Direct Mail Success: Re-thinking the 40-40-20 Rule


Direct-mail-success-rethinking-the-40-40-20-ruleFor many, many years experts have preached that the secret to direct mail success lay in following the revered “40-40-20 Rule”: 40 percent of a direct mailing’s success is dependent upon the list; 40 percent of the success comes from the offer; and 20 percent of the success is due to the creative.

Does that old axiom still hold true in the digital age, or has it gone the way of the fax machine and the 22¢ stamp?

From our perspective, the logic of the 40-40-20 Rule is still sound. But if you’re using direct mail to market your business, it might be time to rethink these critical components—and to update them for an audience that responds to marketing messages differently than they did years ago.


It’s easy to think of your list as simply “a list”: Names in a database that represent potential buyers for whatever it is you’re selling. Often in the past, mailing lists were compiled of the names of people who demonstrated a certain propensity to make certain kinds of purchases based on criteria such as location, income, and past purchasing history, Today, more than ever, it’s important to think about your audience. That means understanding exactly what questions people are asking, what their issues or problems are, and what they want to do (Here’s a hint: it’s not always to buy right away).


For years many marketers regarded the offer as the “deal” or the incentive to buy. If the offer were attractive enough, it would motivate the prospect to buy. Often the offer was price-related (“20% Off!”) that was tied to a timeline (“Offer Expires May 30!”). Today—more often than not—potential customers aren’t looking to buy initially. And they don’t like being pressured. What they’re after (see audience above) is information that will help them make the right buying decision—especially if the purchase they are considering is a major purchase. The offer isn’t a “deal” it’s helpful information that will allow them to solve their problem—not to make a sale.


Too many marketers have confused creative with “clever.” The job of creative isn’t to impress readers. It’s to get your message across. And these days you have even less time to do that than ever before. When people sort through their mail, they aren’t looking to be entertained. They are looking to see if there is anything there that will help them answer questions or solve a problem. Don’t bury your message with pretty pictures and clever words.


Yes, I’ve added an element to the sacred formula, because some things have changed. It used to be that once you’d mailed the right offer to the right list, your goal was to get them to respond—usually by buying. If what people are really after, however, is information, how are they going to get that? They’re not going to read through a multi-page description (and you can’t afford to mail that to everybody anyway). That’s why you mail piece needs to drive them back to your website—and more precisely to a specific landing page. That’s where you can offer them the specific content they’re looking for. You only give it to the people who are interested enough to ask for it (which qualifies them as solid leads). And once they do that, you have a means (usually an email address) and their permission to contact them again.

The 40-40-20 Rule is still valid, but we need to take a fresh look at how we use it if we want to be successful in direct mail in the digital age.

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