In this new bimonthly series, industry consultant Casey Conrad offers her expert advice on how to improve your marketing efforts. This month she describes how to create direct marketing that works.

There are six basic steps to creating an effective direct mail piece.

1. Create a compelling headline.
2. Clearly state the benefits to the reader.
3. Make a strong offer.
4. Add some sort of guarantee (when appropriate).
5. Have a definitive call to action.
6. Make the offer better than risk-free.

Start with step one. When writing a headline, you MUST grab the reader's attention, preferably by "screaming out" something that is of emotional importance to the reader. Health clubs make two classic mistakes in their direct mail headlines: using the price as the headline or placing their company name at the top. Most people don't want to join a health club - they want the benefits of regular exercise. Furthermore, if there is no perceived value for the product or service, it won't matter that it is half off.

Since direct mail usually goes out to ZIP code or resident mailing lists, the headline must be something that interests almost anyone. Losing weight, feeling good, increased energy and decreased stress are some of the more popular benefits people want. Therefore, headlines like "Simple Program Guaranteed to Help You Reduce Stress" or "Lose Weight and Increase Your Energy In 30 Minutes; Free Trial Shows You How" would get most people's attention. A few other tips for good headlines are always include the word "you" and try to incorporate power words like "new," "simple," "free," "easy," "effective" and "exciting." Although these words seem very sales-oriented, statistics prove they work.

Step two should clearly state the benefits of your product to the reader. Like the headline, benefits should be stated emotionally because emotions drive human behavior. Furthermore, benefits should be discussed in a simple-to-understand format, avoiding any technical terms that might scare off readers.

Where clubs fail at this benefit component is feature dumping: "We have 45 cardio pieces, two lines of strength training, an entertainment system and 84 aerobics classes per week." So what! Most recipients have no idea what club features mean to them because they've never belonged to a club. Therefore, instead of just listing all the features, focus on a few and explain their benefits to the reader. For example, "We have six varieties (more than 45 individual pieces) of cardiovascular equipment that will help you lose weight and keep it off in a fun and varied setting to avoid boredom, and maximize motivation and participation long term." This type of statement is easy to understand AND addresses a major concern of most people - sticking with exercise.

The third step necessary for effectiveness is making a strong offer. Traditionally club operators make strong offers but mistakenly have the offer be the headline. Remember we have to get their attention before we can entice them to buy or try. Of course, the offer must be consistent with the club's goal. For instance, if the goal is to make the phone ring with potential prospects, clubs should be giving something away for free just for calling. If the goal is to get prospects to come to the club, some sort of trial visit would be in order. On the other hand, if the goal is immediate sales, a strong price offer or discount is necessary. Finally, whatever your offer, outline to the reader exactly what they need to do to take advantage of the offer. For instance, "Call today to receive your free pass," followed by the phone number. This may sound simple, but often direct mail pieces don't make it easy for the reader to act.

The fourth step in creating an effective direct mail piece is optional but one that will dramatically increase the response: making a guarantee. Many businesses are afraid consumers will abuse a guarantee. Of course, there will always be abusers, but the benefits of offering a guarantee far outweigh the disadvantages. A guarantee tells consumers the company stands behind its product 100 percent. In addition to a traditional "satisfaction guarantee," best price, a certain level of service, plus results and reference guarantees can also be used creatively.

Some important notes about guarantees: First, make sure you can walk your talk. Second, make sure the parameters are clearly established. For instance, "If after completing eight workouts in the first four weeks you are not feeling more energized and youthful, you have every right to ask for your money back." This way both consumer and business know what is expected of them.

The fifth step to a successful direct mail piece is having a definitive call to action. A call to action is a way to motivate the reader to act promptly. The two most common ways to do this are by having an expiration date or offering a bonus or incentive to act quickly. For instance, even with an expiration date, you might say, "First 25 callers receive a free club starter kit (T-shirt, towel and water bottle) valued at $22.95."

The final step to the direct mail piece, like the guarantee, will increase the response rate: Make the offer better than risk-free so the readers will benefit by taking action - even if they don't buy or end up asking for their money back. For example, by combining the earlier steps, you would offer the guarantee, give them the club starter kit, AND, even if they end up not staying with the club, they can keep the starter kit as your gift, just to thank them for trying the club out. It may sound crazy, but it works. People love to get free stuff. This offer will allow people who are not completely sure to feel more comfortable buying. If your club walks its talk, so long as the customer meets their part of the guarantee, you should be able to keep them at the club.

One final note as it pertains to ALL marketing is testing. Top marketers know that each market has unique aspects to it. Something that works in one area may fail miserably in another. Don't throw the entire marketing piece out, though. Take each step, one at a time and change it until you have found a successful combination. Once perfected, keep using the piece until it stops getting a good response. Remember you will get sick of a marketing campaign long before the consumer does! Good luck.