Do Postcards Still Work?

dpcswBy 10:39 a.m., Roger Lazier had reached the UH@#$%OH! point of his to-do-today list at his Arlington, Texas, home office. Too much for one regional sales manager to do, too many simultaneous follow-ups, too many lucrative opportunities he’d worked too hard to obtain.

The most pressing problem was an upcoming on-site demonstration at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Department of Energy’s development-and-testing complex. Big opportunity. Big need.to convince the 125 Sandia design engineers that they should come see his computer-assisted-design (CAD) software. And big communication problem. Two CAD software competitors were also scheduled–before him. And both had already sent invitational/informational letters to the same 125 design engineers.

Now it was Lazier’s turn to write an invitation, except he couldn’t seem to turn a phrase. He needed to get the design engineers’ attention as well as their attendance. He needed an announcement with features that translated to benefits. He needed something to stand out.

FAMILY HELP COMES CHEAP

Lazier picked up Iris phone and dialed 1-NEP-OTISM. His sister. Me.

“I need a sales letter, and it’s just not working!” he blurted. “Can you help? Gimme a lead. Say something, anything. And make it good.”

And the Postal Service delivered. Letter? Nah! The competitors had done that. (Acckk! I counseled. Same look, same style, one size fits none! Boring! No differentiation!)

Postcard, I wisely intoned. Do a postcard. And we did. And it delivered. And it can for you too.

The happily-shortly-thereafter ending: In two days, an oversize quick-print postcard was written, desktop-designed, printed, and posted. It was designed to stand out from ordinary-size mail: 5.5 by 8.5 inches on corporately tasteful light-blue card stock. One that eliminated the ordeal of envelopening. One that could be poked into an appointment book or tacked onto a bulletin board. One that used a recognizable scheduling format: a takeoff on a desk-calendar page, with a “handwritten” reminder memo to meet Lazier at such-and-such a time and place. One that quickly, easily, and creatively gave the benefits of this program over the others. One that cost $18 to print.

One that delivered-even after distribution delays at Sandia, even with a last-minute change of the announced meeting location, and even though Lazier was the third guy in for similar software, Lazier’s 10 percent return (12 prospective buyers showed) kept him busy during the entire session.

THE MOST DIRECT OF DIRECT MAIL

These toe-in-the-door communiques are too often overlooked–by senders, that is. Postcards are easy to write, to typeset, to print, to mall, to read, to keep. They’re appropriate for information-deluged recipients and for various contents (reminders, invitations, tips, updates, professional expertise, motivational ideas, humor). They can be impressive-looking (colored ink on colored paper) without the impressive price tag. They’re low cost–heck, you can print four cards on one 8.5-by-11 sheet of card stock, or print two large 5.5-by-8.5 cards instead.

And postcards are creative. Messages on the front, messages on the address side. The ease of desktop publishing offers unlimited graphic-design opportunities. Low-cost but high-quality programs like Publish-It! for Windows and the Macintosh (Timeworks) are powerful enough for postcard production. Nearly all Windows and Mac word processors, with their basic graphic capabilities, would also suffice for these projects. Even if you use a DOS word-processing program such as WordPerfect 5.1 (with scalable fonts), you can create professional-looking messages for instant, easy, differentiating, standout interaction. In all these cases, output quality is essential, so you’ll want to laser-print your postcards if possible.

Don’t let the small size of postcards scare you. Simple stylistic devices–borders, lines, scalable fonts, arrows and bullets, 5 to 10 percent shading–will stand out in this reduced-size format and can create simple yet powerful, in-your-face messages. Plus, the size pretty much prohibits all those empty, automatic business-letter phrases. Postcards are like little billboards. They force the sender to collapse all the b.s. (business-ese stuff) into pertinent particulars. (Remember that sage advice about being able to “write your idea on the back of my business card”?)

A PLETHORA OF POSTCARDS

Postcards are ideal for follow-ups and stay-in-touch messages. How often can you send yet another letter? And what do you send once you’ve sent the one-shot brochure? What if you don’t have the time, stamina, budget, or editorial content for an ongoing newsletter? Or the talent to concoct a convincing case study or solutions scenario?

Consider the potential and possibilities of the (not-so) humble postcard. Enlarge your business card for a larger-than-life reminder. Or do a giant Rolodex postcard. Or a series of keeper postcards that offer important tips.

Upcoming meeting? Get scenic postcards of the site and print your invite or reminder in a script font on the back.

