by John Eberhard

Bob Stone is the author of “Successful Direct Marketing Methods,” considered one of the bibles of marketing.

“Direct marketing” means to market to someone specifically to get them to respond right now and become a lead or sale, rather than just increasing awareness or branding. Direct marketing includes areas such as direct mail, pay per click advertising, and email marketing, where you can keep exact track of the results you are getting.

Stone says “Maximizing direct mail success depends first upon the lists you use, second upon the offers you make, and third upon the copy and graphics you create.”

So let’s break that down. The order of importance here is:

  • The lists you use
  • The offer you make
  • The copy and graphics you use

We can see that the list is the first consideration in direct mail and email. In other words, the selection of the list will be the largest factor in determining your response rate.

The second consideration in determining your success with any type of marketing or promotion is the offer. So what does he mean by the “offer”? What is an offer?

An offer is what you are offering to the public at the end of a promotional piece to get them to respond. It is part of your call to action. The simplest offer you can make to the public would be “call us and buy our product or service.” But that may not be the best offer you can make. There are other ways of approaching the lead or sale that may work better in terms of numbers of responses. 

Discounts: Offering a discount on a product or service can be a very effective type of offer. Often a discount is offered on a specific product, on a first purchase, and often with a time limit. Obviously your product or service has to be priced in such a way to support a discount and still make money.

A Consultation: Companies will often offer a free consultation, usually for high ticket items. This is a thinly veiled term for the prospect to enter a sales interview, which many people understand. But a consultation is often a very important part of the process for the buyer, especially with complicated products or services where he will have lots of questions. So in cases like that the buyer will want to have a consultation and that will overcome his fear of a sales cycle. In home improvement industries this would be called a “free inspection,” where the sales person would go out and inspect the person’s home and then give them a quote and a sales pitch.

Free Item with Purchase: This is similar to a discount, where the person gets some item for free with a specific purchase or a purchase over a certain dollar amount. Usually the free item is not very expensive or is inexpensive but with a higher perceived value.

Loss Leader Discount: Some companies will offer such a deep discount on the person’s first purchase that the company actually loses money on it. This is only effective on products or services where there is a high percentage of continuing sales. So the company will be willing to lose money on the first sale and make money on the continuing sales.

Hard and Soft Offers

In an earlier article I talked about hard and soft offers. In marketing technology, there is a scale of offers, from “hard” to “soft.” A “hard offer” is defined as an offer that is basically to buy the product or service right now, a discount on the price of the item, or something that leads directly to a sale, such as an appointment with a salesperson.

A “soft offer” is any kind of offer that gets the person to respond right now, but does not lead directly to a sale right now. About the softest offer you can get is for the person to be entered in some kind of sweepstakes. Some other types of soft offers could include:

  • An email newsletter subscription
  • An information product, such as a special report or “white paper” on some specific topic
  • Case histories of your clients and the results they got from your product or service
  • A free software demo (for software sales)
  • A free software utility that does something useful
  • Attending a free webinar or teleseminar
  • Attending a free in-person seminar
  • Some inexpensive gift, like a free T-shirt, pen, hat, etc.

Soft offers are necessary in some fields, especially with high ticket (expensive) items. The idea is that you are attracting people who would be a prospect for your product or service but who are not ready to buy right now. Soft offers are an excellent way to build up your in-house email list, so you can then market directly and regular to those people for nominal cost. I’ll discuss some of those examples above.

Information Products: These are especially important in highly technical fields, where people will seek out detailed information before buying a product or service. You basically put together a “special report” or “white paper” on a specific subject directly related to your product or service. You then require the person to give you his email address and/or other contact info to get the item. The report contains helpful information and is not a blatant sales pitch. Since the report is specifically about the topic of your product or service, people requesting it will theoretically be the right public.

Email Newsletter: This is a must for many types of companies, and it allows you to send out helpful information but also include a sales pitch as well, on a regular basis. Of course it is a time commitment to continue to make the newsletters and send them out regularly.

Webinars and Teleseminars: This is becoming a very effective method for many types of businesses, once again usually for businesses selling expensive items. People will expect there to be a sales pitch at the end.

Free Giveaways: These can be effective as a way to build a list, and have been used especially at trade shows to attract people into a booth.

One caution with soft offers is that you can tend to attract people who aren’t really a prospect but only want the free item. This is why I usually stay away from free giveaways (except at trade shows) and tend more towards free information products, as anyone requesting those will at least have interest in the topic.

Some business owners shy away from any kind of offer other than “set an appointment” or “buy the product now,” feeling that discounts or other types of offers attract the wrong type of client. I understand the need to get the right kind of client. But it is also important to consider the offer you are making, notice what types of offers your competitors are making, and to get creative and try different offers. The whole idea is you are working to get better response. Surveys or testing will tell you which offers will work the best.