How Paying for Postage Made me a Better Marketer

image of postage stamps

I have a confession. I’m a direct mail guy.

I’ve been responsible for over a billion pieces of mail. And when I say “mail,” I mean those paper things that come to your physical mailbox. (Good thing I didn’t have to lick the stamps.)

I’ve learned a ton from the online marketers I’ve been hanging around with the last few years. Your expertise in harnessing technology amazes me, and the speed with which you execute astounds me.

But as we all know — especially in the Copyblogger community — good great copy and creative raises all boats.

And anyone who claims to be “crushing it” online could, well, “crush it even more” if they paid as much attention to their copy as they do to the technology.

I have told the (almost true) story of my “childhood” in direct mail many times:

I walked 12 miles, uphill and barefoot, to work every day as one of the largest users of direct mail in the country early in my career … AND I paid postage!

Direct mail means discipline

What do I mean when I use the word discipline?

It means that everything I sent through the United States Postal Service had to be thought through in a way so nothing was wasted. Every test had to mean something. Every test needed to light the path to a potential breakthrough (and a new control package).

(A control package is the best-performing marketing piece you have so far. It’s the reigning champion, which means that it has to keep defending its title against punky up-and-comers. Direct mail marketers are always testing new approaches against that control to find the new winner.)

In fact, with the cost of postage and printing, the sale had to come quickly. To use Gary Vaynerchuk’s language: in direct mail, it’s harder to “jab” and you have to go for the “right hook” faster.

In other words, you don’t get much chance to build audience rapport with content alone, and you need to ask for the sale sooner rather than later.

But wise online marketers have an opportunity that should be used and not abused, given that its unlikely you’ll have to pay postage anytime soon …

Waste still sucks

The fact that you don’t pay for postage to send your marketing messages is not a license to beat your list into submission until they buy.

And discipline isn’t just something for guys like me who pay postage. It benefits every marketer, no matter what tools you use.

In the spirit of trying to take the discipline of direct mail into email and content, here are nine things that every marketer should consider before sending a billion pieces of mail … or before any marketer “hits send” to any number less than a billion.

#1: Use content strategically

Everything you send doesn’t have to sell something, but everything you send must achieve something.

Familiarize yourself with what different types of strategic content look like, and how they fit together.

#2: Deploy the ninjas

Hire or network with some heavy hitters who understand direct response and copy. (You can find smart people like this in the Authority forums.)

Get them signed up for all of your messaging. Listen carefully to what they tell you about how your copy looks when it gets where it’s going — and where you should be tweaking.

#3: Learn what you can’t know

You also want to find some “secret shoppers” who represent your ideal audience.

These aren’t experts in direct response and advanced copy … they’re the type of people who can potentially be your best prospects, students, and customers.

Side note: There are actually world class copywriters who use this technique and pay a panel of “people like their customer” to read their copy, so they can get opinions and reactions well before they send the copy to their client. The content gets tested two steps removed from when their client hits “send.” (Whether that’s to a direct mail campaign, e-mail promotion, or other.)

#4: Sweat the details

Take the time and effort to agonize over every word in your copy. And always ask, “Who is the audience this will most appeal to?”

Conversely, think about who your copy could possibly alienate. If your copy does have the potential to alienate, consider if those people are a good fit to become your customer.

It’s okay to scare off the peanut gallery who will never buy from you anyway.

#5: Look at your message in terms of consequential thinking

I learned the term consequential thinking from my mentor, Marty Edelston

It means putting yourself in the prospect’s shoes and seeing how you react to the elements of the copy.

Does it take you through a process that makes sense? In direct mail, this is a science in terms of how the mailing piece is received — the placement of the address, and the order the recipient sees the pieces in the envelope.

Online, of course, you have many more choices to guide your prospect through the story. Navigation and site design play an important role here, and you’ll want to think through how your audience goes through your landing pages.

Consequential thinking means taking a careful look at how you’re guiding your prospect through your marketing story.

#6: What’s the logic line?

This is another one I learned from Marty.

Is there a “logic line” that you believe? Does each part of the story follow from what comes before it? Is it logical (and believable)?

