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Writing a mailshot

Most businesses send out mailshots several times a year, whether they are large-scale mailings, mass emails, or batches of individualised letters or emails to a dozen key customers or prospects. If the targeting and the message are right, you should get a positive response. If you get them wrong, it is junk mail and you have wasted your time and money.

You need a good list, a proven product and a strong message or offer, embodied in a compelling mail pack. But writing a successful mailshot need not be difficult, if you set about it the right way.

This briefing covers:

  1. Knowing what you are trying to achieve.
  2. Getting the content right.
  3. Essential tips on form and style.
  4. The keys to maximise your response.

1 Plan your approach

1.1 Know what objectives you want the mailshot to achieve.

  • You may want it to sell a product or to generate sales leads.
  • You may want to launch a new product or service or break into new markets.
  • You may want to drive readers to your website, blog or online shop.
  • You may want to enhance your service to existing customers by giving them up-to-date information.

1.2 Identify your readers, so you know what sort of approach is likely to work best.

  • What prior knowledge do they have about your product or service?
  • Why do they need what you are offering?
  • What do they want to hear about your product or service?
  • What are their likely objections?

1.3 Choose the right format. Mail and email are the two most common options but each needs to be written in a different way.

  • Most mailings will consist of a pack of one or more items, usually with a letter acting as the central piece.
  • A simple letter can work well so don't discount this option.
  • Email is instant, can be free and its results are easier to measure and track.

    HTML messages allow you to use graphics, logos and pictures to make your email messages more interesting. Consider inserting embedded links to take readers directly to your website, blog or online shop. Copy for email mailshots needs to be brief and factual.

Do not mail or email anyone who has not already expressed a desire to hear from you.

If you are renting or buying a mailing list, ensure the data has been cleaned so it complies with the mailing and telephone preference schemes.

12 ways to maximise response

  • Write a straightforward headline, featuring your main benefit, to start the reader off on the right track.
  • You have only seconds to make an impact. Get to the point immediately and avoid waffle in your opening sentence.
  • Explain your offer. Make sure the big benefits are in the first paragraph.
  • Show how your product solves the customer's problem.
  • Be clear. Be simple. Be convincing.
  • Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  • Focus on the reader and the reader's needs. When you are writing, talk to the reader directly, as 'you'.
  • Use the tried and tested attention-getting words - award-winning, bargain, big, bright, easy, first, free, improved, love, money, new, now, offer, safe, save, want, and, above all, you.
  • Avoid sounding self-important in the hope of sounding serious.
  • By ending a paragraph with a question, or ending a page in mid-sentence, you can tap into the cliffhanger effect and attract readers to read on.
  • Check through what you have written. Then ask someone who does not know your product or service to check through it again.
  • Read everything out loud. If it sounds strange or forced, it is - and you need to modify it.

Ten most common mistakes

  • You write the right mailshot, then send it to the wrong people.
  • You hedge your bets and fail to give readers one compelling reason to buy.
  • Your copy forgets to deal with the most obvious objection to a sale.
  • You fall for a witty headline that does not sell your product or service.
  • The copy makes exaggerated claims that people do not believe.
  • The brief is vague, so you get vague copy that fails to deliver a clear and targeted message.
  • Your letter annoys people by failing to explain the product or service clearly.
  • You turn people off by patronising them.
  • Readers misunderstand your offer, are disappointed, and leave you bearing the costs of a lot of returns and refunds.
  • Your excellent mail pack fails to make up for a product or service that is wrongly priced.

2 Making a start

2.1 The first step is to write yourself a brief.

  • The brief should be detailed and specific - who, what, when, where, why?
  • Consider the needs of different audiences and different market sectors.

    You should plan to write separate versions of the letter for different groups in your mailing list.

2.2 Identify one major benefit and lead with that. Other reasons can come later, but start by backing your most likely winner.

  • Forget trying to be clever. You do not need a smart idea.

    Finding a simple, powerful way to say what your product or service does for people will usually be the best approach.

  • If your product is truly unique or exclusive, say so.

2.3 Work out how to get the reader's attention.

  • Offer a tangible and quickly-realised benefit for an obviously reasonable price.
  • Other approaches include highlighting unusual product features, emphasising low prices, launching special offers and competitions and using startling headlines.
  • Send a free product sample, if this is relevant and viable.
  • Include a small gift, a voucher or an unexpected gimmick. Good gimmickry wins attention, even from serious corporate customers.

2.4 Find something new to say, even if your product or service is well established.

  • Brainstorm ideas. For example, think about new or unexpected uses or unlikely substitutes for it.
  • Look at it again as if you had never seen it before.

2.5 Be aware of topical links to outside events and your other marketing activities. For example, exhibitions and trade or consumer advertising.

  • Plan your copy to exploit seasonal factors and any known buying patterns.

