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I recently asked a seminar audience which topic they would like to learn more about: direct mail letters or social media campaigns.

Social media won out by a landslide.

I wasn’t surprised. After all, social media is red hot right now. In fact, it’s probably the most exciting — and in some ways, confounding — marketing channel that has emerged since the internet began.

Done right, social media can be a very effective means of connecting with, and engaging, prospects and clients. If I were in my audience I probably would have voted for it too!

But just because social media is hot . . . and direct mail is, well, not . . . doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider using direct mail letters.

You should.

In fact, if you sell a business-to-business service of any kind, a direct mail letter can be a powerful tool for generating leads from a targeted list of prospects. I recently wrote a one page letter for a client in the consulting industry that generated an 8.4% response. The subsequent follow-up campaign converted approximately one-in-five of those leads into brand new clients.

Now, when I say “direct mail letter”, I’m not referring to a bulky direct mail piece stuffed with inserts, or featuring an attention-grabbing gimmick like a treasure map inside. (Although those types of mailers can certainly work well!) What I’m referring to instead is a simple business letter, just one or two pages long, printed on your company letterhead.

I’ve written literally hundreds of these letters over the years — for my clients and for my own business — and I’ve found that the winning formula for creating them is really quite simple. Here’s the basic outline:

  1. Begin by drawing attention to a challenge the prospect is likely facing, or a goal he or she likely wants to achieve.
  2. Introduce your free report (or other information piece, such as a tip sheet or article) that gives the prospect valuable insights into how to solve the problem or achieve the goal.
  3. Provide evidence that the report contains insightful, actionable information. (In other words, convince the prospect that it’s not just fluff.) My favorite way of doing that is to insert a testimonial from a client or outside expert who has previewed the piece.
  4. Explain your motives. You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re prospecting for new business. In fact, I’ve found that you’ll probably get better results if you just come out and say something like, “I’m sure you’ll find the special report helpful and, frankly, I hope it motivates you to take a closer look at our services.”
  5. Finally, close with a call-to-action. Explain how to get the free report. The best options are to invite the prospect to call you, email you, or visit your website and use the sign-up form.

That’s it. A very simple formula, but one that I find works well when writing lead-generating letters.

If you decide to try this technique, be sure to send it to a highly targeted list of prospects — say, marketing managers of chemical instrumentation companies. This takes the “mass” out of the mass mailing stigma by enabling you to create a letter that’s highly customized and relevant for the prospect.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I know social media is exciting. Heck, I find it exciting. But don’t forget about what has been the workhorse of lead-generation for more than 150 years: direct mail letters. They still work. In some cases, better than ever.