The Things That Sell the Best by Direct Mail

Sometimes, the products and services that sell the best and make you the most money are surprising and even somewhat ridiculous — things your competitors would never dare do. But these days, you sometimes have to do outrageous things just to get people’s attention. We live in an oversaturated marketplace.

Now, I’m not trying to be negative here; the positive part of all this oversaturation is the fact that it mostly consists of the blind leading the blind. Most marketing is homogenized and boring. Nothing really stands out — and that is the key to what I’m trying to describe here. You’ve got to do things that shock people, things that wake them up. You have to do things that generate tremendous excitement: things that sound really good, with big, bold promises people notice. People remember it when it’s crazy, over the top, even a little scary to you.

When you’re using direct mail, there’s one point you must never let yourself forget: always, always test small first, especially when you think an idea is over the top. Let’s say you have a list of a thousand good, qualified prospects. You can have a wild, over-the-top offer and send it out to only 50 of those people. If it doesn’t work, you’re only going to lose a little money — whereas if you sent it to everyone and it didn’t work, you might end up broke. That’s one of the beautiful things about direct mail: you can test variations of your big, elaborate direct mail packages to small portions of your list. If something works, you roll it out to the bigger list.

We call it lumpy mail, because you often put all sorts of trinkets inside the package to make it bulky. These things cost you money, but that’s just another example of doing things that are surprising, if only because they’re different. We’re living in a market and age now where most marketers are afraid to stick their necks out, for fear of offending people. You can’t make that mistake. You have to be a little crazy to get noticed.

Here’s a real-life example of how this works. Once upon a time, I was testing a number of front-end offers for new customer acquisition. I had scheduled 10 different test mailings, where all I was doing was changing the headline on page one of a 12-page sales letter that sold a low-cost offer. I ran out of ideas on the ninth, so I used what I honestly believed, at the time, was the most obnoxious, dumbest idea I could think of for the 10th.

It violated all the rules of direct mail. It wasn’t short, simple, and to the point. In fact, it took up most of the first page of the letter, using lots of words in a large font. I never expected it to work, but it outperformed the other nine by a long shot. It became my company’s control, which meant we kept using it, testing new pieces against it to see if we could do better. We mailed millions of those letters… all as a result of an accidental discovery.

Sometimes I think we direct marketers try too hard. We want to get it perfect, and I personally fall prey to that all the time. In this case, I just threw something unusual out there — and it worked.

I think you should test as much as you can using direct mail. Look for things that are newsworthy and outrageous. Look for things that scare you a little. As long as you’re testing small, you don’t have to worry about losing a lot of money. If it works well — and it might, if it does go over the top and grab people’s attention — you can make a fortune. I’ve seen this in other markets, too. Some of the most outrageous offers are some of the most successful. They’re shocking, they’re different, and they capture the imagination.

Another thing that works exceptionally well is to make people feel special. Offer them something exclusive, something most people will never have, and they’ll get excited about it. On the TV show 60 minutes, I once saw a piece about a restaurant in New York City that charges the most outrageous prices in the world — but they have no prices on their menu. They even have a sign in the restaurant that says something like, “If you need to know the prices of the food we serve, you shouldn’t be here.” You might think it would insult people who go in there and aren’t told what they’re going to be charged. But they’re always busy. It’s crazy what some people can get away with!

Another thing that really gets people’s attention is to tell them the unvarnished truth about your offer. Tell them it’s great, it’s powerful, it’s something they should have — but it’s not 100% perfect. One of my colleagues once helped a dealer sell telephones he’d gotten for a very good deal. (They weren’t cell phones, because this was many years ago.) Among the things my colleague wrote in the advertising copy was, “These phones are as good as any you’ll ever find on the market, from AT&T or anyone else. There’s only one thing wrong with these phones: Every one of them is black.”

Sales went right through the roof, because people didn’t care if they all were black when they could save so much money. So tell the truth about the product, and also tell the truth about yourself. Show them you’re a flawed human being. Tell them about mistakes you’ve made in the past, how you overcame those mistakes, and how you’ve found something special you want to share. That’s a powerful thing.

People love stories, and a story often told in the moneymaking business is, “I was broke. I was dumb. I didn’t know what to do. I found this miracle way to get rich. I’m rich now, and I’m going help you get rich.” Hell, that’s my story. I think that was a powerful thing at first, but there are so many clowns using that story now that I can’t help but believe that it’s nowhere near effective as it used to be.

But still, tell the truth about yourself and your products, while putting them in the best possible light despite that truth. You can even tell people things about yourself that you might not ordinarily want them to know. The late Gary Halbert was famous for this. He wrote some ads for a client who was apparently involved in some illegal activities, and he was actually sent to jail for a year and a half. The average person would keep their mouth shut about this. But in his sales letters and newsletters, Gary talked freely about it. He even wrote a manual about his experiences in a federal penitentiary: what he learned there, what was good about being there, and also what was terrible.

Consumers really appreciated Gary and his work. In person, he was apparently hard to get to know, and kept people at a distance. But in his writing he came across as an open individual with no secrets, a person who would tell you anything. Thousands of people gravitated to him, to either subscribe to his newsletter or to hire him as a copywriter — and he was a very good one.

Shock people. The bestsellers wake people up from their mundane existence. Most of us are living routine lives in which we do the same things every day, over and over. There’s very little to distinguish one day from the next. As a marketer, you have to get people to open their eyes and pay attention to you. People are so busy with their own affairs that they just float through life, going through their routines and sometimes missing good offers they might otherwise love. That’s why you need to create offers that really do surprise people and get them to pay attention.

One caveat: These must be legitimate offers selling products and services you can deliver on. Don’t shock people with lies; even if your statements are outrageous, prove they’re true. When you do that, you get people to pay attention — and more importantly, you get the right kind of people to pay attention, while repelling the rest (at least for that particular offer). You have to do things that stir emotion in them, get them charged up, get them alert, awake, and ready to respond to your offer.

If you’re using direct mail, you can do that without worrying about losing your shirt. That’s the good news, the one strength that no other form of selling has except for using live salespeople. But a real salesperson costs you a lot of money. Direct mail is more fun and lets you sell your offers more economically, in a way that completely and totally separates you from everybody else.