The Theory of Direct Mail
"I don't deal in theory - I want systems that work. Don't waste my time"
Imagine Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Richard Hardbourne sitting under a tree in Cambridge in the summer of 1686. A sudden gust of wind blows apples down and by a curious chance each of the men gets hit on the head. (This is an apocryphal story - please don't try and check it out on Wikipedia)
Newton ponders the apple, grabs his notebook and starts making notes about what lies behind the event. He reasons like any good scientist that if he can work out the laws behind the how and why the apple fell as it did, he could perhaps come up with the laws behind what happens to everything that has mass. He doesn't just want to say that the apple fell - he wants to know if the speed of the fall got greater as the apple fell, and if so why, and what the implication is.
Pepys ponders the apple and taking quill and paper polishes off a note to the Admiralty asking them to investigate the possible use of apples as both a source of food and drink for sailors when fighting the Dutch and other current enemies. Aware that apples rot he asks for explanations as to why this is so, and if anything can be done about it. Ultimately he is told that rotting can be slowed by through packaging, and that cider can be made - but that although apples help reduce scurvy too many give stomach ache and that rum is better than cider as smaller quantities are needed to "keep up the men's spirits". Apples as a total solution, it seems, don't work, but placing some apples on board, each separated from the other with can help.
Hardbourne, secretary to the Duke of Oxford's Men (an acting troupe), eats the apple while writing to the Lord Chamberlain asking for permission to play in London, having already booked sessions at The Theatr, and The Curtain - both of which were just outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. While eating and writing some apple juice falls on the page, and although he dabs at it with his kerchief, a stain remains.
Time passes. Newton - carries on thinking and develops the Law of Universal Gravitation. Pepys continues his musings and through endless questioning and speculation produces for the Admiralty the most efficient navy the world had seen - devised often by detailed observation and minor changes.
Hardbourne gets his players to play in London. So pleased is his patron that he is put in permanent charge of getting bookings, and for years to come Harbourne writes letters asking for permission to play in the better locations. On each letter he is always careful to drop a small amount of apple juice on the grounds that it worked last time.
Of course you see where I am going - the difference between the logical and reasoned enquiry of the scientist and administrator, and the "hey guys this works" approach of the man who was one of the first direct mailers the world has ever seen represents a totally different way of thinking.
My point is simple. Today, nothing has changed. Good scientists and good administrators undertake logical and reasoned research and come up with theories that allow them to predict outcomes. They test the theories, change items here and there and test again, gradually expanding the theory to cover more and more.
But what of direct mailers? Do they develop theory that allows them to say, in all circumstances this happens? No - they are still playing games and saying - it worked once, so hey, let's do it again. Thy are still putting their metaphorical apple juice on the paper.
Of course direct mailers test - but not from a basis of an underlying theory. As a result, approaches to direct mail are made up of random points - do this, don't do this, avoid that, always go for this. "Do mailmerge". Why? "Because it is good." But there is nothing linking it together.
It is, in fact, rather like alchemy. In fact the links between alchemy and direct mail are astonishingly close. Hidden secrets, no logical connection, no science...
Every time some direct mail expert says "do this" we learn nothing - there is no broader context, no relationship with everything else. "But I have tried it out," he says, "I have done it myself and it worked." But we still learn nothing because quite often the circumstances are so different between one mailshot and the next.
It is not as if these direct mail commentators use a theory that is obviously false. It is not as if they say "the apple falls to the earth because a giant space goat breaths and the force of the wind pushes it down" - which although not a theory I would personally subscribe to at least is a theory we could all go out and test by searching for the goat in question.
No, it is not that they use the wrong theory - it is that they use no theory - they use just random comments, random circumstances - it worked here, so it works.
Faced with a debate about whether the earth is flat or roundish, they wouldn't say "it is flat because if it were round the people in Australia would fall off." That's a fairly dumb theory, but at least it is a theory. No, they would say, "hey, if I run down my street I get to the end faster than if I walk". True, but not actually highly informative unless I want to get to the end of the street.
The point is that theories make predictions, which you can then test. You test them and in so doing you gradually get more information based on the results.
So we ask, where do these direct mail "experts" get their information. Not from predictions based on theory as they have no theory. So presumably their ideas just pop up. They do a mailing and it works, so they say, "I know how to make it work". Just like Richard Hardbourne.
If you listen to the ramblings of the people who just had a great idea you will never get consistently higher response rates. To double your responses day after day, year after year, you need a theory of direct mail.
My work at Hamilton House Mailings Ltd, aided by the thousands of people who contribute to our direct mail news groups, and by my colleagues within the company, has produced such a theory. Of course there can be errors in it - but we can test them out, keep modifying, keep improving. At least here, we have a starting point
To read the theory please do click on FUNDAMENTALS