Katie doesn’t “tweet”. She doesn’t “like”. She has no “fans”. She has no followers. She isn’t even “linked” to anyone, and yet, she runs a successful, profitable five person engineering firm. She does it all the old fashioned way: paper, stamps, and the U.S. Postal Service. Yes, shocked reader, Katie uses direct mail as her primary way of drumming up business. This is how she finds them. This is how she pitches to them. This is how she does her marketing. At about a buck a piece.
Is this shocking news in 2012? A small business that still uses direct mail? Is Katie serious? How can she not be using all those amazing social media tools everyone who’s anyone is using? She’s so old fashioned. She must read a newspaper too and use a house phone. She must be watching the majority of her TV shows on her TV and driving a car that uses gasoline!
Katie’s not alone. Yes, the direct mail industry has been shrinking, but it’s still a $13 billion a year industry. Why? Because to thousands of small business owners direct mail makes sense. Katie, like many of my clients, relies on some form of direct mail to grow her business. In 2012 using direct mail is easy, cheap and, if done the right way, amazingly effective.
Katie uses Vistaprint, but they’re not the only game in town. I have many clients who choose PrintPlace or PsPrint Others like to use local printers or independent direct mail consultants. You can find many of these people at the Mailing & Fulfillment Service Association.
The online services are easy to figure out. You have a list of prospects, customers and others in a spreadsheet. You upload the spreadsheet, pick out the piece, create the content, and pay. They print and mail for you.
Katie’s weapon of choice is a postcard. Postcards are less expensive to buy and cost less to mail. She sticks a photo or a graphic on the front and on the back she does something very unusual: she doesn’t promote her company. Instead, she tells a story.
Like the other month when she and her husband took their five granddaughters to Washington DC. They had fun and they took lots of pictures. One of these photos, a happy shot of the seven of them in front of the White House, made it to the front of her next month’s postcard mailing. On the back Katie wrote about the experience, how patriotic it made her feel, what a great country we live in, etc. Yes, of course there’s a little tag line promoting her business on the bottom of the card, but the rest of the card was the story.
People like stories and they want to build trust. They want to get to know us before doing business with us. They want to feel as if they have a relationship with us. We all get so many advertisements, bulk emails, commercials and sales letters that we become immune to the message. Katie does something different. She uses her postcards to reach out and connect with her audience.
Her audience is everyone in her community. That means customers and prospects, suppliers, partners, friends, and associates. Katie has about a thousand on her list. She keeps them all in a database so she can update their information when it changes and add new people as she connects with them.
Her intention is to reach out to her community just once a month, using a simple postcard, to keep in touch and to tell a story. And it works.
“I have people calling me that have been getting my postcards for years who say “I love your stories and now need your services,”” she told me. Katie gets it. She realizes that she can’t put a gun to people’s heads and say to them: buy from me. She needs to be touching her community frequently enough so that she’s thought of when an opportunity comes up.
A few things I learned from her.
Don’t skimp on the graphics. Sometimes Katie uses an experienced graphic artist to create a design for her, like her company logo. Her photos are taken from a real camera, not a cell phone. She frequently gets high resolution royalty-free photos from morgueFile, funny magazine covers from MagMyPic and once or twice she’s played a few tricks with her photos on befunky. It’s all about creating something unique and fun that stands out so people will read her little story.
Keep it short, sweet and personal. Never advertise your company, she told me. Don’t self promote. Just tell a story about you that a person will enjoy reading. If you can’t think of anything then tell a story about a friend or family member that affected you or give a customer space on a mailing to tell their story. Stories are interesting. “People tell me they look forward to getting my postcard every month,” she says.
Mix it up. It doesn’t have to look the same every month. Maybe one month you send a normal letter. Or another month you send a different sized postcard. The idea is to attract a little attention.
Once you start, stay committed. “Doing a one-off mailing is a waste of money,” says Katie. “I’ve been doing mine for five years now, every month. It has to be a commitment.” Katie chooses direct mail, as opposed to social media, email, telemarketing and other forms of communication as her primary way of keeping in touch with her community. She commits. Somewhere some ad-man said that it takes at least 20 times of viewing an ad before someone remembers it. That seems about right.
Wow, a successful small business owner who uses direct mail in lieu of social media. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that a series on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre that follows the lives of an aristocratic British family and their servants during the reign of King George V would be a huge hit in this age of Glee and Real Housewives.
Besides Forbes, Gene Marks writes weekly for The New York Times and Inc.com.