What Donald Trump Can Teach You About Direct Marketing

I never thought of Donald Trump as a direct marketer. In fact, from what little I had seen, he seemed largely ignorant of the principles of DM. For instance, on the first season of “The Apprentice,” the two teams had to come up with an ad campaign for a company that made corporate jets. The planes (complete with flight crew) would be available to clients who wanted to fly in private jets but did not have the budget to buy their own.

In particular, Trump praised one team’s campaign, which featured slick color photos of various parts of the jet shot at angles that made them look like phallic symbols. “Idiot!” I complained to my wife, who was watching the show with me. “The ads should have offered a Membership Card entitling the recipient to take his first 30 minutes of any flight FREE!” (That’s how we direct marketers think. Offer, offer, offer.) But an episode in the second season of “The Apprentice” was much more encouraging in its demonstration of direct-response principles.

This time, the two teams had the task of putting together and running, for one evening only, a bridal shop in NYC. The contest was simple. Whichever team had the highest gross sales for the evening would be the winner. Team A printed huge stacks of pink fliers inviting people to their bridal sale. They distributed these fliers by handing them out at Penn Station as morning commuters got off the trains. Trump correctly questioned the wisdom of Team A’s marketing strategy. He asked, “How many people are thinking about getting married when they’re on their way to work in the morning?” Team B took a more targeted approach. They rented an e-list of thousands of women who were planning to get married and e-mailed them an invitation to their sale.

I think you can guess the result. Team A had only a handful of customers in their shop, sold only two dresses, and grossed around $1,000. Team B had customers lining up on the sidewalk to get into the store, as if it were an exclusive Manhattan nightclub. They sold 26 dresses for gross revenues of more than $12,000, outselling Team “B” more than 12 to 1. The project manager of Team A was fired by Trump that night.

The lesson for direct marketers is clear: The list is all-important.

In this case, Team B knew that everyone on their list was planning to get married. Team A, by comparison, handed out their invitations to anyone and everyone who happened to be at Penn Station that morning. How many of those people had any interest in getting married? Was it one out of a hundred? Or maybe one out of a thousand? The “list” used by Team A had maybe 90% to 99% “wasted circulation.” In other words, most of their ads went to the wrong people: those not interested in buying their product. The list used by Team B had maybe 1% or as little as 0% wasted circulation.

Because virtually everyone on that list had indicated a planned wedding. And the result? B outpulled A by approximately 12 to 1 . . . a differential that is not uncommon in actual direct-marketing tests. Using the best mailing list vs. the worst mailing list can increase your response rate by 1,000% or more. That makes testing different mailing lists perhaps the best marketing investment you can make this year.

(Ed. Note: To learn more about the basics of direct marketing please check out ETR’s Direct Marketing University Quick Start Kit.)