Marketing is an essential ingredient in the recipe for growth — even survival — for any small business. Yet, many grounds maintenance professionals shy away from all but the most obvious ways to promote their businesses.

Surprisingly, one of the industry's most neglected marketing techniques is also one of the least costly and potentially most profitable: direct mail.

During my years as a management consultant, I found that most failures to make use of this powerful marketing tool can be traced directly to the owner's lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of direct mail marketing.

If you've been neglecting this potent tool for building sales and profits in your business, there has never been a better time for you to get started.

Here are three reasons why direct mail can be a profitable advertising medium for you:

  • Direct mail is a targeted medium. It's easy to aim your advertising dollars exclusively at legitimate prospects.

  • The results of your direct mail advertising can be tracked with more ease than with any other advertising medium. With direct mail, you don't have to guess how successful your efforts have been.

  • Desktop computers and inexpensive software have made it easier than ever to design and produce professional quality direct mail packages. While it is always preferable to seek professional help in any advertising program, it is not an absolute requirement in basic direct mail campaigns.


Target your direct mail dollars to your best prospects — your own list of customers. Direct mail experts know that people who are doing or have done business with you in the past are your best prospects for additional business. So, if you have maintained your own up-to-date customer list, congratulations are in order. You're all set to enjoy the benefits of direct mail marketing.

Of all the variables in a direct mail campaign, the most important by far is the mailing list itself — not the creative design, not even the offer it contains. Direct mail professionals refer to this as the 60-30-10 rule. That is, 60 percent of the success of a mailing depends on the list used, 30 percent on the offer and only 10 percent on the creative design.

That's why you should always target your direct mail advertising dollars. And remember, the bull's-eye in that target is the list of your present and past customers.

The care and feeding of a direct mail list. Given the importance of the list itself, you must make every effort to keep yours healthy by keeping it current.

People and businesses move away from your market area in numbers that may surprise you. According to government statistics, one in five Americans changes addresses each year. That means that a list untended for two or three years will suffer serious deterioration in quality.

One of the easiest ways to keep your list up-to-date is to request address corrections from your post office on at least one mailing a year. There's a small expense for this service, but it's money well spent. Every undeliverable address on your list represents wasted money.

Given today's technology, there is no other practical way to maintain a customer list than the use of a computer. Whether you use custom software or an over-the-counter package such as Excel, Access or Approach, it's important to weed out irregularities such as duplicates and misspellings.

Is maintaining a customer list worth all this trouble? Definitely yes. The more accurate your list, the better will be your response rate; the better your response rate, the better your sales and profits. You can count on that.

Creating your mailing package. Once you're satisfied that your mailing list is as clean as you can make it, it's time to decide what type of mailing will work best for you. A direct mail package can take any one of many forms. Here are three of the most effective:

  • Postcards

    The least expensive form of direct mail advertising is the humble postcard. Done with careful planning and a dose of creativity, a postcard is well suited for some types of promotions, but woefully inadequate for others. Given its obvious space limitations, a postcard cannot effectively carry a complex message that requires the reader to make a major decision.

    Still, a carefully crafted postcard message can be effective for such tasks as simple discount offers, announcing seasonal services, a special for-past-customers-only, or just keeping in touch with your customers to remind them how much you appreciate their business.

    Your postcard mailing doesn't have to be limited to the standard 3.5 inches by 5 inches. Postal regulations permit postcards to be as large as 4.25 inches high by 6 inches wide that still can be mailed for the regular postcard rate.

    The additional space on the oversized card allows for more freedom in crafting your message, and is more likely to arrest the attention of the recipient. If you use a postcard mailer, I recommend that you take advantage of the larger size. The slightly higher printing expense will be well justified.

  • The Formal Letter

    When done skillfully, a letter — particularly a first-person letter — from you to a customer or potential customer is one of advertising's most powerful techniques.

    Your message in a letter can contain more information, be more personalized to the recipient and is more likely to be given serious consideration by the reader.

