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Direct Mail With Promotional Products

By Connie O’Kane

There are few things as certain as the effects of lumpy mail. If there’s a mysterious bulge in a letter, it will get opened. Promotional products can provide the lumps — but whether you can keep recipients interested once the mail’s opened is up to you.

It’s a question marketers have pondered for decades: What do consumers think when they see their daily mail? How do they decide what lives and dies on the kitchen counter each night? If there’s one, time-honored, academically-tested, common-sense consistent maxim when it comes to mail, it’s that “lumpy lives.”

Once a recipient figures out that a piece of mail isn’t a check or a bill (as for trying to disguise your mailing as a bill or a check – well, you know who you are), the only thing that gets the envelope opened is curiosity. A strong brand name or good teaser copy can often do that, but there’s an even better way – make the recipient wonder what’s inside.

This is where the right kind of promotional product can work wonders, even for the smallest company. Enclose something as simple as a ballpoint pen, refrigerator magnet, comb, letter opener, golf tee, etc., and your envelope suddenly has a perceptible bulge. If a target thinks he’s going to get something for free, he’s going to open your mailing – usually before anything else. Understand, he might not need the product – he might not even read much of the material immediately – but he will open it.

“The minute you add dimension in terms of thickness, it immediately attracts attention and begins to beg to be opened,” says Ken Erdman, a promotional consultant and author with extensive direct-mail experience. “It gives people a sense of getting something of value. That’s the simplest thing of all.”

Lumpy Mail Defined
You probably know what lumpy mail is already, but just in case, here’s the formal definition: Anything that has more dimension than a standard number-10 business envelope.

The most basic type of lumpy mail is the number-10 with a telltale bulge that doesn’t quite reveal what’s inside by feel alone. And many direct marketers go no further than that.

But lumpy mail can also be defined as mailing tubes, wedges, boxes and other three-dimensional pieces. These can work wonders with regard to response rate. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, there’s simply no way that a package isn’t going to be opened by the addressee. “The unofficial law is, the lumpier the package, the greater the expectation of having it opened,” Erdman says.

Proof By The Sackful
Hey, don’t just take our word for it about the appeal of lumpy mail. Testimonials flow in from case histories, anecdotes and academic research.

In the 1990s, Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), the industry’s nonprofit trade association, ordered a study of lumpy mail as part of research it commissioned from Baylor University. According to Dr. Marjorie Cooper, the Baylor marketing professor who ran the project, three versions of the same mailing went out to different groups.

One group received only sales literature and a postage-paid bounce-back card. Another received the literature, the card and a three-color highlighter. The third group received everything the second group did, but the mailing was “dimensional,” i.e., packaged in a copy-covered box.

The results? The plain mailing received a 1.9% response rate. Adding the highlighter alone bumped the responses by 11%. Putting the materials in the box, however, resulted in a 3.3% response, a full 73% higher than the first mailing. “If there’s something in [a mailing], it’s going to have a huge impact,” Cooper explains.

It’s most impressive, however, when those response rates are turned into hard cash. Jon Goldman, a counselor who’s been nicknamed “Mr. Lumpy Mail” in the promotional products industry, developed a promotion for a company that wanted clients to attend its seminars. The campaign was a series of three mailings. The first was sent out in a specially designed box and contained a flat pen and a round coin imprinted with the word “tuit,” as in “… when I get a round tuit.” This play on words was aimed at getting potential procrastinators to sign up immediately.

The message escalated with the next mailing, which held a sand-filled hourglass bearing the copy, “Time is running out.” The final mailing contained a miniature trash can that said, “Be careful of what you throw in the trash. It could be worth millions.”

All that postal pestering paid off. The company brought in $175,000 in registration fees in three weeks – including a single, spectacular $50,000 day.

Creativity Unleashed
A great thing about lumpy mail is that it can spur greater creativity from promotion planners and copywriters. One clothing manufacturer, for example, enclosed a plastic harmonica with a mailing. In the accompanying copy, the company’s marketing director related a story about how her father always asked for song requests when he played the harmonica, saying people connected better if they felt someone was listening to their suggestions. The letter ended with, “Harmonica enclosed. What tune would you like played for you in the millennium?”

Some promotions combine a soft sell with the right kind of product for a memorable effect. One of Erdman’s favorites (which he created for a client) was a stuffed mouse packed in a small green box designed to look like a house with Christmas decorations. It was accompanied by a rolled up poem signed by the company’s staff. There was no product information – just good wishes for the holidays.

And Erdman is currently planning his own lumpy mail promotion for his newest book, How to Break Out of Your Shell and Lead a Successful Life. The book’s cover will feature an egg, so he plans to mail out plastic Easter eggs with a note inside to book reviewers around the country. “When they open the egg, there’s going to be a story about my book,” he says. “At least the book reviewers will know that I have one!”

