When you know your audience, direct marketing is almost always the right tactical approach. Old-school direct marketing thinking tells us that success hinges on the quality of three things: your list, your offer and the creative — with the first two of those being roughly twice as important as the third. And this holds true when evaluating “traditional” direct mail projects — blasting out a half-million credit card offers and hoping for that 2 percent response that will make you look like a hero.

But in our business-to-business world, we are often challenged with a very different problem — direct marketing to a niche audience. It’s a very small audience — maybe as few as a dozen or up to a few hundred — who we usually know very well, and we are marketing high-value products like mining equipment or commercial HVAC units. An audience where a 2 percent response rate is unacceptable because it might mean only one person raised their hand. This sort of environment turns the traditional direct marketing game on its head.

So let’s take a look at the three pieces of any direct marketing campaign — the list, the offer and the creative — and consider how to think about these when working under these dramatically different conditions.

The List:
The biggest difference in our small-audience, high-value B2B world is that we almost always know our audience intimately. We may know their past purchase history. They’re familiar with our brand and, importantly, the people around it. There are existing relationships we can capitalize on. And we can use this information to drive the next two pieces.

The Offer:
The strategic approach with projects like this is usually multi-pronged. And the goal of our direct marketing initiative is usually serving some interim goal within a larger, longer-term sales process (e.g., attend an event, demo a new product, have a meeting, etc.). The call to action is rarely “Send us money,” but rather, “Give us some of your time.”

With this sort of challenge, we’re usually looking at (at least) low-double-digit response rates as a goal. And when the audience is both small and of high value, you can afford to make them a Godfather Offer — an offer they can’t refuse. So we ask ourselves questions like, “What could we offer that would almost guarantee they raise their hand?” Can we personalize an offer based on what we know about them? Can we afford to offer something that might have a few hundred, or even thousand, dollars in value? Depending on what sort of purchase or action we’re ultimately driving toward, that might not be that crazy.

The Creative:
This is where it really gets interesting. The high-quantity realities of traditional direct mail, along with the sheer cost of postage, limit the deliverable to traditional formats like postcards and letters. But with smaller quantities, the world really opens up with not only what we can send someone — but how it gets packaged and even delivered. Spending $50 or $100 to package something up, or to deliver a high-impact message isn’t necessarily out of line. Perhaps we’ll have sweaters hand-sewn with the recipients’ initials on them? Or we’ll record a personal video message for each recipient. Or have the message hand-delivered by a totally-not-scary birthday clown riding a pony. It’s all possible if it’s the right fit for the client’s brand and it’s on strategy. Dollars become less important when the end-game purchase might have a five- or six-figure price tag.

What all this adds up to is that, when direct marketing becomes about reaching out to a small, high-value audience, it becomes an exercise in high-impact, high-touch marketing. It’s no longer a numbers game designed to eke out that 1 percent response. Instead, it becomes about making each and every recipient feel insanely special and showing them just how much you value their time and attention. It’s about making them feel like an audience of one.

About Drew Jones

As the managing director of the Two Rivers Marketing creative team, Drew nurtures ideas into creative expressions that motivate. When he’s not at Two Rivers, you might find him along a trout stream in Siberian Russia. You can drop Drew a line at drewj@2rm.com