It's so easy to waste money on direct mail, but it can also be one of the most efficient, cost-effective marketing vehicles available.

Even though e-commerce is exploding, every marketing plan should include a direct mail component. If you want proof of the power of direct mail, notice how Internet companies rely on it to promote their Web sites.

Here are 25 questions and answers that can help you improve the performance of your company's direct mail program and get the most from your investment.

Does the mailing create the right impression? If it looks like junk, it will give the reader that impression when it arrives. Apply the highest standard of judgment to how the mailing looks. Don't settle for just getting it out the door. Ask yourself whether you would be impressed by your own mailings and whether you would take them seriously.

Is every letter fully personalized? Starting with "Dear Neighbor" or "Dear Valued Customer" will not make the right impact on the reader. "Dear Mr. Roberts" or "Dear Tom" makes a far more personal impression. There is no excuse for failing to personalize letters, whether they are to customers or prospects. If you want to convey the message that you offer personal service, start by being personal with your direct mail.

Does the mailing have eye appeal? If it isn't interesting on the outside, it won't be opened, and if it isn't appealing on the inside, it won't be read. Your mailing is in a brutal competition for attention with dozens of other pieces. Use color. Make the package interesting by enclosing two, three, or even four pieces.

Does it touch the reader's emotions? If it doesn't, then don't bother sending it. Your mailing must grab the reader. Make sure he or she would feel left out of a good thing by failing to respond to your offer.

Does it tell a story? Describe for the reader how you solved a customer's problem, and talk about the customer's reaction to your solution. Stories are a powerful way to bring your message to life.

Do you use testimonials? Credible testimonials are powerful persuaders, particularly today, when businesses cannot afford to make mistakes. But use only real people, and identify them completely - no anonymity and no initials, because readers see through such cloaking. And be sure to get permission and a signed release from those providing testimonials.

Is the mailing memorable? Just another letter in another dull envelope won't do. Make it fun and interesting. If the reader remembers the mailing, your company will be remembered, too, and the chances of a favorable response will rise.

Is the mailing different? One mailing included a clear plastic bag filled with sand, seashells, miniature sandals, sunglasses, and even a tiny beach umbrella and record player. The attached tag read, "Just add retirement fund and enjoy." Another contained inexpensive binoculars with a card that read: "Take a closer look at our special offer."

How many times do you use "you"? The magic word in direct mail is "you." Talk to and about the reader. Avoid the temptation to boast about your company, product, or service. Talk directly to the reader about what he or she wants to hear. What the customer wants is important in a direct mail presentation, not what you want to say or sell.

Are the sentences short? Use short, punchy sentences. Keep them simple and clear. Anything complicated only confuses the reader. Sentences may be as short as one or two words. Remember, be direct.

How long is your message? Keeping a letter to one page is acceptable if that's what it takes to tell the story. But don't be afraid of long letters - three, four, or five pages - if they are interesting and compelling.

What do you want the reader to do? Most direct mailings fail at this crucial point. Do you want the reader to buy, call, make an appointment, or welcome a salesperson? Have a very clear picture of the action step, and build the mailing around this objective.

What's your offer? The goal of a mailing is to gain a response. There must be a meaningful offer to move the customer to action. Here are some words that stimulate an immediate response: "free," "limited offer," "respond by this date to receive discount." Without an offer, there is no urgency for the customer to act.

Does it include a guarantee? Customers are cautious today, and they want guarantees. They are looking for total satisfaction, and they want to feel that you stand behind what you sell. If it's a product, offer a money-back guarantee. Even if you are offering only a brochure or a survey, show your confidence by guaranteeing that the reader will find it helpful or useful.

Are you talking with the reader? Some direct mailings fail because their language is stilted, cold, and impersonal - they push the reader away. Be warm, conversational, and friendly. "Talk" in your direct mail.

Are you still using labels? The laser printer has made address labels obsolete, though they continue to be used on regular business envelopes. Direct imprinting is the standard for everything, including newsletters.

Are you using first-class postage? There are situations in which the bulk rate is acceptable, but first-class postage - and overnight on some occasions - creates the impression that the mailing was personally directed to the reader. Whenever possible, go first-class. And with pre-sort software, mailing first-class is cost-effective.

Are you getting inside the reader's head? Does the mailing really focus on what the customer wants to accomplish, or does it dwell on what you want the customer to buy? The only way to keep the reader's interest is to make sure you fully understand the reader's needs.

Do you test your direct mail? Before rolling out a mailing of 5,000 or 50,000, try sending out 1,000 or 5,000 to gauge the response. Better yet, try two or three approaches at once and compare them. Vary the message, the offer, the graphics, and so forth.

Are you repetitious? You should be! The key to successful direct mail is repetition. Use American Express or cataloguers as role models. The goal of direct mail is to catch readers when they are ready. If you're there, you get the business.

Are you targeting your mailings? Avoid the broad-brush approach at all costs. It is unnecessary, and it wastes money. Tailor your message to smaller and smaller segments. It is the best way to persuade readers that you understand their specific needs and what is important to them.

Is it easy for the reader to respond? Offer a variety of ways to respond. An inexpensive toll-free number lets customers act quickly when they are ready. In certain situations, you may want to ask the customer to come and see you.

Does it include a response form? It may be a postage-paid business-reply card or envelope (do not even think about making the customer pay postage) or a fax-back form (if you are mailing to businesses). Make it easy for the customers to respond by putting their name and address on the response card. If you are using a fax-back form, either put the customer's name and address at the bottom of the letter or use a separate form with the address information.

Does it include a coupon? An interesting, value-creating coupon will help make your offer tangible - something readers can hold in their hands. Offer discounts for specific dollar amounts. Avoid offers such as "15% off" because the readers cannot measure the value of the offer. Also, create urgency by including an expiration date.

Does it end with a P.S.? Believe it or not, the P.S. is often the first part of the letter that is read. It is the reader's way of cutting to the chase. Use it to restate your offer: "Act before Feb. 20 and receive a free …."

Mr. Graham ia the president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass.

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