You check the calendar. Assuming your direct mail pieces left the post office on schedule, this should be the day when the reply cards start coming back in. That afternoon you check the day’s mail–nothing yet and no cards come in on the following day. You’re starting to get an unpleasant feeling that the thousands of dollars you spent on this latest direct-mail piece might not generate the results you want, but you don’t really know what you could have done differently.

Every time we examine our incoming mail, we make a decision: read or trash? If we recognize the sender and the item–bills, magazines, financial statements, etc.–we usually open and read the piece. But if we don’t recognize the sender or the item, we go through a series of quick decisions to determine if the item is worthy of review or if it goes immediately into the recycling bin. If we decide to open and investigate the piece, the next decision is whether we respond to it in the manner requested in the contents: call, mail, visit a Web site, etc.?

Given these hurdles, getting recipients to respond to your direct-mail solicitations is no easy feat. It can also be a relatively expensive way to generate leads, so it’s critical that you get it right.

Here are five strategies to increase your direct-mail success rate:

1) Target your recipients. Don’t waste money on unfocused mailings, says Marc Silverman, CFP, CLU, MDRT member and president of Silverman Financial Inc. in Miami, Fla. “There are all kinds of ways you can target direct mail,” says Silverman. “I might target people in a certain zip code, an area or an income threshold. You can go to Dun & Bradstreet or a similar publication and buy lists of people to whom you want to market with a direct-mail campaign.”

2) Keep your letter clear and succinct. You have to be very clear with your direct-marketing letters today and be sure they are compliance-approved if you are licensed through FINRA, Silverman cautions. If you are licensed, you must have any letter approved that you’re sending to a mass market. The text has to be more than compliant, however: It must also be effective. “We’ve found that sending out a first-class letter with a real stamp on it works better and gets more people to open it, than a postmark,” says Silverman. “And you must have something in the letter that’s going to grab the readers’ attention right away.”

3) Use the format to tell your story. Direct mail gives you the space needed to communicate with the reader, so why not use the space? Debora Haskel, vice president of marketing at IWCO Direct in Chanhassen, Minn., points out that the some of the earliest direct-mail pieces that went out were four-page letters and the format has proven its effectiveness. “That may be too long for some products and services today,” she notes. “But as opposed to where you might be limited to putting 50 words in with a statement mailing or an e-mail that you are hoping is going to get opened, direct mail really does let you tell a story, so you should take advantage of that attribute.”

4) Give people a reason to look to you for advice. If you wanted to do it as a two-step marketing offer, you could create some item that has perceived value to it, says Haskel. Then when you call or when you set up an appointment, you can provide whatever it might be: a book, some financial tool, an online calculator, that kind of thing. Other possibilities include reprints of articles that are written by perceived experts. Haskel urges against making the reader jump through too many hoops, however. “If it’s too hard for me to respond, if I have to put too much work into that response, it’s probably not going to work,” she warns. “You want to make it as easy as possible.”

5) Follow up by phone right away. If you don’t follow up with a call to respondents immediately, you’re dead in the water, Silverman observes. He’s found that the follow-up call is critical, but the call has only one purpose: Get the appointment. “You’re not trying to sell anything except the meeting,” he urges. I might say something like, ‘Mr. Smith, this is Marc Silverman from Silverman Financial. You were kind enough to read my direct-mail piece. You seem to have some interest in disability income protection and that’s exactly what we specialize in. Would next Tuesday be good or would Wednesday afternoon be better for me to get together with you to describe some of the pluses and minuses of disability income insurance?’ You want to ask for the appointment, you want to be succinct and you want a ‘yes, yes’ question when you’re trying to get that meeting.”