The purpose of each sentence is to make sure you can move the reader to the next sentence.

You need a logic line for each marketing message you send, but you also need a logic line for your business. Is this message congruent with your marketing message overall? Will it resonate with what you’ve sent in the past? Does it contradict earlier messages?

If so, you need to decide if you truly want to move in a new direction, or if you want to rein this piece in to better fit your business’ overarching message.

#7: Do you care?

No matter how hard hitting the copy might be, is there empathy? And is there some element of care and concern for your ultimate target?

Does the message communicate respect and care for your audience, or is it short on G.A.S.?

#8: Give them a reason to care

Audiences — for direct mail or for online content — are basically selfish.

It’s not their job to care about your business or what you do. To that end, write assuming that nobody cares what you have to say … and give them a reason to care.

No matter how much you believe your product, service, or message is a “need to have,” always assume you are only “nice to have.” Your job is convincing your audience to go from “nice” to “need.”

#9: Understand the basic rules of English

(Or, of course, the language of your chosen audience.)

You don’t need to be obsessed with correct grammar or perfect punctuation. Enjoyable content and copy usually use informal language.

But when you do violate the rules and standards of the English language, know what you are violating. It needs to be in line with your audience and how they speak and write. Using their language always trumps “perfect” grammar and usage.

The stakes are high for you, too

Okay, maybe you don’t have to pay for physical postage.

But you have an audience whose opinion and respect you depend on. That puts your reputation and authority at stake.

That’s why there’s so much to learn from the direct response principles of the past. The discipline of my field can be applied to everything happening in marketing and creative today.

Because of the amazing accountability and measurement tools available on the web, I believe it’s all direct marketing now.

We’re not “online marketers” or “direct mail marketers” — we’re just marketers.

How can “paying for postage” make your marketing better?

Learn more …

Click here to listen in on an interview I recently did with copywriter Daniel Levis. We talk about what it was like to work with some of the great copywriters and marketers of all time, including Gene Schwartz.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (25)

  1. says

    When you have to pay for your content to make it into someone’s hand suddenly you are very aware of what you are producing. It doesn’t cost much to publish and promote a blog post, so maybe you send it out before it’s really ready or is the best it can be. But when you have to actually put your money on the line suddenly the process becomes much more important.

  2. says

    It does make you stop and wonder how much of the content that’s online right now would have gone out to potential customers if it all had to go out via physical mail. Probably not much, and what would have gone out probably would have been a lot better thought out and put together.

    Good points to consider before hitting that “send” button. Thanks Brian!

  3. says

    Many people say that direct mail is dead, but I attended a class at Modern Postcard in Carlsbad a few months back where they showed the power of the medium. I was amazed at how effective it can be for certain markets. Like you say, Brian, efficiency is the name of the game.

  4. says

    Thanks for the great comments…you are all right on the money.

    And I am not saying “everyone should start doing direct mail” either…but using the fundamentals of direct response that were cultivated over many decades of direct mail marketing is such a valuable skill for all marketers today, whether online or offline.

    I hope to coninue the conversation in the months and years ahead…there is a lot of interest in this “new medium” called direct mail among many digital marketers for sure…:-)

  5. says

    Thanks for speaking up for direct mail. I was a graphic artist with a local direct mailer and designed ads and wrote and rewrote ad copy. Some clients pulled their ads because they received tons of business. :) Let that be a warning to you: your business could go expand overnight.

    • says

      Absolutely — it’s a significant investment, so you need to really know what you are doing, but done properly with the right message to the right list, it can be incredibly effective.

  6. says

    I agree that a tangible something is more likely to be looked at. But I get so much trash mail that I just check if any is personal and chuck the rest. If a card stands out I will look at it. Most look like the other, just like the emails I get promoting this or that. Postcardmania, here in Clearwater, is mopping up and its customers are smiling.

    If email letters were done with more empathy for the recipients, it would make a difference. Most are to much hype, too much reach, too much sales pitch. Done with taste and with the purpose of making a friend of the customer more conversions would be made.

