used) do even better. Research shows that four-color pieces get up to 45 percent greater readership than black-and-white pieces.

If you’re already contemplating four-color, try a “bleed,” where the ink runs to the very edge of all four sides of the paper. Four-color bleeds get 15 percent higher readership on average than non-bleed four color.

To get the most from your use of color, find and use the very best color printer and processing software you can. Or have your pieces printed by a commercial printer if you can afford it.

6. Use coupons
Your customers can make you rich if you give them enough reasons to spend money with you. It’s not enough to say “Come again!” as they head out the door. You must get into their minds with offers that justify another visit.

With this in mind, nothing beats a coupon in mailing pieces for generating a response. Coupons featuring even the smallest discounts are strong motivators because they shout, “Take action!”

Be sure you put your discounts in a coupon format, rather than simply stating the savings in plain text. For an even better response, offer a free service instead of a discount.

And always lead with the item first — say, “Free wheel brightener with the purchase of an interior/exterior wash,” not “Buy an interior/exterior wash and get free wheel brightener.”

7. Partner for profits
To increase the value and appeal of your offers, find another business that offers complementary services, then cross-promote the services of both merchants through your mailings.

If you’re next door to a service station, for example, why not join forces? Mail a coupon good for 20 cents a gallon off your next purchase with a super-premium wash. On the gas station’s side, the offer can be $4 off a super-premium wash with a fill-up.

When structuring the deal, make sure your partner markets aggressively as well. Why? Because it taps into the confidence of the relationship that business has established with its loyal customers. Make your partner’s customer base work for you.

8. Promote even when business is good
Huh? Sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? You have all the business you can handle…so why risk turning away customers you can’t accommodate?

Waiting for a slow period to promote your carwash or detailing operation is like waiting until a storm hits to build a roof on your house. You need to constantly develop your customer base so that slow periods diminish and busy times become more profitable.

Consistent year-round promotion through direct response is the key. Find ways of increasing average sales during busy times of the year, or leverage your traffic by providing add-on birthday or anniversary offers. That way you’ll have the goodwill and strong customer base to sustain you when things slow down.

9. Turn loyal customers into mailing lists
This tip dovetails with number eight. It’s especially important during busy periods to gather names and addresses from your customers. No purchased mail list is as valuable as the one under your nose.

To make it easier for customers to leave their name and address, offer them an incentive, like a chocolate or gourmet cookie at the checkout. Have a weekly drawing and give away something free…or reward them with a certificate good for a 30 percent off deal on their next visit.

10. Test and track
This is perhaps the most important rule of all. The reason direct response campaigns have such a high return on investment is because they are so measurable and can therefore be constantly refined and improved. Yet amazingly, many direct marketers don’t take the time to adequately test and track their efforts.

To test a mailer, send it to a subset of your mailing list — perhaps 500 names — before sending it to your full list. You can do a split run, e.g., 250 names get one offer and 250 more get another, to test the validity of an idea. Test only major ideas ($2 off versus $3 off for a full-service wash is hardly a test) and never test more than one variable at a time.

When customers redeem coupons, track the offer and total receipt amount. It’s easy to quickly mark down the information by the cash register. If an offer is scoring great results, keep at it. There’s no reason to discontinue a program until it is no longer working.

Finally, remember that 40 percent of a mailer’s effectiveness comes from the offer, 40 percent from the list you use, and only 20 percent from the design and copy. Make sure you’re sending the right deal to the right people, and you’re 80 percent of the way to a successful direct response campaign.

Jay Siff is CEO of Moving Targets (, a Perkasie, Pennsylvania-based provider of new resident direct marketing programs. Siff can be reached at 800-926-2451 or