How to Use Direct Mail to Drive Web Traffic
and Get More Inquiries
By Ralph Elliott, Ph.D.
Even though postage costs continue to increase, many seminar/conference providers still use direct
mail as an effective tool for increasing attendance at program offerings. Direct mail can be effective
in two ways: (1) to generate inquiries for seminars and conferences and (2) to encourage past
customers to return for additional programs. The purpose of this article is to show you how to use
direct mail for generating inquiries.
An inquiry generator is exactly what it says… a tool and/or strategy to generate inquiries for a
provider’s seminars and conferences. Take a look at the pyramid in Figure One.
As you can see, prospects and suspects are at the bottom of the pyramid; inquiries and leads are
midway up; and at the top of the pyramid, are customers and clients. The purpose of the inquiry
generator is to convert prospects and suspects into inquiries or leads.
Sometimes this inquiry-generation process is called two-step marketing. Step one is to convert the
prospect into an inquiry, and step two is to convert the inquiry into a customer.
Envelope and Cover Letter As an Inquiry Generator
Take a look at Figure Two, where you will find an envelope used by Northwestern University to
generate inquiries for its professional development, graduate, and undergraduate programs.
Envelopes are an important component of a successful inquiry generator, and providers should keep
in mind a number of pointers when designing them.
First of all, providers should use a window envelope so that the enclosed letter and its inside address
show through the window. People often perceive window envelopes as having an invoice or a
check; therefore, they are much more likely to open them than non-window variations.
Next, the envelope must contain a credible return address. Notice in the Northwestern example the
University has its logo or brand on the return address as well as the name of the unit within the
University producing the inquiry generator. In some instances, providers will include the name of a
person in the return address so as to give the impression that an individual personally mailed the
Next, one has to be careful about the postage used on a direct-mail envelope inquiry generator. First
of all, a provider should avoid using an indicia. By preprinting an indicia on the envelope, a
provider is signaling to the recipient the promotion has been “mass produced” and therefore is
potentially “junk mail.” Providers should always meter the postage onto envelope inquiry
To keep postage costs low, a provider might use low-cost “standard mail” postage. Standard-mail
postage (formally called bulk-rate postage) is substantially less than first-class postage. By metering
the standard-mail postage, a provider gives the impression the envelope is mailed first class even
though it is not. Generally, a red meter is better than blue.
Keep in mind recipients typically look at three primary screening tools when evaluating an envelope.
First, they look at the window to see if their name is spelled correctly. Second, they check the name
of the organization sending the information (the return address). Third, recipients check the postage
Of course, another option is to use a “live stamp.” The stamp might be standard mail, or it can be
regular first-class. Many providers have had success with “standard-mail” stamps. Generally
speaking, a live stamp will outperform the metered postage, and the metered postage will outperform
the bulk indicia. A good compromise among these options is to use the metered postage on the
Another point to consider when designing envelopes for inquiry generation is the effectiveness of
“headlines.” Headlines on an envelope are like the subject line on an email blast. The purpose of
the headline is to tell the person what is inside and should encourage the person to “open” the
Notice in the Northwestern example the University is offering a free catalog as an inducement to
open the envelope and read the enclosed letter. The headline is enhanced by photographs of the
catalog. Generally speaking, providers find that headlines on an envelope work better for business-
to-consumer (B to C) mailings than for business-to-business (B to B). Therefore, a provider needs to
evaluate carefully the market segments being mailed. Recipients might use a poorly composed
headline as a “screening device” and once again perceive the promotional package as “junk mail.”
While the envelope must entice the recipient to open the inquiry generator, the cover letter included
inside must sell or motivate action. As seen in Figure Three, Northwestern University uses a one-
page cover letter, the length typically having the best draw. This Northwestern example illustrates
the desirable attributes of a successful cover letter.
First, the letter is personalized to the prospect. Personalizing the letter significantly increases the
probability that the message will be read. Of course, the personalized inside address shows through
the window envelope, with the personalization strategy thus providing two benefits: (1) while the
letter is still in the envelope and (2) once the recipient reviews the contents.
The personalization effect can be somewhat diminished by the postal sortation codes underneath the
recipient’s address. By adding these bar codes, Northwestern was able to get the lowest possible
postage cost; however, having the bar codes for carrier sorting takes away from the aura of
personalization created by the envelope and the letter as a whole.
Next, take a look at the VIP code both in the upper right-hand corner and at the end of the letter.
Often called a key code among direct marketing professionals, the VIP code is actually a tracking
device that tells the provider which mailing list/s produced the inquiry. Mailing lists and databases
will be discussed in a later article; however, note at this point a provider typically tests several
different mailing lists during a direct-mail marketing campaign. Each list has a different VIP code;
hence when inquiries are produced, they can be traced back to the list or lists that produced the
response. By this “tracking process,” a provider can see which lists are performing best and consider
reusing the most productive file or files.
In the example shown, the VIP code also plays another role. It facilitates the recipient’s inquiry
process when directed to go to the University’s webpage or website. As seen in Figure Four,
Northwestern created a special screen on its website for visitors to enter their VIP codes. Once the
VIP code is entered into the system and the visitor presses enter, he/she is taken to a new screen
where the address information has been pre-populated into the response form. In other words,
entering the VIP code allows the respondent to have his/her contact details automatically filled in on
a form, thus saving time and effort.
