Direct mail can be the most lucrative marketing tool you'll ever use. The cost, instantaneous response, and sheer controllability of direct mail makes it a superb lead generator. Plus, it's a great fit for HVAC due to the high-margins in a relatively uninformed marketplace.

Yet most people use it very poorly. They waste wads of money on ineffective mailings because, like most people attempting direct mail, they were never educated in it.

Education comes from skill and experience. Although our arsenal of letters end up in roughly 2 million mailboxes a year, I'm still learning with every mailout. Thankfully, I'm pretty sure I'm getting better by doing as many things as I can right. By the same token, I also want to do very few things wrong. (Isn't that a brilliant plan? I recommend it highly.)

Now, one thing I've noticed in my years of experience is that there are some common — yet easily fixed — direct mail mistakes. Understanding some of these "wrongs" can help keep you on the right track:

1. Sending mail to the wrong list. You can offer me a free nuclear submarine, and even if I could melt small countries before cruising to Borneo undetected, I'm not interested.

So when you send your "$79 Tune-up Special" to apartment dwellers, or "Furnace Replacement" offer to new homes, you're wasting good postage. And when you send your "$500 Rebate" to customers who just paid you full book price, you're asking for an angry phone call.

Use either your in-house customer list or a list from a good broker according to these three things: The primary interest or applicability; the perceived or encourageable need.; the ability to pay for the service. You'll do great.

2. Sending the wrong message. Your company's message and selling proposition should be clear in every mailing. Spread your mailings for the last year flat on a table. Is there a unifying thread? Sadly, if you're like 80% of the HVAC contractors, probably not.

Are you the low-price leader? The blue blood dealer? The high service place? Are you only sending out manufacturer's pieces? (Bad idea.) 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. Your public will make the association, I promise.

3. Not getting people inside your envelope. Here's an obvious yet overlooked statement: if people don't open your envelope, it's going to be darn hard for them to respond to the offer.

Most HVAC'ers 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 bill and another 'secret' gift that will 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 typically outpulls company-looking mail.

4. Making all of your mailings sales messages. Do you have any "friends" who only call you to get something or ask a favor? What kind of friend are you when you do this to your customers? Not a very good one, and friends like to do business with friends.

There are many "non-selling" mailouts that make money. 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. Think about it.

Use "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. There are some truly terrible examples out there, but good newsletters are a gold mine. They inform, entertain, befriend, and softly ask for the sale.

Newsletters reflect relationships more than money. Consider sending one 2-4 times per year, then watch your repeat sales and referrals soar.

5. Not testing offers. Some people think that when an offer under-performs, it's only a little wasted postage. But that's only a fraction of your true loss.

Let's say 5,000 untested letters produce a .75% response. Not bad. But if you'd tested and found that a headline change produced a 1.2% response, your leads would've risen from 37 to 60 and average system sales (based on a 35% closing ratio) would've gone from 13 to 21. This "little wasted postage" actually cost you $35,000 in sales.

I've seen similar-sounding offers produce a 340% increase! Test at least 1,000 pieces. When you achieve your benchmark (1%+/-), roll out the rest.

6. "Junking" up the offer. Say you have a copywriter whose direct mail reads pretty good. Yet you soon notice seven typos, improper grammar, poor punctuation, and enough other ills to bring your high school English teacher to tears.

No matter how good your offer may be, your mistakes will reek of unprofessionalism. No big deal, you say? Dan Quayle achieved the Vice Presidency, yet he's mostly remembered for misspelling "potato." Ouch. Get a good proofreader to save you embarrassment and money.

You can also "junk up" by just plain overdoing it. You've seem them: logos everywhere, a few reckless offers, a starburst with another feature, clip art of Wally the Friendly Service Tech, and then something witty like "Get Some Cool Deals During Our Summer Sell-A-Bration!" Oh, stop it.

Just talk to homeowners like human beings who want to improve their lives in some measurable way. That's all. Stick to this and you'll do fine.

7. The "Me" syndrome. Open your Yellow Pages right now, any section. Look for phrases like: "We're the biggest, oldest, fastest, best, cheapest, most convenient, won the most awards, hold several degrees and belong to many organizations." You see a similar trend in poorly-conceived direct mail.

Just tell your prospects how this benefits them, and you will be light years ahead of your self-impressed, babbling competition.

Grab a direct mail letter. Count the first-person pronoun use ("I, me, we, us, our") versus the second person use (you, your, etc.). When you tally up the results, you'll see whom the writer was most interested in. Prospects don't count this score, but the message comes through loud and clear anyway.

Your prospect's most important person is themself. Remember this or your letter is in the trash for sure.

8. Offering no value. A refrigerator magnet is nice. And thanks for the 10% off. Now what? 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.

9. Not clearly asking for action. This is like walking up to a beautiful girl and staring at her. Do you want to dance, or drool? Is she supposed to telepathically receive your message? Your customer is dying to dance with someone who is going to treat them fairly, honestly, and respectfully. Isn't that you?

If you leave out your "call to action," you leave them 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 AC in town, with no money down!'" Tell your prospect what you want him to do!

10. Not following up. This is an unforgivable sin. You pay for the list, the letter, the stuffing, and the postage. You get some leads and that's great. But if you wait a few more days, you're long forgotten.

Interesting point: 7-12% may have considered calling you, but only 1-3% actually did. What happened? Everything. The phone rang, the baby cried, and dinner was burning. The next day came, and you weren't on their minds at all. Nothing personal, just short-term memory doing its job.

Don't let them forget you! A direct mail offer can be improved by 277% on average with one simple twist: The call behind. Have an office worker or a bona fide telemarketer call to set up the appointment, restate the offer, or close the sale.

You can raise this response even higher if you'll "pre-market" your telemarketer with a little blurb in your letter: "We'll be calling in the next few days to make sure you received this letter and answer any questions you may have." Done. Now get to calling.

Encouraging Summary: Ten Times Your Money in direct mail
A 5,000-piece, 2-page mailing should cost you about $2,500. If it's for replacements, aim for ¾ to 1% response or 50 leads. Net out about 43 appointments, and at a 35% closing ratio, you've sold 15 systems. The $4,500 average system price yields $67,500 at a 45% gm, or $30,375. After commissions (roughly 7%) you've still got around $25,000 from $2,500 in marketing costs. Not a bad day's work.

Now you see why direct mail is so attractive, but it must be done right. Get a good list, a good letter, and do some good follow up. Soon you'll love direct mail as much as we do!

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a marketing firm for contractors. Readers can get a free marketing newsletter by faxing their letterhead with the request to 334/262-1115. You can also call Hudson, Ink at 800/489-9099 for help or visit www.hudsonink.com for many free marketing articles and reports.