A Short Course on the Strategy of Direct Mail

In direct mail marketing there’s a major difference between strategy and tactics. Yet most people don’t take the time to consider the difference. Unfortunately, when they allow both to mean essentially the same, these companies not only fail to hit the target, but they harm their mission. This holds true whether one is talking about business in general, or direct mail. The mission today is to focus on direct mail strategy. So here goes…

There are four basic concepts or definitions to consider: goals, objectives, strategy, and tactics. Let’s take a close look at each.

Goals And Objectives

When people think about a goal, they think about winning. So, the goal is that place toward which players of a game try to advance in order to score points. The goal is the destination where something (such as a journey or race) ends. It’s that far off, distant prize. Even if you can’t yet see it, you can picture it in your mind’s eye. And you have the resolve to get there, no matter what. So, think about a goal as a destination, an end, a mission, a purpose, or a target. The goal is what a plan is intended to help you achieve.

When professional direct mail organizations work with clients, they often find it helpful to separate goals and objectives. The goal is the big mission; the objectives are the steps along the way that are necessary (if not imperative) in order to reach the bigger goal. In a military sense, you can think about the ultimate goal as winning the war. Then, think about objectives as individual skirmishes and battles along the way that take you step by step to your goal.

In a business sense, your goal may be to reach $2 billion in sales. You obviously can’t do this in a single step. So, you look at more manageable objectives, such as opening more stores, creating an online store, merging with a smaller player in the industry. When goals and objectives are quantifiable or measurable, you can reach them more easily than when they are not. To be the “best” or “most convenient” can’t be measured. You can, however, reach $2 billion in sales, open nine more stores, be online with the new website by October 1st, and so on.


Strategy is the overall master plan to help you reach your ultimate goal. It is an elaborate and systematic plan of action. To borrow from military science once again, it deals with the overall planning and conduct of a war. So strategy is the action, approach, blueprint, grand design, method, plan, program, slant, story, or system that you put in place and that allows you to reach your ultimate goal.

Let’s say you have your goal. You have looked at the numbers. You know what objectives you need to achieve in order to attain your ultimate goal within a specific period of time. How will you accomplish this?

1. You will need a highly focused commitment to marketing.

2. You will need a massive campaign that dominates the industry and target market.

3. You will need consistent messages — a core story that identifies you and your unique selling proposition, and that positions you as head and shoulders above your competition.

4. You may also need a slogan that people can relate to and remember easily.

Avis “tried harder” for years. FedEx has always “been there when you absolutely, positively had to have it there overnight”. And Wal-Mart is “always slashing prices”. (And you thought slogans were just for fun?) These companies created a strategy to support their goal. And they stuck with their strategy. Just as a general can develop a strategy for fighting a war, the general knows that he must be able to change and adapt that strategy when conditions change. The key is that once you have your strategy developed, you stay with it.


Tactics is another term borrowed from the military. A tactic is a road map or recipe for attaining a particular objective. When the foot soldiers are out on maneuvers, what the commander is saying is that he has specific activities that are necessary in order to advance toward the ultimate goal: to win the war, take the hill, hold the line, and so on. These maneuvers, or tactics, support the overall strategy for the war. But it is not the only activity that he will need or use. In fact, he will use many individual tactics to support his strategy.

So, from a marketing standpoint, tactics are those activities that you will employ at various times to support the marketing strategy and to communicate your core concept to your intended audience. Newspaper advertising, direct mail, television, radio, telemarketing, email, radio, yellow pages, coupons, trade shows, one-on-one selling, tie-in partners, and so on, are each marketing or advertising tactics. The key is that the tactics you choose must always support the strategy.

The problem comes when people separate tactics from strategy. Tactics that are casual, unplanned, shoot-from-the-hip activities — although worthy in and of themselves – may not support a comprehensive, fully focused marketing strategy. And each and every message that appears must convey the primary strategy. When the salesperson from the local business directory runs into your store and says, “You need this. This is great!” before you say “Yes,” you must determine if this tactic supports your strategy. If everyone else in the directory is running discount coupons and you don’t sell on price, it doesn’t support your strategy. You don’t belong there.

Obviously every situation is different. But one thing is for sure: When it comes to effective direct mail planning and deployment, it is often easier to see your strategic and tactical opportunities when you have an experienced guide to lead you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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