10 Things Old School Direct Mail Can Teach You About Online Conversion

 The following is a feature article from Will Swayne, Managing Director at Marketing Results.


In the world of online marketing, there seems to be a constant buzz around “the Next Big Thing” – the next analytics tool, the next landing page template, the next social media strategy.

While many marketers (particularly those selling the Next Big Thing) would have you believe their new innovation is the magic bullet for solving all your marketing challenges, the underlying psychology of why people buy remains more or less constant.

Luckily, ever since Aaron Montgomery Ward launched the first mail-order catalogue in 1872, marketers have expended a ton of time and money testing what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to compelling people to buy or enquire.

Even though the marketing media might have changed, the lessons remain valid today.

In fact, a sound knowledge of direct marketing history and principles is one of the best ways to get a grounding in online conversion rate optimisation.


10 Tested Principles Direct Mail Can Teach You About Online Conversion

The following principles have been proven across a wide range of industries and scenarios, to the point where they have become “rules of thumb” that should only be violated with extreme caution.

1.  If it doesn’t get read, it doesn’t get responded to

Direct mail publishers found that readability is one of the most critical factors for driving response.   Hard-to-read fonts, layouts or colour schemes force the prospect to expend effort engaging with your marketing…and response inevitably suffers.

What does this mean for your online marketing?  Avoid tiny fonts.  Use high-contrast colour schemes (black text on white background is best).  Avoid reverse type (white text on black background), except for large headlines.  Break up text into short paragraphs, with subheads, bullets and other devices to aid scanning.

2. The more you tell, the more you sell.

Would a salesperson stop their presentation after 300 words?  No, they would keep selling until they get the sale.  The same principle applies in direct marketing.  Longer ads and letters with more words, typically outsell briefer pieces (providing the words are the right words, of course!).

Online, you’re not limited for space in the same way you are with a print ad or a direct mail letter.  So you have the luxury of adding more information, where appropriate.

That certainly does NOT mean everything has to use “long copy”.    What it does mean, is that you’re not limited by some artificially imposed “word count”.

You’re free to write as much as you need to, in order to get the prospect from where they are now to where they need to be in order to make a decision to opt in, enquire or buy.

3. Manage by fact, not by hunch

Direct marketers are typically sticklers for testing and tracking, and use the numbers to inform all marketing decisions.  When direct mail pieces cost a dollar or two apiece to send, you can’t afford to mail to unprofitable prospects.

Although the web allows even greater precision than direct mail when it comes to testing and tracking, some online marketers get lazy.  After all, email is “free”, right?

But with the cost of traffic steadily rising, online marketers are well advised to get back to rigorous management by the numbers.

4. Tell the prospect exactly what you want them to do

I recently came to blows with a business owner who wanted more leads and sales, but was afraid to come across as too “pushy”.

“Our customers are intelligent”, he said, “if they want to contact us, they know where to find our contact page.  We don’t need to keep telling them”.

140 years of direct mail testing would say otherwise.  Telling the prospect exactly what you want them to do next is the equivalent of “closing the sale”.  By leaving out this crucial step, you leave many prospects left hanging and… not buying.

5. There will be follow-up

It often takes much more than one contact with a prospect before they know, like and trust you enough to take the next step to enquire or buy.   The best way to ensure these multiple touches occur is to get the user’s contact details (starting with name and email address) via an opt in form and keeping in touch with information of value to the prospect, that also leads them closer to you.

6. Test everything, starting with these two big things

Great news: testing is much easier and cheaper to do online than offline.  Split testing is a staple of direct mail success, and years of experimentation have revealed that when it comes to achieving positive results through testing, the greatest leverage and lowest risk comes from testing these two big things:  your headlines; and your offers.

7. Use proven offers that pull response

While we’re on the subject of testing offers, certain offers are used in mail order promotions over and over again, for one simple reason: they work.

While the subject of offers is broad, typical mail order offers include: gift with purchase, bonuses with purchase, bonuses with purchases over $X, free shipping (with purchase over $X).   Where possible, try successful direct mail offers in your online promotions and watch your response climb.

8. Specifics outsell generalities

In legendary ad man John Caples’s book Tested Advertising Methods, he shares several examples of specifics outselling generalities in head-to-head advertising tests.

What does this mean for your online marketing? Don’t say you have “over 1,000” happy clients, say “over 1,233” (or whatever the real number is).   Don’t say “average cost savings of 50%+”.  Instead, say 48.7%.   Round numbers sound approximate, made up.  Specific numbers are more believable.  We’ve tested this and found response increases of up to 31.5%, simply by using specifics.

9. Choose images that sell

Direct mail is often regarded as a very “wordy” medium, but the truth is, many of the most effective direct mail pieces feature extensive imagery and detailed art design.

The acid test is, “if images get the selling message across better than words, use the image”.   But in offline and online advertising, images are very often selected not on the basis of selling power, but on the basis of aesthetic appeal.  Instead, try split testing images for response.

10. Boost sales by reducing the risk

Direct mail offers almost unfailingly feature some kind of risk reversal strategy, aimed at transferring transaction risk from the buyer, to the seller.

The most common risk reversal strategy is the guarantee.   Guaranteeing specific performance almost universally delivers a lift in response.   For the best results, guarantee the aspect(s) of the transaction that the buyer places most value on, or perceives the most risk in.

One of our clients, a plumber, found that his customers were very concerned with cleanliness following any plumbing work.   So they added a new guarantee: “If you’re not happy with the cleanup after the job, we’ll bring in a professional cleaner at our expense”.   It worked a treat.