Small Business

The Check Is in the Mail


By Karen E. Klein Q: I'm starting a mail-order business, using a fulfillment company that will manage my inventory and do the shipping for me. What's a good way for me to advertise? -- P.S., Corona, Calif.

A: One of the most efficient ways for your company to get noticed is through a direct-mail campaign, experts say. Target your advertising narrowly, so your message will get out to people who are interested in your product, and likely to buy it. These people will know others with the same hobby, business need, or social interest whom they will tell about your product if they feel you are offering a good value.

With the software on today's computers, it is relatively easy to create your own direct-mail piece, says Meg Goodman, a partner at consulting firm PCG, in Batavia, Ill. Just make sure it looks professional, and have someone edit and proofread it, because few things make your business look worse than a hokey, error-filled, amateurish text.

"When you're developing any direct mail effort, keep in mind three important things: Offer, call to action, and list," Goodman says. "Offer" means the incentive that you will give your potential customers in return for their response. It could be that you'll give them something for free, or give them something extra, or something at a discounted rate. Make sure you include a deadline by which they must respond in order to qualify for your offer.

GENTLE PERSUASION. "If you leave it open-ended, the recipient might take their time," Goodman says. "If you set a specific time, it will increase the timeliness of response and you will also be able to better track your ROI [return on investment] from the piece."

The second point is your "call to action," meaning how the potential customers will respond to your piece. Will they call you at a local or toll-free phone number, return a business-reply card, go to your Web site, or stop by your office? Make the response as easy as possible, and make sure that you are prepared to handle all the responses you get and follow them up within three business days. "Not responding to a lead is worse than not getting any leads at all," Goodman cautions.

Finally, of vital importance is the mailing list or e-mail list that you will use to send out your direct-mail piece. The list should target your ideal customers, whether they be individuals or businesses. "Lists can be developed through the phone book, or purchased through several list brokers. Remember that business lists age quickly due to turnover in companies, so be prepared to use the list as soon as it is generated," Goodman says.

BY THE BOOK. If you can get the name of a specific person to address your mailing to, you'll get a better response than if you send the piece to a company or addressed to a generic business title. "Getting names may result in a smaller mailing quantity, but the response will be better," Goodman explains. "You may also want to include or purchase phone numbers so you can follow-up with your top tier prospects. A direct mail piece followed up with a phone call within a week of the mailing will almost always generate a better response that a mail piece or phone call alone."

To get more information on direct mail, check out the Web site of the U.S. Postal Service, which offers a helpful section with links on direct mail topics. Goodman also recommends, Successful Direct Marketing Methods, 7th Edition by Bob Stone, Ron Jacobs, and H. Robert Wientzen. It's the bible of direct marketing and available new from Amazon.com for $38.47, plus shipping. Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.


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