2.6 Try out your ideas on other people.

  • Ask others, especially customers, to read your draft copy and tell you what the words mean to them.

3 Making it convincing

3.1 Make your offer sound credible.

  • Be direct, enthusiastic and honest. Do not write anything that is untrue.
  • Explain all the good reasons for buying.
  • Anticipate objections and counter them.
  • Make all the facts and figures you quote accurate and specific.

3.2 Use language your potential customers will feel comfortable with.

  • Tailor your wording to your audience - natural and relaxed for consumer mailings, more purposeful for business mailshots.
  • Match your tone to your company's image and your industry.

3.3 Offer plausible trade-offs.

  • 'Buy three, get one free' is attractive.

    Buyers can see you are trading off price against volume.

  • A trial offer of your product or service is powerful.

3.4 Exploit third-party material that backs up your claims.

  • Testimonials will always boost your success rate, especially a copy of an original letter.
  • Reprints of press cuttings give credibility.
  • Quote reputable and credible scientific studies that support your points.

3.5 Spell out the terms of your guarantee.

  • This is especially important if you are targeting new customers.

4 The letter

4.1 Make the letter as long as it needs to be to say what you need to say.

  • It is a marketing maxim that long copy outpulls short, as long as it is relevant.

    Research and response levels both show that even the busiest people will read on, if they get a whiff of a worthwhile benefit.

4.2 Use the formats that are successful for other people's direct mail.

  • Formatting devices - italics, bold, underlining, indenting and subheadings - can break up slabs of text. But beware of making your letter look messy.
  • The letter should look like a letter, rather than a piece of print.
  • Letters should be signed, preferably by hand - this can double responses.

4.3 Finish on a call to action.

  • The letter itself, the leaflet and the order form should each end with an exhortation to act: 'To do this, do this now.'

4.4 The PS is vital.

  • Restate your main point and call to action. Your PS will often be your most-read sentence.

4.5 When you have finished, proof read everything you have written.

  • Spelling mistakes and glaring errors of grammar will distract from your message.

5 Making the pack work

5.1 Make the writing and design work together.

  • A multi-piece mail pack should be planned as a whole, with one theme.

    This includes factors like the phrasing of the order form.

5.2 Personalise wherever possible, by using the recipient's name.

  • Apart from the letter and envelope, you may be able to pre-print names on reply cards and order forms.

5.3 Including several enclosures can increase your response rate, provided they are relevant and attractive.

  • You can enclose leaflets, price lists, case study sheets, photographs, testimonials, newspaper cuttings and order forms.
  • A pack with several pieces gives you several chances to put your offer across and get the reader hooked.

5.4 Encourage immediate buying decisions.

  • Offering a free gift or added benefits by a certain closing date is a proven way of boosting response.
  • Be aware that business customers and government departments may disregard any offer that comes with a free gift.

    Contact the Copy Advice Service (020 7492 2100 or visit www.cap.org.uk) to check the rules affecting free gifts and special offers.

5.5 Make it easy to reply and find out more.

  • Use a coupon with a Freepost address, or include a Business Reply envelope or reply-paid card.

    Call Royal Mail on 08457 950950 or visit www.royalmail.com for further information.

  • Always give a telephone contact point to encourage spontaneous enquiries.
  • Include your email and website addresses.

5.6 Provide an order or enquiry form that is as large and attractive as possible.

  • Repeat your main points, so the form can still clinch sales, even if it gets separated from the pack.
  • Make the instructions clear and legible.
  • Provide a faxback order form and a freephone number to encourage people to buy instantly by credit card.
  • If possible, print the name and address on the form. This removes another barrier to response and guarantees you a complete, readable address.

5.7 Offer as many payment methods as possible.

  • Consider giving interest-free credit for orders placed before a fixed deadline.
  • Offer existing customers their normal credit terms.

5.8 Make the most of the envelope.

  • Using a short message - printed or franked - can build interest in the message inside.

    You should usually repeat or build on this message as the headline for your letter.

  • Neatly handwritten envelopes are always opened.

    If you are a small firm, mailing a small consumer list, consider writing envelopes by hand and using stamps instead of the franking machine.

6 Using professionals

6.1 Should you write the mailing yourself or outsource the task

  • If you have a good knowledge of your product and the sort of people who buy, you can probably do it yourself.
  • Do a test mailing to a small proportion of your audience to find out quickly and cheaply if you can afford to take the DIY approach.

    If the reaction is nil or negative, take the hint and get help from a professional.

  • A good freelance should be able to work with you to write a well-thought-out letter and copy for your order or enquiry forms and price lists for a few hundred pounds.

    Even top direct mail specialists can often be brought in for less than £1,000 for a small job.

Search the Chartered Institute of Marketing's directory to find a consultant who can help (www.cimmarketingexpert.co.uk/mcd.aspx).