Direct Mail can be the most lucrative marketing tool you’ll ever use — if you use it correctly. Yet most people waste wads of money on ineffective mailings because they don’t know how to do it right.

In my years of experience, I’ve noticed some common — yet easily fixed — direct mail mistakes. Understanding some of these “wrongs” can help keep you on the right track:

Sending mail to the wrong list. You’re only wasting postage if you send a “$79 Tune-up Special” to apartment dwellers or “Air Conditioner Replacement” offer to new homes. Use either your in-house customer list or a list from a good broker according to three things: primary interest or applicability; perceived or encourageable need; and ability to pay for the service. Also, segment your list. Don’t offer to the world. Trim your list down to the areas that you want to blanket, one section at a time.

Sending the wrong message. Your company’s message and selling proposition should be clear in every mailing. Are you the low-price leader? The high service place? Are you only sending out manufacturers' pieces because they’re co-opped? In other words, who are you, and what do you stand for? Make this point in at least a minor way with every public message.

Not getting people inside your envelope. If people don’t open your envelope, it’s going to be darn hard for them to respond to the offer. Most contractors put mailings in company envelopes with stick-on labels that virtually scream “I’m junk!”

If you insist on letterhead, warn your prospects with a well-worded envelope teaser, such as, “If you’ll take four minutes to read this letter, I’ve got a $50 gift and another ‘secret’ that’ll make your time worthwhile.” Then offer $50 off an annual maintenance (or whatever). The free gift can be a service coupon.

On direct response offers, many choose the well-tested “personal-looking” hand or laser-addressed mail with a simple return address. Then use a “live” postage stamp to complete the effect. This approach (called “shielded mail”) significantly outpulls company-looking mail. It’s a huge crime to put an otherwise strong direct response offer in a bulk mailed, company looking envelope. That kills response.

Making all of your mailings sales messages. Ironic as it sounds, the interspersing of non-sales messages improves your sales message responses! Why? Because you’re building trust, and trust rewards with a like-kind response.

Try “Happy Cards” thanking customers, or “appointment-reminder” cards. Or maybe an “I’m checking in on you” card following your proposal. My all-time favorite is a well-written newsletter. They inform, entertain, befriend, and softly ask for the sale. Consider sending one out two to four times per year, then watch your repeat sales and referrals soar.

“Junking” up the offer. Don’t overdo it with a bunch of meaningless stuff. You know what I’m talking about . . . logos everywhere, a few reckless offers, a starburst with another feature, clip art of Wally the Friendly Service Tech and something witty like “Get Cool Deals During Our Summer Sell-A-Bration!” Just talk to homeowners like human beings who want to improve their lives in some measurable way. Stick to this and you’ll do fine.

The “Me” syndrome. Avoid phrases like: “We’re the biggest, oldest, fastest, best, cheapest, most convenient, won the most awards, hold several degrees and belong to many organizations.” Instead, tell prospects what’s in it for them, and you'll be light-years ahead of your self-impressed, babbling competition. Remember, your prospect’s most important person is himself.

Offering no value. Don’t ask your “special” customer to read your “special” offer that contains nothing special. It’s insulting. Give them a real reason to be reading your letter. Good copywriters can build value and benefits so high that a customer’s main question becomes, “Why wouldn’t I call them?” Offer value, express value, give value.

Not clearly asking for action. If you leave out your “call to action,” you leave your customer hanging. Be firm but polite: “Call us now for your free indoor air quality survey.” Or even casually firm, “Call us today — even Saturday — and say, ‘I want the best air conditioning in town, with no money down!’” Tell your prospect what you want him to do!

Not following up. Here’s a secret: If you do ONE mailing and stop, you’re giving away piles of money. A second mailing with “2nd notice” or “I tried to reach you before but. . .” will boost your response rate dramatically. Don’t throw in the towel after one try. Buy two more stamps and get the job done.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a creative marketing firm for contractors. CB readers can get a free sample of the Summer Customer Retention newsletter by faxing your request to 334-262-1115. You can also call Hudson, Ink at 1-800-489-9099 to request the free report “Get More Leads in Less Time” or visit www.hudsonink.com for other free marketing articles and reports.