Successful Direct Mail Campaigns

The accountant leans over towards me from the other side of his desk with a grin.

“It’s remarkable how, when you understand the numbers, they tell a story. Most people, if they’ve never done a direct mail campaign, will do it wrong.”

It takes an analytical mind to fully appreciate the power of numbers in a direct mail campaign. The constant barrage of facebook updates, tweets and status notifications is inundating and can certainly out-shout a letter in the mail. Or can it?

Direct mail has been around for a long time. There are no ad blockers, spam filters or other barriers to the recipient. It’s almost guaranteed a view and if done right, will help someone.

“They key is in finding relevancy to your audience,” said Bill Conner, the accountant.

He has a small accounting practice, focused on income taxes. He prepares about 300 returns per year and wants to grow that to 500 – 600 returns. He figures that the best time to contact potential clients is when they are thinking about tax preparation, but he wants to stimulate interest early in the filing season to avoid a last-minute rush.

Bill chooses to do a mailing to arrive about the same time that the W-2’s of his target market are arriving in the mail.

The third week in January is chosen as his “drop date” (date when the mailer will be delivered to the US post office.) He wisely figures that very few people are thinking about an accountant in July or at Christmas time.

icon-map-locatorHe knows that studies show most accounting clients come from a 3.5 mile radius from the office of the accountant. He checks his zip code maps and picks the 5 zip codes that most closely correspond to this, and then starts talking to list brokers. He finds these brokers from a “Google” search on the internet.

Some of these conversations are classic “sales calls” – the broker extols the accuracy, reliability, responsiveness of their lists, but have little to prove these assertions. He finds that many of the lists are “compiled” lists, the source of which are vague. He’s a little put-off by many of the brokers, who seem to sense he’s not an expert in this area.

But he persists, asking for what kinds of “selects” he can make off the lists. He wants high income homeowners, and those who have moved to the area in the last year.

A client recommends that he talk to the credit bureaus, since they have up to date lists and lots of demographic information. He calls Experian and Trans Union and speaks with their list sales departments.

icon-map-locatorHe asks for a demographic breakdown and “counts” for each of the zip codes he is considering. He gets this from a couple of sources… Info USA, and Experian. What he finds is that the counts vary somewhat, and the demographics vary. What he finds is that there are about 20,000 residents in his 5 zip codes, but of those, only about 12,000 which meet his selects. At first, he is overwhelmed by the counts, but Bill remembers that the rule of large numbers requires that he do a substantial mailing. At 12,000, he may only see a .5% — 1% response, which would be 60 – 120 new clients.

Can Bill handle 120 new clients? He and his staff confer about this and decide that yes, they could. Next, he decides to do a cost analysis. Here is what he comes up with:


Item Cost
Cost of mail list $1500
Cost of printing $1800
Lettershop services $1800
Postage $3400

Total cost of mailing: 8,500

Right here is where most accountants stop cold. Accountants are by nature risk avoiders. This looks like a game for gamblers. Here is a bet where you put $8,500 down, and you might end up with nothing. Is it worth the gamble?

Well, let’s analyze it: if he gets a .5% response rate, he’ll get 60 new clients, which will average about $ 375/year = $22,500 in yearly business. Let’s see: spend $ 8,500 to get $ 22,500? It’s a go. Bill decides to do it, albeit with a big lump in his throat.

Finally, he decides on a list from one of the credit bureaus, based upon their representation of the current nature of the list (that it has been updated within the last four months), that it contains no dups, has a high deliverability, and guarantee that if there are nixies (undeliverables) he can receive a refund for those names. He orders the list in an Excel spreadsheet format, delivered by email.

Simultaneously, Bill has been drafting a nice 3-fold brochure explaining what he does and why he’s a good choice as a tax accountant. He figures a lot of his “target audience” have either been going to large accounting firms or struggling with home tax prep programs. He’s got good reasons why he’s better than both of those options.

He focuses on the reader: what’s important to them? What will grab their attention? What will resonate? How will they be so “compelled” that they just must call Bill?

His brochure focuses on:

  1.  Identifying the pain of doing taxes
  2. The hassles and errors with home tax programs
  3. The problems in dealing with large, impersonal organizations, like large accounting firms, and finally
  4. The advantages of having a long term relationship with a local accountant who specializes on helping clients just like his target market. He asks for their business, offers a free review of prior year returns, and gives them an incentive to call and schedule an appointment now.

Bill tests his draft brochure out with his toughest critics: his friends, family and a few close clients. They point out some weak areas, make some suggestions, and he considers them all, incorporating a few.

He gets bids from printers, lettershops and mailing houses. The quotes are all over the place.

He learns quickly that he needs to specify exactly what he wants: Letter sized 24 lb light green colored paper, tri-fold, tabbed, 1 color (black), no halftones (pictures), no bleeds (there’s a 1/4″ margin all around, so printers don’t have to buy larger paper and then cut it down), names provided on an Excel spreadsheet, bar code and carrier-routed, to be ink-jetted on the piece, lettershop to provide bulk mail permit, stamped instead of indicia printed, lettershop to sort, tie, bag and deliver to the post office, and provide a proof of mailing ( USPO form 5053). He provides them with a deadline for the drop date of January 20.

