A Direct Mail Flop So Big, Even Mick Couldn’t Save Me

Pete takes you back to his early days as a freelancer and reveals the gory details and lessons learned from a big direct mail fail.

You may know that Ed and I are proponents of direct mail as a great business-building strategy for solo professionals. We've both had great success with this technique, but earlier in my freelance career I had two direct mail flops.

Today I'll tell you about the most elaborate, expensive and disappointing one.

They say hindsight is 20/20 but unfortunately that's not true in marketing. So while I may never know with absolutely certainly why this particular self-promotion effort flopped like a carp in the hull of a fishing boat, I can make some educated guesses, as I've done here, for your amusement, and at my expense. Quite literally!

Highlights of My Direct Mail Disaster: Why Did it Flop?

  • I rented a list. I paid hundreds of dollars to rent a list of 800 names of marketing people from a source that seemed to be good. When I got the list though, I went through it realized most of the companies on there, it made no sense for me to be approaching them as a copywriter.

    (For example, what on earth would I write for Kellogg's? Cereal boxes?) So this list was basically mediocre, off-target contacts in the wrong industries"¦ but there were EIGHT HUNDRED mediocre, off-target contacts in the wrong industries! With that many names, how could this fail!?
  • My letter made a "buy now" offer. Maybe my offer was weak, maybe not. It was basically a price discount on my services if you acted now. Ok, it was weak.
  • I had no bulky item. I didn't have a bulky item to make the envelope bulge and arouse the recipient's curiosity, so I relied on a normal #10 envelope. I did have a fancy design on it though. Get a load of this!
  • I did, however, have an outrageous response incentive. I had what I thought to be a tremendous response incentive. (I can't believe I'm telling you this.) I bought two tickets to a Rolling Stones concert at SkyDome in Toronto. Section A seats, on the floor, 14th row or something. They cost $350, EACH! And so the offer was, if you respond to the mailing you get entered to win these tickets. On the outer envelope, I had some teaser copy about the Rolling Stones tickets. You know, enter to win, look inside, etc.

Despite all of these conditions working against me, the mailing did actually get a response.

A response. One.

By some stroke of luck and timing, one person who got the mailing needed some copywriting done, so he gave me a decent-size copywriting project. Just enough to almost cover the expenses of the mailout and the tickets. Which he won, by the way, having been the only person in the "draw". (I didn't even get to hold a draw.)

Well, that's not all bad, you say. At least I got a new client I could nurture for repeat business.

Nope. Never got a single job from him again. I blame it all on Mick... it must have been a lousy concert.

Is there a moral to the story? Well, yes. Despite this poor showing early on in my career, I decided to give direct mail another chance and basically do the opposite of what I did here.

I built my own list of prospects, I created a special report as the offer, I used an attention-getting bulky item inside an envelope, and I write a terrific sales letter focused on the special report I was offering.

I've met a too many freelancers who gave up on direct mail as a client-acquisition tool because of one bad experience. They sent out a bunch of sales letters and didn't get a response, so they blame the tactic, rather than consider that they may not have followed best practices.


1. Take a close look at a past marketing tactic that you tried, but later judged "didn't work."

2. Ask yourself if you know with certainty why it didn't work. Chances are you don't know for sure.

3. Do a proper post-campaign review. Look at it from every angle. What might you have done differently? Have other people used the same tactic and achieved good results? What might they be dong that you didn't do?

If you take the time to take a close look at a past "failed" effort, you might make some discoveries that convince you to try it again, with the benefit of hindsight and some more experience on your side.