Direct Mail: An Effective Marketing Tool -- for Custom Woodworkers

Small- to mid-sized shops can use this mode of marketing to their advantage. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

Direct mail is one of the best marketing options available for the small- to mid-sized shop.

Last time, I promised that in this article, the last in a series on marketing, we would cover a few remaining advertising options and conclude by focusing on how to keep your marketing message consistent.

Of the three major marketing options not covered in previous months, direct mail is the one most small- to medium-sized woodworking firms are likely to use, at least on a consistent basis. (In fact, custom woodworking businesses would be foolish not to use it.) Radio and TV advertising, those bastions of the electronic media, are the other two choices.

Compared with other advertising vehicles, direct mail can be an economical way to reach former, current and prospective customers. But, like any marketing method, it still can be expensive. The cost depends on the choices you make in administering your direct mail campaign.

'Campaign?' you are asking. 'Isn't this just getting the word out about my business? Who said anything about a campaign?'

The fact is, whatever type (or hopefully types) of marketing tools you employ, it is crucial to think of your efforts at attracting new customers as a coordinated campaign or program. Doing that will force you to think carefully about what you are saying in all your efforts. And careful, coordinated planning will help you develop a consistent message that people will remember when they are looking for your type of custom work.

What is direct mail, anyway?

It is just what the name implies - a marketing strategy carried out by mailing information directly to prospective clients. It should be information which will elicit a response and/or will put you in a good position to follow up with prospects and turn them into customers.

When we discussed print advertising last month, we stressed the importance of identifying your target audience and of using simple ads in the publications they are likely to be reading, instead of spending many dollars to make a big splash for an audience which may or may not include possible customers.

The same holds for direct mail. Knowing your audience is crucial. This means starting with a list of current and former customers, identifying their common characteristics and using that information as a road map for identifying potential new customers as well.

Common factors can include geographic location, profession, even trends in what you build for your customers. If you do a lot of business with architects, space planners or interior designers, remember that there are specialties within those disciplines, and target your direct mail marketing program to the specialties which most closely resemble those you have had success with in the past.

What about the direct mail piece itself? What should you send to your clients and prospective clients?

To answer that, let's begin by hearkening back to the first article in this series, where we identified the difference between selling and marketing. Do you remember what we said?

Selling is what you do (hopefully) after you have captured a prospect's imagination. Marketing is what you do to capture their imagination in the first place.

The effectiveness of your direct mail message (the same as with your business cards, stationery, newspaper ads, internet sites, etc.) rests largely on your ability to put yourself in your prospect's place and answer this question, 'What does a prospect need to know about my capabilities if I am to improve my chances of getting my foot in the door?'

For direct mail, you could create a four-color brochure or flyer showing your latest work as a way to demonstrate your capabilities. But if your budget is not quite up to the expense of developing a flashy brochure, don't worry! You can get multiple reprints of the best photo you took of your latest project, and send one out with a brief letter. While this is far less expensive, it is still effective.

You probably can think of many other options for direct mail, but whatever you decide on for your own business, remember to follow up, always. Don't expect people to pick up the phone and call you just because you have sent them some mail.

If you have not heard anything within about a week of your mailing, take the bull by the horns and call your prospects. Ask for an appointment to review your portfolio with them or to discuss their needs or even to play a round of golf. Try anything that will help you know your prospects better and solidify your chances of working with them. But always follow your mailings by making contact.

As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of direct mail. It can be as personal as you want to make it and is economical and versatile.

As for the other two options mentioned above, even though I once worked for several years in radio, I advise against that medium and against television for the majority of custom woodworkers. You can spend a lot of money very quickly in the electronic media with very little certainty of reaching your target market as precisely as you will with the other media discussed in this series.

I will qualify that by saying that certain radio or TV programs, such as home improvement shows, may speak more directly to your target audience than others. And there may be some good advertising deals available in the electronic media. But the fact remains that radio and TV are expensive gambles for small custom shops. And the gambler's first rule is: If you can't afford to lose, don't bet.

This is not to discourage profitable companies from making donations to their favorite public TV or radio station as a way to get publicity. 'Giving public' is a great way to get your name in front of an affluent, intelligent market segment, such as viewers and listeners of public TV and radio often are.

As for commercial TV and radio, you might want to consider them if you do a lot of residential work dealing directly with the end user or if you strive to be a high-volume kitchen dealer/manufacturer in your market area. But the universal rule for advertising success still applies: Target your audience!

Custom businesses of every persuasion tend to do better, dollar for dollar, when they identify their target market carefully and address it with a consistent message in as personal a manner as possible. (That is another 'strike' against radio and TV, since they are two of our least personal advertising options.)

While we have touched on the major marketing vehicles in this series, this is not meant to imply that they are the only ones that exist. Marketing options are as diverse as the world of custom woodworking itself. The one which works best for you may be one we have not even considered here.

For example, isn't there a long-courted prospect that you know you could do business with, if you could only get him to take a first-hand look at the incredible job you just finished? (We all have at least one of those!) Think about making a personalized videotape and sending it unlabeled, with no clue as to who it comes from, taking that prospect on a personal tour of the job (a tour hosted by you, of course).

Whatever marketing tool you use, remember that the message is the main thing. Take extra care to say what you mean and mean what you say. As cliched as that may sound, it is nonetheless accurate. It is important to be consistent in all your marketing efforts, as well as what you say in person.

Another cliched rule, one widely followed by designers and engineers and equally important in marketing, is the 'KISS' rule - Keep It Simple, Stupid! Remember this as you decide how to capture prospects' imaginations. The more convoluted your marketing message is, the less your chance of striking a chord with your audience.

Decide what you do best, find a simple slogan or phrase to convey it, and then apply it throughout a total marketing program. Get your message into the hands of the right people - your target market - and then follow up, follow up, follow up. With some customers, you will be making the transition from marketing to selling before you know it. With others, it will take longer. But be persistent, and your marketing efforts will pay handsome dividends.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.