    In my experience, letters written in the first person are ideal for service providers. The warmth and directness of a first-person letter, as opposed to the impersonal third person, greatly enhances the effectiveness of any message.

    First person simply means that the writer of the letter is speaking directly to the reader. A letter written in the first person will contain phrases like this: “As owner of ABC Landscapers, I'd like to thank you for your past business.” Or “I take great pride in our reputation, and all of our services carry my personal guarantee of satisfaction.” In other words, write as if you were speaking to the recipient face-to-face.

    Hint: Writing an effective sales letter is far more difficult than most business owners realize. Unless you are skilled in English grammar and the subtleties of writing advertising copy, you should seek help from a friend or relative known to be a good communicator. At the very least, always ask someone else to proofread your advertising messages. It's very difficult to proofread your own work, even for professionals.

  • Newsletters

    For those who are willing to take the time and effort to create a newsletter, the result can be an amazingly powerful business-builder. Small business owners who mail out newsletters on a regular basis agree that the key to a successful newsletter is worthwhile information.

A newsletter provides obvious opportunities for sales offers, but it's important to surround those ads with interesting and helpful information for the reader.

Putting together a quarterly or semi-annual newsletter with informative and interesting copy requires talent and hard work. It won't be right for every grounds maintenance professional, but for those who are willing to make the effort, a good newsletter is a powerful selling tool.

Always remember, though, that every issue must contain information of genuine interest to the reader. Otherwise, a different form of direct mail would be a better choice. Your sales messages should never be allowed to overwhelm the editorial content.

Newsletters may consist of a single page printed on both sides, or they may be in the more conventional 4-page format. Either way, your local printer can provide important help if you decide to use a newsletter as part of your marketing program.


One ingredient for success in direct mail marketing agreed on by all professionals is the necessity of testing each and every promotion.

There is no need to waste advertising dollars on a campaign that isn't producing satisfactory returns. By tracking on a consistent basis, you will soon learn exactly which of your promotions are working and which are not.

The Postal Service offers some excellent advice on tracking and other direct mail tips on their Web site, http://www.usps.gov. Then, click on “grow your business.” Whether direct mail is art or science, or some combination of both, is a matter of continuing debate among professionals. One point that is generally agreed on, however, is that the tiniest change in a direct mail promotion can make a surprisingly big difference in the results.

Such seemingly unimportant details as the color of the paper or ink, the day of the week that the package is mailed, or the size of the type used can affect the overall results of the promotion.

At this point, you needn't be overly concerned with such minutiae. The important thing is to get started with your own direct mail promotions now. If you follow the advice here and track your results carefully, you'll soon learn what works for you and what doesn't.

William Lynott is a freelance journalist who resides in Abington, Pa.


  1. Concentrate on creating a mailing list as tightly focused as you can make it. Remember that your mailing list is the most important part of your direct mail package.

  2. Spend lots of time developing an attention-grabbing headline. With today's short attention spans, your headline must give the reader an instant reason to continue reading. If your headline doesn't do its job, the rest of your package won't matter.

  3. If possible, try to work in one or more of the proven power words in your headline or the body of your main copy: Free, New, You, Value, Yes, Discover, Introducing, Announcing, Fast, Benefits, Money, Security, Safety, Save, Results, Proven, Guaranteed, Facts, Now, Solution, Amazing. They work.

  4. Resist the temptation to make your company name the most prominent element in your package. Your offer and how it will benefit the customer is the core of a successful direct mail promotion.

  5. Sell benefits, not features. You must give the reader a reason to respond. Tell the prospect how he or she will benefit by doing business with you. Keep the following reminder in front of you when you are preparing your direct mail copy: Tell me about my lawn, not your grass seed.

  6. You can't sell if you don't tell. You must tell your readers exactly what you want them to do. If you want them to telephone for information, tell them to do it, and then tell them again. If you want them to visit your store, tell them to do it. Prospects have more reasons for postponing a decision than you can imagine. Your job is to convince them to act … now.

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