Studies in the direct mail industry continue to demonstrate that highly personalized direct mail packages result in increased response rates. In fact, a study conducted by marketing group POD showed a 1,000 percent increase in client and prospect response resulting from a highly targeted, personalized campaign. Today, it’s not just personalization that increases response. According to Winterberry Group, a market research firm, consumer response is driven by three key elements: timing, relevance and personalization.

In this context, timing refers to the ability to deliver an offer at the maximum point of interest. Lifecycle events such as a birthday, anniversary, marriage or new home can provide a compelling reason for advisors to send a communication to clients and prospects. Coordinating an offer with one of these lifecycle events heightens the likelihood that your recipient will find value in your marketing communication.

Relevance relates to sending an offer that answers a unique need, desire or preference of your client or prospect. In today’s cluttered mailbox–whether the one at the curb or the one on the computer screen–you have only a few seconds to capture a recipient’s attention. Make the most of this brief moment with a highly relevant message on your envelope or in your subject line.

A personalized message is one that is tailored for a unique recipient. According to Winterberry, personalization can take three forms. When the look and feel of your message is tailored to your recipient, it is considered aesthetic personalization. A piece of mail can have a distinctly masculine or feminine appearance, based on the colors used, the images chosen and the texture of the paper and envelope. Contextual personalization uses text to create offers that vary based on the recipient’s preferences. The third form of personalization is conceptual. In this case, available data is the driver for the offer and message. Conceptual personalization uses geographic or demographic data rather than personal knowledge of the recipient. But be careful. Consumers become wary if marketers appear to know too much about their personal habits or private information, particularly in prospect mailings. Be considerate of sensitive information and maintain the privacy of your audience.

Lester Wunderman, the father of direct marketing, said, “Communicate with each customer or prospect as an audience of one.” How is this possible? Four key elements in direct mail efforts drive response. These four elements are attention, interest, desire and action. Your direct mail package must grab your client or prospect’s attention, hold his or her interest, build a desire for your product or service and create a call to action. Personalization, used effectively, can garner attention, raise interest, create desire and result in an order for your product or service.

Regardless of whether you’re sending one letter a day or using a vendor to send hundreds or thousands of postcards a week, you’ll need to think about how formal you want to be when using your customer or prospect name in the body of a letter. Should the salutation say, “Dear Mr. Jones” or “Dear George”? If you are mailing the letters yourself, a handwritten “Bob” next to “Mr. Robert Jones” on the address form letter. A handwritten “P.S.” can also be an extremely effective device for connecting with a client.

Personalizing your response device, whether it’s a reply card, separate application form or tear-off reply form, makes it easier for your client or prospect to respond. Be sure to leave space for corrections and provide clear instructions for making changes.

This is also a great opportunity to acquire missing information, such as a phone number or email address. Consider inserting a message alongside a blank field that draws attention to the field or offers a special incentive for providing the information: “Send me your e-mail address and I’ll send you a $5 Starbucks gift card.”
If your goal is to drive drop-in traffic to your office or a crowd to an event, work with a vendor to incorporate mapping into your variable data. And don’t forget that the closest location is not necessarily the most convenient for your client or prospect. Consider showing a map with your closest location in each compass direction, so that the client or prospect has options. Use the map to highlight times and dates of special programs so that if your client is busy one night, he or she will know that there are other times or locations.

Determine what information you have about clients and prospects, how the information is housed and who “owns” the information, if you are working with a mailing vendor. You will want to learn about legacy systems, desktop systems and what resources, if any, are available to work with your client and prospect data. In many companies, IT resources are at a premium, and you may have difficulty getting resources allocated to your project. Once you have identified the type of information you have on target clients and prospects, your next challenge is to identify how much more information you need.

The next task is to decide upon the components of your direct mail package. Will your mailing be simply a letter in an envelope or are you enclosing a response form and return envelope? How will the components of your mailing impact the amount of information you will need? In your planning session with the vendor, you should also identify cost expectations and limitations, cycle time expectations and quality expectations. These expectation lists will help streamline the bidding process, if you’re using planning to use a vendor to produce your direct mail program. Your priority and expectations lists should be used to create written specifications. It’s also extremely helpful to mock up your package to see how your ideas translate to a personalized direct mail package. The mock up will show what works and what needs more thought as you write the specifications for your program.

If you will be working with a vendor, meet in person to review specifications and expectations. It’s critical to take this step early on to avoid disappointment and frustration later. Ask suppliers to suggest formats that will meet your program needs and expectations. Encourage suppliers to design your programs so that it best fits their equipment rather than precisely follow your specifications. This may save time and money. Ask your vendor to explain their personalization capabilities and limitations. It’s important to understand what is efficient in addition to understanding what is possible. For example, special die-cut windows and glossy varnishes may sound exciting but may add unnecessary complexity and cost to your simple birthday mailing.

While it may seem obvious, it is important to select the vendor who can meet your product design requirements and meet your cost, cycle time and quality expectations. Ask for references if you haven’t worked with the vendor before and ask the references about their best and worst experiences implementing a new program. You’ll want to hear that any difficulties were minimal and that the implementation or transition was close to seamless. Every direct mail vendor should get better with practice, but it’s the planning and expertise that goes into a new mailing effort that can distinguish a good vendor from a great vendor.

Personalization used to amount to including a name, an address and a ten-word message in your mailing. Today’s technology and databases provide opportunities to draw attention to your offer and make it stand out amidst the many envelopes in a client or prospect’s mailbox. A special, personalized letter and reply device addressed to that audience of one will create interest, desire and the call to action you need for a successful campaign.

Deborah Haskel is vice president of marketing at IWCO Direct, based in Chanhassen, Minn. the company is a major provider of direct marketing solutions.