Letters still work, if they’re personal

As businesses embrace each new technology for marketing communications, they sometimes forget about the other methods that have worked well in the past. I understand fascination with the latest and greatest, but it’s no reason to neglect the tried and true.

“Savvy companies know that direct mail can still work wonders – if it’s handled correctly.”

For example, because email marketing has become so widespread, some businesspeople assume that direct mail must no longer be an effective strategy. Savvy companies know that direct mail can still work wonders – if it’s handled correctly.

A mailed letter can serve as a friendly, old-fashioned link between individuals. Carefully crafted direct mail can carry enough of a personal touch to convince customers and prospects that you’re really interested in their business – and for them to give you more of it. Maximizing the value of that personal connection is as easy as following ten common-sense bits of advice.

1. Don’t start with the letter. The world’s most well-written letter won’t turn a lousy offer mailed to a low-quality list into a success story. Make sure your offer is right and that you’re sending it to the right audience.

2. Package it correctly. Most often, your standard stationery is a good choice. Think that’s not exciting? It doesn’t have to be. Presumably, you’re not trying to fool or mislead anyone, so use your return address, not a service bureau’s or none at all. Using a stamp rather than a meter imprint implies that your letter is something individual, not a communication that’s been cranked out in volume. You’ll probably offset any additional cost with a higher return.

3. Personalize it. Does “Occupant” make you feel special? Does “Dear Businessperson” make you feel unique? Then why would either of those work with your audience? Make the extra effort (or investment) to personalize addresses and salutations. Don’t print them in ALL UPPER CASE, either – that’s a dead giveaway that you’ve sent a computer-generated letter.

4. Look simple. Your letter should look like a letter, not a trendy fashion magazine. Traditional fonts like Times or Courier may not be stylish, but they’re readable. The type should be large enough to be clear – 11 or 12 point is usually fine. If the length forces you to use smaller type, the letter’s probably too long. As a final test, ask everyone in the office who wears bifocals to review it. Watch their faces. If they appear to be in pain, your type is too small.

5. Call attention. Most people skim through a letter to determine whether it’s worth reading, so it pays to highlight key points. Underlining them works better than making them bold. Just don’t overdo it, because too much highlighting defeats the purpose. Read your letter aloud, raising the volume of your voice at the highlighted portions. If it sounds like you’re yelling at someone, you’re highlighting too much.

6. Write to Mom. Write the first draft to your mother. Your Aunt Agatha. Or your best friend. Anyone but a faceless prospect. Tell your mother (or Agatha) why she needs what you’re offering, why it’s a good deal, and how it will make her life easier. Then edit the letter gently to remove any too-personal references. If you’ve approached this honestly, you should have a letter that’s both friendly and compelling.

7. Emphasize benefits. Pay attention to the difference between features and benefits, and focus on the latter. “High-speed Internet” is a feature. Being able to download in half the time is a benefit. If you can’t think of the benefit, ask yourself why anyone would want the feature. Your answer will be the benefit.

8. Edit, edit, edit. Seasoned writers will tell you that the secret to good writing is rewriting. Use your first draft to capture your thoughts and the basic ideas. Then rewrite the letter to refine the message and make it more effective. Say the same things in fewer words. Clean up sentences that sound just a little clunky. Convinced it’s perfect? Walk away and edit it again the next day.

9. Sign it. People expect to see a real signature at the bottom of letters. Ideally, the signature should be in ink (blue is a good choice). Don’t have time to sign 500 letters? Then put that bored intern to work. If somebody else signs the letters for you, don’t let them add a slash with the “real” signer’s initials. That tells the recipient that he or she really wasn’t worth your time.

10. Add a postscript. Pay attention to all the “junk mail” letters you receive. You’ll notice that the vast majority include a “P.S.” at the end. Direct marketing professionals have a reason for everything they do, and they know that letters with a P.S. get better results. That’s because the P.S. is the third thing most people read (after the salutation and the signature). Use it to restate the key benefit of the letter, introduce a special offer, or plant a question in the reader’s mind.