How to use direct mail to generate urgency and huge response rates.


Collection agencies are relentless about generating response.  It’s their business.  They’ll send letters and call you to get you to pay.  They’ll even send Luigi to your house to re-possess your car if they have to.

You see, they have a system.  A process.  And it works.  In this article we’ll show you how to use these secrets of collection agencies to get response rates as high as 17% from your direct marketing campaigns.  It can be done, and it is remarkably easy.

Collection agencies are famous for sending a 3-step letter sequence to get your attention to respond.  The first letter arrives from the junior collection agent, is professional, and requests payment with a deadline.  If you don’t respond to the first letter, the manager sends off a letter with more terse language, a deadline and a penalty if you fail to respond.  Finally, if you still don’t respond you get the dreaded Final Notice letter where if you don’t respond a fleet of muscles and moving trucks will be hauling away that big screen TV of yours.

Imagine flipping this 3-step letter sequence used by collection agencies 180 degrees.  Negative karma becomes positive karma.  Now you have a winning marketing strategy to get your prospects to respond at unbelievable rates.

Here’s how it works:

Your Target Audience

First you need to have a very narrowly defined list to work from.  Ideally 1,000 – 2,000 names max as anything more than this will make the project challenging to manage.

If you live in the B2B world, recommend you select a specific SIC code in your market to target.  For example, all attorneys or furniture stores.  With this strategy you can select a vertical market, extract maximum response from that vertical and then re-apply this strategy to a new vertical market.

If you are a B2C marketer, recommend you select a specific demographic to focus upon in your market.  For example, if you are a family restaurant you might want to target all families with children in a specific zip code.  Or if you are a window coverings company, a list of brand new home owners in your county.

The 3-Step Letter Sequence

Now that your list is solid, you can launch the 3-step letter sequence using the following strategy of offers and messaging:

1.    Letter #1 is a solid personalized letter to your target audience using Direct Marketing 101 fundamentals and contains:

  • A compelling headline that showcases your key benefit to your prospect
  • A strong offer to entice response
  • A clear and simple call to action
  • An expiration date in approximately 14 days.
  • A signature from one of your sales reps

2.    For all of those that do not respond to Letter #1, they would receive Letter #2.  Letter # 2 would create more urgency and contains:

  • Another benefit-laden headline but with more amplified language
  • Copy similar to “A few weeks ago we sent you a letter offering you <Offer #1> and frankly we are shocked you did not respond.  <Offer #1> offers you tremendous value such as <List of Benefits>.  Because we know you will get tremendous value in doing business with us, we’ll also include <Offer #2> on top of <Offer #1> but you need to respond by <deadline>.”  Of course, this would be wordsmithed as appropriate, but the essence is to link letter #2 back to letter #1 and then layer another compelling offer on top.
    • Side note:  Another very famous marketer uses this strategy well.  You see it over and over again on television because it works.  Do you remember the Ginzu Knife?
  • Language in Letter #2 would be much crisper, using shorter sentences and less text, and would be more “to the point”.
  • Letter #2 would be signed by a more senior person (i.e. VP of Sales).
  • Both offers would have an expiration date in approximately 14 days.

3.    For all of those that do not respond to Letter #1 or Letter #2 they would receive a very short memo style letter or postcard that contains:

  • A “final notice” style of writing with a red stencil styled FINAL NOTICE stamp on the letter.  Bonus points if your letter is on pink stationary (like a pink slip).
  • Language similar to “We have tried and we have tried and we can’t believe you are still not responding.  We offered <OFFER #1> and you didn’t respond.  Then we threw in <OFFER #2> and you still did not respond.   Because we know we can provide you <List of Benefits> we will throw in a FREE <OFFER #3> if you respond by <date>.”  Again, this can be wordsmithed further, but this is the essence.
  • Letter #3 is only 1-2 paragraphs.  Very, very short.
  • Letter #3 is signed by President.
  • All offers would expire in approximately 14 days

When this 3-step sequence is complete, you can count on these prospects really understanding that you exist.  The rapid-fire repetition of 3 touches in a 45-day window will help you break through the clutter of direct mail that they receive each day.  And the incremental cascade of offers, especially if written in a fun and entertaining way, will create a mini buzz in the community where your prospects will talk to their friends (i.e. you won’t believe these letters I was getting from <company>).

In the world of direct marketing, a 1% response rate is generally considered good.  Clients that use this 3-step letter sequence have been able to generate response rates in the incredible 10-17% range.  There are cases where the response rate has reached unheard of 45% response rates.

This notion of sequencing your letters with tight expiration dates and prospect behavior observations is a fantastic example of “Marketing to the When”.

How do you launch a 3 Step Letter Sequence?

  1. Pick a narrow and manageable target audience of ideally 1,000 – 2,000 names.  If you are B2B, select a single vertical market (i.e. dentists).  If you are B2C focus on a specific geographic/demographic segment (homeowners with income above $75,000).
  2. Launch your 3-step sequence with military precision.
  3. Pay attention to who responds and who does not.  Keep your database up-to-date.
  4. Reap the rewards of your campaign and then move on to your next target audience.

Special thanks to marketing guru Dan Kennedy for sharing this 3-step letter sequence concept in one of his bootcamp seminars that I attended at the San Diego Convention Center in the mid-90’s.  Dan Kennedy is a very innovative marketer and copywriter and I encourage you to seek out his publications on the Internet.  I’ve tried this 3-Step Letter Sequence process both for clients and my own business and it works.  It really works.