  7. says

    Many of you know that Copyblogger’s roots are in the great classic copywriters — and many of those are direct mail folks. Thanks to Brian K for bringing some 21st-century direct mail knowledge to the blog. :)

  8. says

    Thank you for educating the digital diehards on these important marketing lessons. It’s true—we’re all marketers using tools to accomplish our objectives. Everything should be approached with this level of precision.

  9. says

    Excellent post! I was delighted to see a heavy-hitter like Brian Kurtz contribute to Copyblogger. Wow. It’s like a marriage between John Wayne and Adele! (You’re John Wayne, Brian…)

    Yes. Call me a direct response copy fangirl. Everything Brian said here was said to a roomful of 300+ copywriters at the AWAI Bootcamp in 2012. I was there (and so was Brian Clark). It was encouraging to know that no matter how people describe digital marketing, it ultimately is still direct response. It’s great when I see some of the younger writers discover that some old guy like Claude Hopkins can still be relevant with his classic marketing book “Scientific Advertising.”

    The only difference between 1923 and today is that we have more efficient tools to measure response. Ogilvy would have killed to have Google Analytics during his day.

    One lesson I’ve learned from the direct response marketers is that having to pay for postage made the ride that much more real. You saw results (or lack thereof) much faster. Those who struck gold recognized a “blockbuster” package when they saw one. They weren’t afraid to keep using it if it kept getting a solid response.

    Today’s marketer is starting to realize that although people need to be engaged with content, they still need to be persuaded to buy and there are proven, scientific ways to do it. Although some agencies have turned away from these tested principles, it’s great to see others pursuing them. Thanks for featuring Brian and his experienced insights. For those who don’t know who Brian is, you’re in for a treat if you listen to that podcast.

  10. says

    Great article, Brian; especially this: “Everything you send doesn’t have to sell something, but everything you send must achieve something.”

  11. says

    While I did cover a lot of these points in my keynote at AWAI in 2012, I have to admit that I’ve learned so much more since then by hanging around the smartest online marketers on the planet.

    They think I’m teaching them some stuff but the reality is that I’m learning so much more from them in the process.

    Combining today’s technology with best-in-class direct response fundamentals makes this the most exciting time to be a direct marketer…ever.

    And being a contributor on Copyblogger is actually a dream come true. Thanks for having me!

  12. says

    Thank you, Brian.

    This is an article that needs to be reread and shared widely.

    There is a cost to publishing whether it be print or online. With print, the writer has to affix postage and the receiver has to take out the trash at the end of the cycle. Those actions can be measured in dollars and sense. (pun intentional)

    Often forgotten is the price paid to write in a “free medium.” Great content and creativity cost time, energy, and money to produce. But they are the price of entry because, we are asking for the time and attention of our audience which also can be measured in dollars and sense.

    By bringing our best, we are telling our readers that we respect their time. By giving them something of value, we are telling our audience that we honor them.

    That breaks the paradigm away from the marketing jargon of B2B, B2C, C2C, and even P2P, and supplants it with Human-to-Human.

    And don’t we all want to be treated in a way that honors our humanity? To do otherwise, is too high a cost for doing business.

    Now you’ve given me a sound-bite of a question to ask myself before I hit publish: “Put a stamp on it?”

    Now…on to listen to the interview.

  13. says

    Timely piece for me personally, Brian. I highly respect your experience and your willingness to change.

    Just recently I started receiving hands on instruction from someone who has 30+ years experience in direct sales copywriting…someone you probably know through AWAI circles. I’ve only had two sessions with this person so far and can already tell that what they’re teaching me will take my online writing to a whole new level.

    My experience includes agency copywriting along with freelance copywriting, and I also have an affiliate marketing blog, so I’m seeing how these writing skills all mesh together as you described. Eventually I’ll adopt the all encompassing “marketer” title.

    I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the traditional direct sales letters down the road as I get schooled along the way by my sensei (who shall remain nameless here.)

  14. says

    I really like this point you make “Using their language always trumps “perfect” grammar and usage.”

    It all comes back to the audience, don’t it?


    No but on a more serious note I totally agree with you. It’s fine to break the rules of the language but you need to know the rules backwards first.