A Few Caveats
Since scanners read addresses and mail is handled by machines whenever possible these days, it can sometimes be tricky putting an irregular-shaped object into the mail. There are postal regulations on exactly what can be mailed and how, and rates change based on shape and concept. A mailing more than a quarter-inch thick requires more manual labor, for example. In most cases, you’ll probably want to consult a mail expert – and your counselor will be ready to help you with that.

Then there’s the question of cost. Depending on your objective and budget, you can spend a lot or a little on the lump (or lumps) in your lumpy mail. When you mail small boxes with a promotional product enclosed that are impressive enough to carry the charm they need to, the price per piece rises. “Lumpy mail is more expensive, no doubt about it. But you get what you pay for,” Erdman says. “The fact that it’s more expensive only means it’s going to work better, and the amount you spend on it depends on what kind of profitability you’re going to get out of the eventual sale.”

One way to justify lumpy mail costs to your accounting department is to use the same logic you would apply to all your promotional efforts. If you have an expensive enough product to promote, your price per piece can be higher. “If I’m selling locomotives, where it’s a million-dollar thing, I can afford to spend $25 or $30 on a piece of lumpy mail,” Erdman says. “All I have to do is sell one. If I’m selling something at $5.95, then maybe my lumpy mail is going to be something that costs me 50 cents.”

In many instances, lumpy mail can be incredibly cost-effective. For what amounts to pennies, you can add an imprinted item to an envelope and drastically increase the odds that the piece will be opened. You’ve already invested a sizeable sum in copywriting, design and planning to come up with your mailing piece. Think of that promotional lump as insurance.

Qualify, Qualify, Qualify
For those firms familiar with direct mail, getting a lumpy mail campaign going isn’t much harder than dropping a pen in an envelope. But more sophisticated programs quickly increase your time and effort. Things like qualified lists, choice of promotional products and follow-up become critical elements.

Goldman believes some lumpy mail programs go wrong because companies don’t start with a qualified list. With a properly targeted group that might buy from you, you and your counselor can make a far more intelligent choice of promotional products. If, for example, you pare your list down from 500 to 250, you can spend twice as much on the product and remain within budget. Further, with a clearer picture of the kind of people who are on the list, you can get a better idea of the type of products you want to use.

Choosing Products
It’s easy to think of promotional products that can put the lump in lumpy mail – pencils, magnets, jar openers, candy, notepads and scores more. But there are others you might be surprised would fit into a number-10 envelope. For instance, there are flat miniature flashlights and small sound-chips that can fit into a card or a keytag.

But like anything, choosing the right product requires careful thought. You can send an item that makes a fine lump, but it might tear the envelope as it makes its way through the mail. There are also products that seem like good ideas but won’t really get the job done. “There are some things that are very cute, but for a mailing [they] don’t make sense,” Goldman says. On the other hand, products you might think dull can work wonders in the lumpy-mail arena.

In fact, the selection of your promotional product should only come after vigorous consultation with your counselor. Matters of taste, need, budget and promotional fit will be among the issues you’ll discuss.

Still, while narrowing down your mailing list to the most qualified prospects may allow you to spend more on each, just laying out gobs of money for a costly product doesn’t guarantee a winner. “If you look like you’re trying too hard, you lose the trust factor,” Goldman says. It may seem a little shocking that you can send something too nice, but it can happen. If you send a crystal vase to someone who doesn’t really know your company or products, you’ll awaken her suspicions – the idea of “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” or “If they’re sending such nice presents, are they overcharging for their products?”

Eliminating the possibility of such a faux pas means knowing the target audience and taking it slow. Goldman favors a series of mailings using different promotional products each time. He also likes to include premium offers with mailings. “It motivates a person to take an action,” he explains. If a customer fills out a response card or does something else you want in order to get a product sent to them, you have that much more of a relationship with them and know them that much better. Goldman thinks promotional products should also be used for the follow-up premium. In his experience, targets respond to gifts better than something like discounts.

Essential Checklist
Much of what’s involved with lumpy mail is the same for all direct mail, but it bears repeating. Run down this checklist as a first step toward increasing your response rate, recognition and ROI.

Find your target audience. Existing customers, a list you bought, a well-maintained database, warranty cards; all of these help you find people who are likely to be interested in your firm. Make sure you’re sending “lumps” to those people.

Know the response you want. Your mail efforts are driven by your expectations. For example, you’ll take a different approach if you expect targets to send you money with their response card as opposed to just coming in to take a test drive.

Do your own tests. If you don’t want to pay for an entire lumpy-mail program right away, try an experiment. Send out your standard mailing, but send a lumpy envelope to a small portion of your list. Then track the results to see if the response was appreciably higher (it almost always will be).

Be consistent. Make sure your copy and graphics tie in with the product. Take your most promotable feature and hammer it home in your copy. Don’t just drop a pen in with a monochromatic form letter and expect wonders.

Crunch those cost numbers. When your response from a lumpy mailing comes back, figure out the response rate and project that on your increased sales. Did the extra profit from the sales pay for the mailing? In short, take the time and effort to pin down the payoff. You’ll be happy with what you find.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Connie O’Kane is senior writer of Imprint.

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