It all begins with a good envelope

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

Learning the basics of direct mail can be as simple as taking a look in your mailbox and studying what you find there.

As I discovered recently, despite my years in the direct marketing industry, I can be just another eager prospect when an intriguing envelope shows up in my mail.

Basic Direct Marketing Rule No. 1: the courtship for a customer begins or fails with the envelope.

In my case, I was enticed by a closed-face (no window), six-inch by nine-inch white envelope, properly addressed to my office in Markham, Ont., apparently by a good, old-fashioned typewriter.

Well, not really, but it was a good facsimile. I was immediately impressed that my name was spelled properly (no hyphens.) Further, it included the politically sensitive salutation of ‘Ms.’

So far, so good.

Now, there were a couple of dead giveaways that this was not a birthday card from Aunt Sadie.

Postage

First, the postage. Not a first-class stamp. Nor, on the other hand, pre-printed bulk rate indicia. It was metered for bulk rate at 20 1/2 cents and postmarked ‘Ottawa.’

Second giveaway was the return addressee – ‘The Honorable Barbara McDougall, P.C., M.P.’ – definitely not Aunt Sadie.

But, I was still interested. Why?

The envelope had accomplished a couple of things.

It had established credibility through the use of good-quality personalization. Although it was not stamped, being metered gave the perception of better quality than pre-printed indicia.

Plus, it did look as though there was a real letter inside. And, from one of our nation’s notables, no less. So, I opened it.

Primary mission accomplished. Get the envelope opened.

Sure enough, it was a letter, again, properly, personally addressed. Lost it a little with ‘Dear Ms Brown,’ but I was willing to allow that a computer could not figure out my double-barrelled surname.

The nice, hefty, buff-colored paper could reasonably pass for McDougall’s official, everyday letterhead. Two single-spaced pages were printed, one side only, in the now-familiar, pseudo-typewriter style.

(One might argue that printing both sides saves wasted paper, postage and promotes environmental consciousness, but that is another column.)

The great thing about political mailings is that no expense is spared. You get to experience the epitome of direct mail execution – all the things we would all love to do, but cannot afford.

And what a letter.

‘The prime minister and a small leadership group of The 500 – a prestigious group of generous party supporters from across Canada – have asked me to recommend several individuals for membership in The 500.

‘I consider it a special honor and privilege to recommend you to the prime minister.

Designed exclusively

The 500 membership is designed exclusively for key Canadian men and women who are leaders in their business and professional fields, as well as in their communities.’

There are those who might now argue that the role of the letter in a direct mail package has changed and can be downplayed or eliminated.

However, there are also many more vastly experienced practitioners who insist that a well-written and -executed letter is still essential to getting good response.

And they have proved it.

Did my letter qualify so far?

Opening

For starters, with the nation’s leader running a distant third in popularity polls, most likely 85% of those who opened the envelope threw the whole thing away after reading the first three words, so, I think the opener could have been better thought out.

But, setting political sentiments aside, was it a good direct mail letter?

Yes, provided the recipient was susceptible to somewhat saccharine forms of flattery.

I must confess, I did read it with some interest – and, that is the point – get the letter read, and your story told.

But there is more to it than that. What blew it for me was the next sentence: ‘ You are certainly recognized as such a leader in Western Canada.’ Oops.

A direct marketer’s classic nightmare.

After a good laugh, I read on. Why? Because I still wanted to know what it was all about. Would anyone who is not in the direct mail business? I doubt it.

Next came some background on The 500, which, according to the letter, is 1,500 people. (That is Ottawa-style counting, I guess.)

Then, an appeal to the future of my children and grandchildren (I do not have any.) And, an attempt to justify the ‘courage and strength’ it takes to make the Progressive Conservative government’s ‘unpopular decisions’ under Brian Mulroney.

Finally, the letter got to the point. It turned out that the purpose of McDougall’s piece was to soften me up to receive a ‘formal invitation’ from the big chin himself.

Just to make sure I got the point, there was also an enclosed, personalized card announcing my nomination for membership.

Such was the quality of the piece, I expected to find small print somewhere saying, ‘Keepsake, suitable for framing.’

More than a one-night stand

I now knew this was going to be more than a one-night stand, and I could look forward to a prolonged courtship.

Ten days went by.

This time, the envelope was closed-face, business-size. Again, ‘typewriter’ personalization of my name, a return address on Slater Street in Ottawa, and first-class, metered postage.

Inside: ‘It has come to my attention that a letter erroneously identified you as a resident of Western Canada.’ I knew that.

The next sentence spoke legions: ‘Mrs. McDougall was informed immediately of our error, and was disappointed that her message was incorrectly presented.’

It was signed, ‘Brian O’N. Gallery, National Chairman, The 500.’

Wait a minute. Wasn’t that her letter? Who was this guy? I had never heard of him. Why wasn’t McDougall doing her own apologizing?

So, now there was additional expense for another mailing, but the thought did not count for squat. Why?

The basic lesson missed, and it applies not only to direct mail, is the best and proven approach to damage control: have the ‘courage and strength’ to make an ‘unpopular decision’ to face the music head on. Remember Tylenol?

The letter went on to express regret and encourage me to ‘give every consideration’ to McDougall’s letter (too late) and the pm’s invitation. I could hardly wait.

Another four days went by. Then came a closed-face, buff-stock, business-size envelope, personalized, metered at 20-cent bulk rate, addressee ‘The Right Honorable’ himself.

Inside: letterhead, complete with gold-embossed Parliament Hill, two pages, one-sided, single-spaced.

‘Dear Ms Brown: One of the finest cabinet ministers ever from Ontario, the Honorable Barbara McDougall has nominated you for membership in The 500.’ No comment.

The letter went on to extol the virtues of the pc party and exclusivity of The 500; blamed our economic woes on past governments and ‘the chaos they left behind;’ mentioned that ‘The 500 members will be key to moving our renewal agenda forward and to winning the next election.’ Blah, blah, blah.

Enough, already. What was in it for me?

The seventh veil finally dropped on page two, paragraph five: ‘Your contribution of $1,000 or more will give our organizers the political tools they need now to build a winning campaign.’

That was not all.

Another card

There was another personalized, invitation-like card requesting the favor of a reply. And, a personalized rsvp form (with French-language option.) And, a postage pre-paid, cheque-sized reply envelope.

And, the piece de resistance, a slick, gold-embossed-plus-special-color-pc-blue brochure outlining the virtues of The 500 which ‘requires’ a ‘personal contribution’ of $1,000 per year.

And here I was all set up to think they wanted me for my ‘leadership.’

But there was a meager sop for my injured pride: ‘Your membership fee may be partly returned to you in the form of a $450 tax credit.’ Oh joy.

Final direct mail lesson for today.

This is the ’90s. Perceptions have shifted.

Successful appeals only to power, prestige and one-upmanship have gone the way of Michael Milken and friends.

If you want money, say so, and why – simply, clearly, without wasting time or paper.

If you are selling something, talk about yourself, your company and your product only in terms of direct benefit to your prospect.

And, please, if you make a mistake, do not look for a fall guy, or waste more paper and postage.

Imagine if Brian Mulroney’s letter had begun: ‘Sorry, we blew it.’

Would it not have fostered a much more positive impression? Then again, in his case, maybe not.

Barbara Canning Brown is a 20-year veteran of direct marketing and president of Markham, Ont.-based MISCO Canada, a direct marketer of computer supplies and accessories.