Direct mail, in the hands of a knowledgeable pro, can be a powerful promotion that builds booth traffic targets key prospects, generates sales leads, fills conference rooms, creates an awareness of an event and your participation in it. Or gets the word out about your products and services.

Unfortunately, most trade-show direct mail I see violates the fundamentals of successful direct marketing. For this reason, few of these mailings generate anywhere near the desired response. (How many of your mailings produce the results you want or expect?)

Here are 10 proven techniques for creating direct mail that works. Try them in your next letter or invitation and watch your response rate soar.

1. The importance of the list. Even the most brilliant package will flop if it is mailed to the wrong list. Selecting the right mailing list is the most important step in ensuring direct mail success. According to Freeman Gosden Jr., author of Direct Marketing Success, list selection is twice as important as copy, graphics, and printing combined.

For a trade-show invitation, the best list is key prospects and current customers within a 100-mile radius of the exhibit hall. Invite only those people who are genuine prospects for the products you are featuring in your display. One good source of names might be a list of people who have responded to ads about the product within the last six months.

2. Executive seminars. An even more select list of key prospects can be targeted to receive special invitations to hospitality suites, executive briefings, presentations of papers, seminars, and other special events held in conjunction with your exhibit. If the event is relatively minor, a notice about it can be included in the invitation to the exhibit. But, if the event is major (such as the opportunity to see a new product introduction) you can play it up in a separate mailing.

3. Carry cards. A carry card, mailed with the invitation, is a printed card the prospect can present at your booth to receive a small gift, or perhaps to enter a sweepstakes or drawing. I call it a "carry card" because the prospect must carry it with him to receive whatever is offered in the mailing.

By printing your booth number on the card, you remind the prospect to visit you; the offer of the gift provides the incentive to do so. The gift need not be expensive or elaborate; perhaps you offer free information, such as a special report, or an inexpensive item such as a pen or a tie clip.

4. Be personal. The more personal a mailing piece, the greater the response.

One effective technique is to personalize each mailing with the prospect's name. A form letter, for example, can be made to look personal if produced on a word processor using a program that inserts the prospect's name and address.

There are other ways of individualizing the mailings. Carry cards or invitations can be numbered in sequence; therefore, each person receives a unique number, which may be used to qualify him or her to receive a prize or other gift.

Another technique is for salespeople to write brief handwritten notes to each prospect. The note, written in the margin of a preprinted form letter or on the flap of a formal invitation, adds a human touch to the communication.

5. Urgency. Direct mail is a medium designed to generate an immediate response. Therefore, your mailing must give the reader reason to read and act now.

A "teaser",a short message written on the outer envelope,is oftenen used to urge the reader to open the mailing right away. For example, it can tell the reader that the envelope contains dated materials. It can stress the importance of attending the show or emphasize benefits. Or, it can tell the recipient to take action,forr example, the teaser copy could read, "Urgent: open by November 15th."

If you want the reader to RSVP your invitation, you should create a sense of urgency for this too. The close of an invitation to a seminar might say, "But hurry. Attendance is limited. Reserve your seat at this important briefing today."

6. Give them a choice. Years ago, direct marketers discovered that they received greater response when the reader was given a choice. And this holds true in trade show promotion.

For example, many of the people you invite will be unable to attend, even though they may have genuine interest in the products being displayed. Why not have your mailing do double duty by offering information or further action to those people who can't come to the show? You could offer to send them a brochure or a newsletter or call on them in person and tell them what they missed. One exhibitor even offered to send a videotape of his exhibit? This technique can dramatically boost response.

Always include a business reply card or business reply envelope in mailings designed to elicit a response. Without these devices, response drops to near zero.

7. Create an event. Although it is difficult for our egos to accept, the truth is, your next trade show is not a major event in the lives of your customers. Your challenge, then, is to change their reaction from one of boredom to one of excitement.

How? There are many possibilities. One exhibitor featured the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in his booth. Another had an exciting multimedia presentation on a revolutionary new type of technology. An instrumentation manufacturer employed a magician to perform at his display. A major defense manufacturer hired a quick-draw fighter to teach people how to use a six-shooter (with blanks, of course!)

Once you've invented an event (one that generates real excitement but also ties in with your product or theme), make this the feature subject of your mailer. Just as publishers win subscribers by featuring a free gift or a price discount, a successful tradeshow mailing features the "gimmick" rather than the exhibit itself. For example, a mailing designed to draw people to the gun-fighter exhibit might read, "MEET THE WEST'S FASTEST GUNFIGHTER AT HIGH NOON AT THE AMCOM AIR SHOW,AND WIN A GENUINE, OLD WEST TEN-GALLON HAT." Here we are selling the sizzle rather than the steak.

8. Exclusivity. A powerful appeal of direct mail,and of trade shows,is exclusivity. One study released by the Trade Show Bureauu reported that half the people who attend trade shows go specifically to see new products and services that have not been shown before.

If you're introducing a new technology, a new product, or an improved version of an old product, play this up in your mailing. Emphasize both the importance of the product as well as the fact that the reader is having an opportunity to see it first,an opportunity not extended to other people in the business. This sensee of being exclusive, of being first, is flattering, and it can do wonders for your response rate.

9. Completing the set. A classic trade-show mailing is one in which the prospect is mailed an invitation along with a single cufflink. The cufflink is a free gift, the letter explains, and the reader will be given the other cufflink (to complete the set) when he visits the manufacturer's booth at the show.

This is a powerful technique, and if you can think of an appropriate variation that is relevant to your sales pitch, use it. An automobile manufacturer, for example, could mail key chains to important customers and enroll them in a drawing for a brand new car. But to win the car, they must bring the key chain to the drawing. The mailing stresses how you can add a key to your chain (and the car that goes with it) by visiting the show.

10. Use a series of mailings. A series of mailings can generate more response than just a single mailing. So it may pay to mail more than once to the same list of people.

Many exhibitors have used the following three-part mailing format with success.

The first mailing is a simple postcard that "previews" the show. It is used to tweak the reader's curiosity and interest, but demands no response.

The second mailing is the full invitation package. It can consist of a letter, an invitation, a carry card, a reply card, a booklet or brochure, or any combination of these elements. The theory is that more people will read the full invitation if they are "warmed up" with the postcard first.

The third mailing can be either a follow-up reminder or, if the reader has responded to the invitation, it can be a letter confirming the time, date, and location of the event.

You should imprint your company name and booth number on the show pass, so the prospect will be reminded to visit you even if he throws away the rest of your mailing.

Michael Head is an independent business consultant based in Los Angeles.

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