Running a Shop Sales+Marketing

How to Make Direct Mail Work For You

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Direct mail may seem like an old-school marketing tool (having made its debut long before newspaper, radio and television advertising), but the debate on its true value is alive and well. 

From targeted eblasts and boosted social media posts to Adwords and geofencing, the real-time results and pinpoint precision that today’s digital marketing resources can yield can leave shop owners wondering why they’d bother with tasks like managing mail lists, curating creative copy, and the cost of actual postage—especially on a tight marketing budget. 

But those who have embraced and stuck with the medium continue to find it’s well worth the ROI. 

“The trouble is it’s a process that comes with a lot of factors to pin down and it can get expensive, so a lot of shops waffle or give up on it before they find their flow and really see it pay off,” says Mason Bragg, owner of Gulf Breeze Automotive in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “I hear it from other shops all the time and I’ve been there.”

Years ago as Bragg’s shop struggled to gain traction, he’d invest sporadically in direct mail and see a boost in car count, then pull funding when he didn’t hit his goal numbers and watch car counts dip again. Now, after years of honing his shop’s direct mail strategy, he hasn’t skipped a mailing since 2018 and has seen his shop’s revenue double in the process. 

Here, he and longtime direct mail user Mary Ellen Heirigs, co-owner of J&M Transmission and Auto Service in Tea, S.D., share the dos and don’ts they’ve learned through the years to make the most of your direct mail efforts. 

Don’t: Use the silver bullet approach. 

Direct mail shouldn’t replace your shop’s other marketing efforts.

“If there’s one thing to know, it’s that it’s got to be part of a well-rounded plan of attack,” says Bragg. “It’s not going to be your end-all be-all marketing fix.” 

Bragg and Heirigs both find that whether direct mail was the final nudge to drive customers to the shop or just one step in an overall marketing experience, your direct mail strategy can feed off of or strengthen your shop’s other marketing efforts by building brand awareness. 

From loaner cars, physical signage, and direct mail pieces to its targeted Facebook posts, Adwords, and SEO strategies, “each touchpoint creates a connection, consciously or subconsciously, that helps them build familiarity with the shop” says Heirigs. 

“Maybe that mailer was the last thing they saw, but before that they might have Googled ‘oil change’ and seen our shop pop up, or received a targeted ad, or passed our loaners out and about, and at some point your brain takes notice,” says Bragg. “It’s a link in that larger mental chain of connections they’re building.”

Don’t: Create a plan you can’t sustain. 

When it comes to direct mail, building a strategy for consistency is key. 

“I wish I’d learned earlier that you don’t have to send 10,000 mailers right off the bat—especially if you can’t replicate that next month. You’ll lose whatever momentum you might have begun to build,” says Bragg, 

After vacillating on the timing and frequency of his mailers, Bragg committed to a plan he knew he could sustain for the long haul, starting off small by spending $250 on deployments per week. He gradually increased his spend as business picked up, and now invests $800-$900 per week. 

Bragg also stresses finding a frequency and mailing schedule that will deliver results your shop can keep up with. Early on he sent his mailers monthly, and with just three bays and two techs, his team couldn’t keep up with the flurry of calls and appointments that would rush in after each monthly drop and quality of service was suffering. 

“We were overloading the system, sending too many all at once, and missing opportunities in the process.” 

After breaking his deployments into weekly drops and strategically selecting the days his campaigns will hit mailboxes, Bragg and his team have been able to maximize shop efficiency. He finds that with plenty of organic customer traffic at the beginning of the week, mailers that arrive on Wednesday afternoons can deliver a steady stream of new traffic to fill up lighter days at the end of the week. 

Do: Let your strategy put down roots. 

Heirigs and Bragg both also stress the importance of creating a controlled experiment by giving your strategy time to take root. 

“Between the radius, and the customer demographics you’re targeting, and the frequency you might be toying with, there are just too many variables at play to be making constant changes,” says Heirigs. “You’ll never know what in your strategy really worked if you don’t give it time to marinate.”

Heirigs, who sends her direct mail via Upswell, uses penetration reports provided by the service and input from her shop’s marketing team to track the impact of each route closely before making changes. 

Bragg agrees, noting that the concept extends to the vendors used to dispense your direct mail as well.

“Switching because of a longstanding issue with your vendor is one thing, but switching after just a few months or hopping from vendor to vendor before you’ve really sussed out the problem is like planting a tree, digging it up three weeks later and wondering why it didn’t grow,” says Bragg. 

Do: Personalize as much as possible. 

Bragg and Heirigs both note a few direct mail musts they’re sure to incorporate on every piece they send, including a clear map and directions to their shop’s location, multiple mentions of the shop’s phone number, call outs to any customer benefits or discounts that might win over a potential customer, photos of their actual shop and the vehicle models their shop actually services (rather than stock photos) and most importantly—photos of themselves. 

“You want these pieces to be relatable,” says Heirigs, who finds that mailers that include a photo of her and her husband have helped build a more personal customer connection, especially with newcomers. 

“Having your own photo on that mail helps them feel like they’re already getting to know the people who would be taking care of them on that next visit, and we actually see a difference in results when we skip it,” she says. 

Bragg also finds the personal photos help him connect with potential customers while away from the shop. “I do get recognized and get to hear from people who have received those mailers and it becomes this unexpected chance to interact and build connection or trust before they even need a repair.”

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