Make direct mail a priority

May 1, 2006
BY ADAMS HUDSON SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR Fourth in a series Enough is enough. Over the past few months, you've seen Basnett Plumbing & Heating our Marketing Makeover contest winner save dollars, aim messages, get recognition and all that stuff. Then last month, just to rub it in, you read about what makes a good direct response offer. Just one of these generated $15,000 of results from $150 spent. By

Fourth in a series

Enough is enough. Over the past few months, you've seen Basnett Plumbing & Heating — our Marketing Makeover contest winner — save dollars, aim messages, get recognition and all that stuff.

Then last month, just to rub it in, you read about what makes a good direct response offer. Just one of these generated $15,000 of results from $150 spent. By now you're probably saying: "Yes, that's really swell. Now, what about me?"

OK, this month's article is about you. Yes, you. Even those of you who say it can't be about you.

That's because this month, we decided to address an area of marketing that needs a makeover for almost all plumbing companies. So as nice as it is to see someone else get results from what's "right," it's more instructional to learn from what's not.

And, boy, there's a lot of that going around. In fact, of the 1,200 ad critiques we perform for contractors each year, I wouldn't recommend spending a dime of marketing money to run about 93% of them.

So this month, you're going to "see" the mistakes that can make your direct mail ineffective, costing you marketing dollars, printing and postage, but delivering poor results. You'll be getting an insider's view that your competition will not get.

Why choose direct mail?
First, I'm sick of talking about Yellow Pages. Second, other media are far too dissimilar among varied markets. Plus, I chose direct mail because it is the most "targetable." You can pick your list exactly. And, you can "time" offers to go out and "drop" when you want. You can even specify exact quantities to go out incrementally within a convenient travel radius to minimize call travel time and fuel.

It is also the most "standardized" of the media, meaning that what you spend to send out 1,000 letters in New York is about the same as in Nowhere, Neb. Plus, the "selects" are consistent in your lists — income, age of home, travel radius, etc. — and list brokers charge about the same in either place. Then there's this other reason ...

If you limited my choices to the single form of media by which to depend upon for top, profit-pumping, predictable results, direct mail is the absolute winner. Hands down.

Why not direct mail?
After all the above, I still hear some plumbers moan, "Direct mail doesn't work," while others amass quiet fortunes using it but won't let 'em in on the secret. (Do you blame them?) And I said "quiet" fortunes because direct mail is "stealthy" allowing you to market in an area right under your competition's nose — without them knowing — unlike broad market media.

The problem is not the form of media. It's how the medium is used, or how the message is crafted. And in all the critiques, years of experience and incredibly costly blunders I've made personally (How do you get experience without fouling up royally every now and then?), I've noticed nine huge, common direct-mail mistakes.

Here's the list. Use it and prosper.

1. Sending mail to the wrong list. Basnett would have wasted loads of postage dollars if it had sent a "$79 Plumbing Inspection Special" to apartment dwellers or "Water Heater Replacement" offers to new homes. Targeting the right group with the right message — for instance, the Welcome Wagon list to new homeowners — will drastically increase qualified respondents.

Use either your in-house customer list or a list from a good broker with these three criteria: primary interest or applicability, perceived or encourageable need and ability to pay for the service.

Also, segment your mailing list. Don't make your offer to the world all at the same time. Trim your list down to the areas that you want to blanket, one section at a time, and spread it incrementally to balance out the lead load. This is just good stewardship of marketing dollars, intelligently applied for maximum result.

2. Sending the wrong message. Your company's message and selling proposition should be clear in every mailing. Are you the low-price leader? The high-service provider? Are you only sending out manufacturer's pieces because they're co-opped? (Bad idea.) In other words, "Who are you, and what do you stand for?" Make this point in at least a minor way with every public message.

You'll notice our messages have a specific purpose that relates to the market. They get top results because they "match" the prospect. I hate "general" mailings to broad lists because they're so namby-pamby and neutered that no one cares. This type of mailing also breaks rule No. 1 in direct mail: Thou shalt not be boring.

No matter how enticing and exciting your message is, it won't matter if you're ...

3. Not getting people inside your envelope. If people don't open your envelope, it's going to be very hard for them to respond to the offer. Most plumbers put mailings in company envelopes with stick-on labels that virtually scream, "I'm junk!"

If you insist on using letterhead, warn your prospects with a well-worded envelope teaser, such as, "If you'll take 4 minutes to read this letter, I've got a $50 gift and another 'secret' that'll make your time worthwhile." Then offer $50 off an annual maintenance (or whatever). The free gift can be a service coupon.