    I’ve been writing in my blog for about 8 months and I haven’t occasionally deviated from the rules. But when I do I make sure it for significant ‘entertainment’ value.

  15. says

    Postage stamps, post offices, direct mail – reading your spirited post is like opening a box of old photographs.

    Been doing Direct Mail in the 90’s and early 2’s. As you describe, a school of hard knocks and great way to become a (better) marketer. Together with my friend who runs a successful financial services firm in Atlanta GA we used to toil long and hard to produce direct mail winners. Winners didn’t happen as often as not, but the part I loved, once you had a winner you really did. You could just re-use it forever. Even 20 years later, when business is soft, my friend just pulls out that old direct mail piece from the 90’s, and with zero or minimal changes, direct mails it in the knowledge that it will pay off handsomely (even with today’s cost of postage).

    The biggest difference between postage stamps and on-line marketing – might be money. Direct Mail requires bags of cash just to get started. Like a casino where the cheapest chip costs a couple of grands. While the entrance to online marketing is free – so the online marketing field is much more crowded.

    If it weren’t for the fact that people turn away from online marketing when they realize it, too, means work, we’d be in trouble :-]

  16. says

    I especially enjoyed your emphasis on turning a “like to have” to a “need to have”. This cannot be achieved by merely filling your content with fluff. It is essential that you tell the TRUTH – this includes possibly acknowledging its fall backs before the reader does.

  17. says

    Must pay the design, the print and the delivery; you better get it right on all the stages; from the copy to the target where it gets delivered, even to the paper where it gets printed, huge investment, usually a piece reprinted in the thousands, no stop button, no edit ad button, once its done its done, once its gone its gone.
    But it does work, and thickens the skin, makes you understand the needs of the market, the consumer, in a real world scenario.
    Great post…Hey Brian, don´t you feel like starting a direct mail campaign from fresh sometimes, just to align the copy chakras….?

  18. says

    Loved your comment, Jorge…and yes, I actually “start direct mail campaigns from scratch” all the time even today…and while it’s incredibly challenging, nothing scales like direct mail.

    When you do it right, it’s the best feeling in the world…the planning of the creative, the design, the offer, the list selection and segmentation…and it’s all tranferable online.

    And MOST rewarding: The leads/prospects/buyers that come from direct mail almost always have a higher lifetime value than any other source.

    Every marketer in every medium should be tracking lifetime value…nothing more important in direct marketing yesterday…or today.

    And remember, when you are looking for a return on investment for your advertising, it’s ALL direct marketing.

    Even when a new direct mail campaign doesn’t work–like our recent Alternative Cancer Treatments “encyclopedia,”–it’s satisfying.

    We had a book that was so important to share with the world and to try to scale it via direct mail was the right thing to do.

    Well planned direct mail always makes me proud.

    I know…sounds old fashioned…:-)

  19. Etienne Fiset says

    ”We’re not “online marketers” or “direct mail marketers” — we’re just marketers.”
    This says it all!
    After 15 years working is sales as part of corporate america, I realize I did many things wrong – all in the name of clearing my to do list as much as I could by the end of each day (which greatly endangered point #8 you mentioned Brian).
    But this dark time is behind me now, and posts like this are real eye openers for me.
    I now realize that free is not cheap, since it can cost you a customer (chances are, it did cost me several customers over the past years).
    But it’s never to late to learn isn’t it?
    They should teach a class on the negative impact of botched emails in high schools.

  20. says

    Hi Brian,
    Since 2014 is the first year I’ll be “paying for postage” at least once every 3 weeks (with the newletter I’m shipping to my customers under the influence of your advice); I also expect it to be my best year ever.

    And, you know, there is something very special about writing someone a letter. Something that I think I had lost over the last 6 years I spent selling only via email.

    I’m looking at the first letters I’ve written so far, and people seem to love them and, most important of all, to be reading them until the very end !
    This probably was not the case anymore with our emails, so thanks for helping me & my company in rekindling the contact with our customers.

    And congratulations – both to Copyblogger for getting Brian to write his first guest blog post ever (that’s a big first !) and to you Brian, for making it count !

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.