Or use postcards for surveys, contests, or feedback. Fold a 5.5-by-8.5 card in half to mail–using a sticky tab to keep it closed, not a staple–with one half for the announcement message and the other half for the return/reply card. One client used this method to announce a new catalog. Those replying not only qualified themselves but helped reduce overall mailing costs. In addition, it allowed the sender to concentrate on his best prospects (also providing additional mail and follow-up opportunities).

How about a monthly series of postcards containing inspiring, motivational, read-it-and-keep quotes, messages, and insights that pertain to your field? Or ones offering synopses of current articles in your field? (Postcards are great for demonstrating expertise or authority without being too obvious about it.)

THE BIG TEASE

Or, as a small advertising agency struggling against the big guys did, why not send a series of postcards containing teasers and the promise of a payoff?

The Badertscher Communications advertising agency in Marion, Ohio, was small and wanted to be bigger. It was up against established agencies in the state capital of Columbus. And it faced the same problem: All agencies sent the same stuff–brochures proclaiming philosophies, creativity, case studies, and their general greatness.

But Badertscher had a think-different, do-different copywriter named Michael Flegle. He had an independent photographer friend who dug out his backyard for a deck one day and uncovered some fascinating trash–old bottles, old marbles, another era’s junk. Flegle saw something more than excavated items. He looked at the reminders of a past life and saw a still life–a big photographic picture and a way to convince prospective clients that his agency could provide them with the big picture.

The photographer shot a gorgeous photo. And the agency cut it into fourths and used each portion of the picture on the front of a series of four 4-by-6 postcards, timed to arrive (unidentified) every three days. Each carried a different curious question, starting with:

“Why would an advertising agency show a high school girl inside a boys’ restroom, in order to get a school levy passed?”

The last card identified the agency and its philosophy of providing attention-getting messages and the “big picture”– plus an offer to tape, glue, or staple the four postcards together and return them for a limited-edition poster (in one piece), suitable for framing. It also gave details that answered the case-study questions. The results? “Tremendous,” says Flegle, now a creative director for Gibson Greeting Cards in Cincinnati.

OK, you’re saying, but that was probably a four-color printing. Well, yes, it was. But there are companies out there offering four-color postcards for small-budget people. Check the classified sections of advertising trade magazines such as Advertising Age for supplier listings or your own yellow pages for printers. Most quick printers, such as Kinko’s, don’t offer four-color work, but many instant printers have certain days when color ink is no additional charge, allowing for some pretty spiffy two-color work.

TWO-FOR-ONE POSTCARDS

Costs, headaches, and hassles can be offset through cooperative efforts with another independent businessperson if both parties use the same postcard to pitch different audiences.

A home-based Indianapolis graphics-design firm, Antenna, pooled efforts with Tamara Zahn, then an Indianapolis retail-marketing consultant, who called asking for a not-your-ordinary holiday greeting. Something to stand out from the Christmas clutter. And maybe something with some additional life after the seasonal mail-out.

They opted for a New Year’s postcard, one designed on a Mac in what Antenna partners Jim and Laura Lacy Sholly explain was “high-tech graphics with low-end printing.”A photograph was photo-copied, type was composed, and what was to become an award-winning card was printed with blue plus one-color on chipboard (a cousin of cardboard) by letter-press printers.

Both the designers and the consultant were able to use the card all year long–for thank-yous, glad-we-met-at-that-meeting follow-ups, project updates, and other keep-in-touch communications–for both new clients and those who had received the original mailing.

WHAT IT TAKES

Beyond the savings in creating postcards yourself, beyond the ability to copy several on a standard-size page, beyond the elimination of envelopes, don’t forget you also save money on postage. It’s only 19 cents for a standard-size card (3.5 by 5). Anything above that, from the larger standouts (5.5 by 8.5) all the way up to 11.5 by 6, is still just 29 cents, the standard first-class rate. For even larger cards, there’s only a 10 cent surcharge.

Postal rates are even cheaper if you use bulk mail, which requires a mailing of 200 pieces at a time, an annual permit fee, proper printing of the bulk-rate indices, and specialized sorting procedures.

Another postage option–especially important when using return-response cards (you pay the postage, not the sender)–is Business Reply Mail, which has its own set of permits and specific format guidelines for the postcard. Ask your post office for brochures on preparing Business Reply Mail. This option costs more than standard postage, since you’ll be paying a handling fee, but it ensures better response for comment cards, survey responses, order cards, and the like.

Other home-based communicators use postcards monthly to send jokes or quirky cartoons. Some send reminders or hints. But all agree–when brochures and letters and sell sheets and all the complicated options aren’t quite appropriate or possible, and when you want to keep in touch or quickly convey expertise or information, postcards are an easy, affordable well-received alternative.

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