On direct-response offers, choose the well-tested "personal-looking" hand-or laser-addressed mail envelope with a simple return address. Then use a "live" postage stamp to complete the effect. This approach (called "shielded mail") significantly out-pulls company-looking mail. It's a huge crime to put an otherwise strong direct-response offer in a bulk-mailed, company-looking envelope. That kills response.

4. Making all your mailings sales messages. Ironic as it sounds, the interspersing of non-sales messages improves your sales message responses! Why? Because you're building trust, and trust rewards you with a like-kind response.

Try "Happy Cards" thanking customers, "appointment-reminder" cards or maybe an "I'm checking in on you" card following your proposal. My all-time favorite is a well-written newsletter. It informs, entertains, befriends and softly asks for the sale. Send one two to four times per year, then watch your repeat sales and referrals soar. (We can send you a free sample newsletter and Customer Retention Report. Just ask.)

If you'll recall, the first piece we sent for Basnett was a New Year's card as a "thanks." Even that piece got a few thousand dollars in sales. Plus, Basnett is now set up for a twice per year newsletter that only took a couple calls and about 30 minutes to customize. I can't wait to see the results — in terms of higher referral rates and lower customer loss percentages — from its customer retention program.

Build your relationship with "nonsales" messages, and your sales messages will get a higher response. But those will fail if you even dare to ...

5. "Junk" up the offer. Don't overdo it with a bunch of meaningless stuff. You know what I'm talking about ... logos everywhere, a few reckless offers, a starburst with another feature, clip art of Wally the Friendly Service Tech and something witty like, "We are No. 1 in the No. 2 business!" Just talk to homeowners like human beings who want to improve their lives in some measurable way. Stick to this and you'll do fine.

6. The "Me" syndrome. We talked about this last month. You won't stand out if you say what everyone else says. That means avoid phrases like: "We're the biggest, oldest, fastest, best, cheapest, most convenient, have won the most awards and are the smartest, most handsome plumbers that ever lived." It sounds like a joke until you realize how often that's either said or implied!

Bad news: People don't care. They want to know one thing — what's in it for them. You'll be light-years ahead of your self-impressed, babbling competition. Remember, your prospect's most important person is himself.

7. Offering no value. Don't ask your "special" customer to read your "special" offer that contains nothing special. It's insulting. Give him a real reason to be reading your letter. Good copywriters can build value and benefits so high that a customer's main question becomes, "Why wouldn't I call them?" Offer value, express value, give value.

This is another reason to segment your list. You send your prospects one mailing, your customers another. I promise if you send a service special discount to your customer who just paid full price, you'll either hear from him mad, or not at all. Neither is a good outcome.

8. Not clearly asking for action. If you leave out your "call to action," you leave your customer hanging. You must tell your prospects what to do. Be firm but polite: "Call us now for your free Plumbing Inspection." Or even casually firm: "Call us today — even on Saturday — and say, 'I want the best water heater in town, with no money down!'"

NOTE: We used the phrase "even on Saturday" in a letter for a plumbing client who sent letters that happened to hit on Saturday. He acquired dozens of appointments in a single day, four of whom were "former" customers of his rival ... even though the rival was also open on Saturday. The customers simply didn't know it.

9. Not following up. Here's a secret: If you do one mailing and stop, you're giving away piles of money. A second mailing with "2nd notice" or "I tried to reach you before but ..." will boost your response rate dramatically. Don't throw in the towel after one try. Buy two more stamps and get the job done. This is called "sequencing," and we've used it for four years to boost — on average — incoming leads by 54%. Yes, I said "54%." Sequencing and follow-ups work.

Make your direct mail work for you this season to bring in more leads and sales. You can target direct mail like no other media. You can "time" the offer exactly. And you can perform specific follow-ups to boost your response even further.

All this sure beats waiting by the phone!

Free thing this month: Well, there are two actually. See the bottom of this article for a free 16-page booklet, plus you can request "The Best Plumbing Mailing Lists" from us.

(Oh, and write CONTRACTOR's editors and tell them how much you love these articles so maybe they'll keep me around another month.)

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a creative marketing firm for contractors. Readers can get a copy of the free 16-page report, "Get More Plumbing Leads in Less Time" to help you market more effectively. Fax a request on your letterhead to 334/262-1115, or e-mail [email protected]. Call 800/ 489-9099 or visit to subscribe to his free contractor marketing newsletter.

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