By Rosemarie Monaco Whether you are using direct mail or permission-based email, attracting attention is the first, and perhaps most important step. August 2, 2005 -- Anytime you communicate directly with potential customers, your effort falls into the category of direct marketing. Unlike advertising, which goes through an intermediary, direct marketing puts your offer directly in front of the buyer and calls for a response. And while advertising serves to create aware-ness and sets the stage for your offer, direct marketing serves as a direct sales channel. As such, there are certain very basic rules to follow to make it a success. AIDA No, this isn't an opera. It is a classic direct-marketing acronym which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. But like the opera, it must be strong, moving and well orchestrated. Attract Attention Whether you are using direct mail or permission-based email, attracting attention is the first, and perhaps most important step. For direct mail, striking colors, powerful graphics and a strong headline will work. For email, you may have to rely on text alone since many companies disable the receipt of rich-media to prevent spamming and protect against viruses. In that case your headline must be the attention getter. Ask your current customers what their clients or managers expect from them. In either case, know your audience. Learn the issues that concern print buyers and speak their language. Talk in terms of the value they will realize by using your services. Remember that designers have different concerns than corporate purchasing agents. If possible segment your database. Arouse Interest Here is where understanding prospects' concerns is most important. You will arouse interest if your message strikes a chord. "Three ways to save money on your next print order." Or, "Better color for less." Or, "Did you know that UV inks can withstand the elements?" Or, "Press varnish protects your projects yet costs only pennies." There are many ways to arouse interest once you know what your audience cares about. Learning Customer Concerns You can learn first-hand what customers want by conducting focus groups. Designed to isolate "hot buttons" professional focus groups provide the most reliable data. If you do not have the staff or budget to conduct focus groups, try an online survey. Invite customers to fill out a short questionnaire on your Website or through the mail. Ask print buyers to tell you what aggravates them most about their service providers, and what they look for (in order of priority) when selecting a new supplier. Email marketing works best if you include a link that clicks them to your offer. There is another way to accumulate a list of "hot buttons". Ask your current customers what their clients or managers expect from them. Do they value cost savings? Is fast turnaround more important? How does quality weigh against cost and turnaround? Ask them what suppliers can do to make them more valuable to their clients or bosses. Let them tell you stories of jobs that went wrong. This is not the most scientific method because you run the risk of customers not wanting to offend you. However, if you let them know that you are asking so you can better serve them, you will come close to learning what you need to know. Stimulate Desire Sending your prospects a list of features and benefits, no matter how well you frame them, is unlikely to work. Find ways of making your audience really want your product or service. Explain the value buyers will get from working with you. Better yet, offer them something they cannot resist. "To Spec. On Time. Or It's On Us." "Sell More Products with Printing That Pops Off the Page." "20 percent Off Your First Printing Order." Free. Now. You. These are three of the most powerful direct-marketing words. Statistics show that email marketing works best if you include a link that clicks them to your offer. But do not make the mistake of including a link for its own sake. Make sure that when buyers click the link they are taken directly to your "value" offer. Too many clicks stymie rather than stimulate desire. Call to Action Putting a time limit on an offer will increase response. Making it easy to reach you day or night also helps. "Limited-time offer" or "Respond by (date) and the offer will be good for six months" are just two possibilities. Free. Now. You. These are three of the most powerful direct-marketing words. "You" or "your" personalizes the message. "Now" and "Free" are words most readers find impossible to pass up. Deliver on Your Promises The key to making this work is to actually promise less than you deliver. You will get new customers if you follow the AIDA formula. But you won't keep any of them if you do not deliver on your promises. This is critical for customer retention. Never make promises you cannot keep. The key to making this work is to actually promise less than you deliver. Offer a 20 percent discount but deliver a job that is clearly worth more than the full price. Tell customers you will deliver on time, then deliver a day or two earlier. Invest in your customers. It will build loyalty and generate growth.