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Direct Mail Strategies that Work

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I am a born-and-bred direct marketer. I learned about direct mail from the legends of the industry—Ed Mayer, John Yeck, Paul Sampson and Rose Harper—at a seminar for college marketing students sponsored by the Direct Marketing Association in the 1970s. And though I often recommend social media and other marketing strategies to clients of my marketing agency, direct mail is still my first love.

Like all direct marketing practitioners, I’ve been dismayed to watch the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) struggle for survival. As the organization tries to right its ship by cutting costs, it’s also trying to grow revenue by drumming up new business from mailers. That’s the right thing to do, but perhaps not the way the USPS is doing it.

Case in point: the latest USPS direct mail campaign mailed to my marketing firm this week. Here’s where the USPS went wrong and how to avoid this mistake in your smart marketing strategy.

Nice mailing, terrible list prep. The USPS is using direct mail to promote its shipping services to businesses, and they’ve done a lot of things right with their latest direct marketing campaign. They’ve selected the right target market and the right service, created an attractive, three-panel self-mailer and made a good offer: a free shipping kit. There’s a strong call to action, a personalized URL (PURL), and a QR code, many of the elements of effective business-to-business direct mail.

So what’s wrong with the mailing? The addressing. Our marketing agency got five copies of this promotion, and all were addressed to us at our old office suite number, though we moved three years ago. Even worse, only two were correctly addressed to individuals who still work here. Two were sent to me, one correctly addressed and one to Gean Gianfagna, an erroneous spelling of my name from an old list that never seems to go away.

Two others were addressed to former employees who moved on more than five years ago. One of these former staff members got the mailing in her maiden name and she’s been married for 10 years.

Yes, we received all the mail, so they effectively delivered it, and that’s to their credit. But how effective is the message when it’s sent to the wrong people? Especially people who are no longer at the address?

The shoemaker’s children? What’s most ironic about this direct marketing campaign is that the mailer with the list problem is the organization whose job is to deliver the mail. Why didn’t their merge/purge pick up the likely duplication between Jean and Gean with the same last name at the exact same address? Why is the suite number wrong on all the mail? And how did they end up using a B2B mailing list with data that’s at least five years out of date? Or in our case, 10 years?

Unfortunately, much of the investment in materials and postage to send it to us—five times over—was wasted on an outdated list and a bad merge/purge.

The key lesson for your smart marketing strategy. As a marketing consultant, I strongly believe in the value of direct mail in a marketing plan. I also know that every mailing list has errors and B2B lists are notoriously difficult to keep current.

But that’s what list hygiene is forto correct mistakes and get as much of the mail as possible delivered to the right people at the right place. To achieve this, you need to start with the highest quality mailing lists and follow the industry’s best practices for data management.

The most important lesson direct marketers can learn from this example is that no matter how creative your direct marketing campaign is or how valuable your offer, if you mail it to the wrong people at the wrong addresses, you’ve wasted your money.

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Jean M. Gianfagna is a marketing strategy expert and the founder and president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing which provides marketing strategy and creative services to leading business-to-business and consumer marketers. Read her blog for more marketing tips at