Figure 4: Using the VIP Code
Northwestern pre-populated the response form by archiving and classifying the names used in the
promotion by VIP code. Thus, when a recipient responded by entering the VIP code, the landing-
page form was automatically populated with the archived information. An example of the pre-
populated form is shown in Figure Five. The form contains the person’s name and address, typically
the amount of the information archived. The visitor has to supply only his/her telephone number and
email address, which, as indicated in Figure Five, are part of the required information.
Figure 5: The VIP Number
Pre-Populates the Form
In addition to the VIP code in the upper right-hand corner of the cover letter, note in the
Northwestern example the reproduction of the free catalog and brochures seen on the envelope. As
noted earlier, providing visual examples of what the person will receive is particularly effective in B-
to-C marketing versus B-to-B marketing. In a B-to-B marketing environment, a provider would, as a
rule, use a less “cluttered” look.
Another pointer about the cover letter is the use of a PS. Many providers feel the PS is the most
important or powerful part of a sales letter. Typically, a recipient looks at the top to see the name of
the organization sending the communication. Next, the recipient’s eye goes to the bottom to
discover the name of the individual writing the letter. At this point, he/she should see the PS. The
purpose of the PS is to “grab” the reader’s attention and encourage him/her to go back and read the
full letter. Or the PS can create a sense of urgency by offering a special incentive to respond (in this
case, log on and fill in the VIP code).
In the example shown, the PS offers the recipient the option of calling or emailing his/her request.
As a rule, providing response options is always a good idea. In some cases, a recipient may not want
to go online and enter a VIP code. He or she may prefer to talk to an individual. Or a recipient may
simply want to email the request.
Finally, a legible signature on the cover letter is important. Recipients tend to get upset if they
cannot read the handwriting of the writer. Also, the writer should consider using blue ink as most
studies show that a signature in blue ink out performs a signature in black.
Self-mailer As an Inquiry Generator
An alternative to the envelope and cover letter is a self-mailer for inquiry generation.
Figures Six and Seven show a self-mailer used by the University of Phoenix. The package is called
a self-mailer because it does not go into an envelope. In the example shown, a number of qualities
or attributes recommend the package and increase its responsiveness.
First of all, the direct-mail package contains a “piggyback” label, which the recipient can peel off
and place on the response device (Figure Seven). Also, the business response card is self-addressed
and has postage paid. Combining the piggyback label with a self-addressed, postage-paid business
reply card makes responding easy.
The size, the graphics, and the quality of paper used on the promotional package also recommend its
use as a direct self-mailer. All of these variables help to convey an image of quality and prestige for
the University of Phoenix.
In addition to the piggyback label, the University of Phoenix also offers several other response
options to recipients… telephone, fax, as well as direct visits to a landing page at the web site.
A landing page is typically the first screen a visitor sees when he or she enters the URL listed on a
promotion. In Figure Eight, you can see an example of a University of Phoenix landing page.
When a visitor arrives at the University’s web site, a pop-up screen allows visitors to supply the
requested information. Essentially, visitors are encouraged to join the database before receiving
information at the website.
Figure 8: Get Visitors Right
into the Data Base
In Figure Nine, The University of Phoenix asks visitors to supply more detailed information than did
Northwestern University in the earlier example. Of course, Northwestern was selling/promoting a
number of non-credit seminars and conferences; the University of Phoenix is marketing and selling
degree programs. When selling degree programs, a provider typically wants to capture more
information so that it can better advise the prospect on the most appropriate course of study.
Figure 9: A Second Screen to Capture
More Detailed Information
Also, a detailed or somewhat complicated landing page that takes time to complete is a good
“screening” device to determine the earnestness of a prospect’s desire to take courses or programs.
Recipients who fill out a multi-screen landing page are likely to be much more highly qualified than
visitors who provide only name and email address.
One might ask which is more effective—the self-mailer or the envelope and cover letter. The easy
answer is to recommend a provider test an envelope direct-mail package versus a self-mailer. In
such a test, a mailing list is divided by odd/even zip codes, and half of the list receives the envelope,
and the other half receives a self-mailer. Essentially, the data decides which package performs
better. Generally speaking, envelope mailings outperform the self-mailer. Therefore, a provider
may want to start with an envelope direct-mail package as part of his/her inquiry generation
Economics of Inquiry Generation
Whether the provider uses the self-mailer or the envelope and cover letter, direct mail is a powerful
tool for inquiry generation. But what are the economics? Let’s do the numbers. The assumption in
Figure Ten is that the cost of mailing an inquiry generator is around 50 cents per package or $500
for a thousand (this assumes standard-mail postage cost). Typically, the response rate on an inquiry
generator is between 2% and 10%. Assuming a 5% response rate, a provider would receive 50
inquiries per thousand envelopes or self-mailers. $500 per thousand divided by the 50 inquiries
yields a cost per inquiry of $10.
Figure 10: Economics of Inquiry
Assume $500 for 1,000 mailings
Assume 5% response rate
Therefore, 50 inquiries per 1,000
So, $500/50 = $10 per inquiry
Assume 10% of the inquiries convert
So 5 become customers
Final cost is $500/5 = $100 per customer