Bill settles on a local printer and lettershop and puts the terms of his arrangement in writing, signed off by all involved. He includes a specific timeline:

Date Action
January 5 Delivery of piece to printer
January 10 Printer delivers printed pieces to lettershop
January 15 Lettershop is ready to "drop" pieces
January 18 Lettershop delivers to post office

He delivers the mail piece to the printer via emailing a PDF of the piece, along with explicit instructions on how it is to look.

Since Bill has a printer as a client, he knows the personality: if something can go wrong, it will. So, in addition to the email, he personally delivers a mock-up of the piece. Good thing, too, since the printer thought the outside was the inside, and he was planning on printing the outside upside down from what Bill wanted. Bill also wants to see the paper. Again, good thing he sees it before the printer uses it: it’s the wrong color and weight. Again, the printer apologizes but says that’s all he has. Bill knows that printers can get all kinds of paper quickly and uses a little “New York” on the printer to get him to live up to his agreement.

On January 9th he calls the printer. The paper has not yet arrived, nothing has happened. On the 10th he calls and is told it will be done by the 12th, maybe. Here Bill realizes that he should have had a penalty for non-performance written into his agreement. Bill is apoplectic. He tells the printer that if it isn’t done by the end of business on the 11th, he’s not paying. Printer gets hostile, blaming everything, including the weather.

On January 12th, Bill calls the lettershop and finds that the printer delivered, but that the lettershop has a tight schedule and has pushed Bill’s piece back in line. Bill visits the lettershop and pleads with the owner, who, sympathetically, agrees to get things done in time. Again, knowing that things that can go wrong will, he carefully reviews what is to be done to the piece, how it is to be tri-folded, tabbed at the top, stamp applied, and the names ink-jetted onto the piece (instead of having the names printed on white labels and the labels affixed to the green paper, which would look tacky) The lettershop is also supposed to print the bar-code and carrier route on the piece, and then sort, tie and bag the project, ready for delivery to the post office on the 18th.

On the 15th he’s told that there’s a delay and that it won’t be ready until the 17th.

He visits the lettershop on the 16th and finds out that nothing has even been started. Again, a bit of “encouragement” is necessary, and by the afternoon of the 18th, he is told that things are ready for mailing. He stops by and sees the canvas bags allegedly full of his mailing. He OK’s the drop and the lettershop promises to take the mailing to the post office. Bill agrees to pay when the lettershop delivers the signed 5053 form (which shows that the mailing has been sent.)

Four days later, nothing has happened. Admittedly, it’s included a weekend, but Bill is starting to get worried. No calls. No appointments. He receives the lettershop invoice and the 5053 in the mail, and notes that it’s not been signed or stamped by the post office.

On the 24th he receives a USPO stamped and signed “replacement” 5053 dated the 20th, and a box full of left overs. He’ll use those as hand-outs later. On the 28th, he receives good tidings in his mail: the piece he had sent to himself.

Wisely, Bill had inserted his own name in the list, along with some friends and relatives. On the 29th he gets a couple of calls from these “insiders” letting him know, as they promised, that his piece has “hit the mailboxes.” Still no calls from prospects.

On the 30th, calls start coming in.
Slowly, at first, but they come. About half of them are prospects. Some sound like they are Bill’s friendly competition checking things out. A few appointments are set. For the next ten days, the number of calls coming off the mailer increase daily. Some call and are ready to set an appointment, others want to speak with Bill to see if he’s the real deal. The calls level off and start to decline, and there’s a week in early February where only one call comes in. Then they start to spike again in March and it’s crazy wonderful business until the 15th of April.

Bill wisely tracks all the calls and where they are coming from. He can’t really see a trend. After the tax season, in early May, he sits down to figure out whether all of this was worth it.

Here are the results:

Mailers actually sent (per USPO form 5053 ) 11,400

Item Amount
Calls received 102
Appointments set 87
New tax clients 73
Total revenues from new tax clients $20144
Total cost of mailing $9420

Bill sees that he paid for 12,000 names but only 11,400 ended up being mailed. He sees that he paid $ 9,420 when he had firm quotes for around $ 8,500. He has a fistful of “nixies” — over two hundred, from that supposedly clean list, and those are the ones that were returned (the USPO only returns standard mail bad addresses by accident: they’re typically thrown away).

He could be upset about the cost over-run, the under -delivered mailer, but he sees the $ 20,144 in increased revenues, and well, all is good.

Bill notes that the final cost of the mailer was more than he had budgeted; ($9,420/11,400 = $.826 each) or $ 826/thousand. He’d figured on $ 708/thousand, the difference had gone to up-charges and things he’d missed on the quote. He’s wiser, though, and will not let this happen again.

For next year, Bill will consider another mailer… and if he does, he will be just a bit wiser:

  • He’ll Screen each of his vendors more carefully
  • He’ll put a performance clause in each contract
  • He’ll audit things even more closely

You can purchase the eBook, “Successful Direct Mail Campaigns” here.

Matt Heintz

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