Before I became a real estate agent, I’d never written a piece of direct mail. I started off by thinking about what pieces had worked on me, asking senior members of my firm for help, and trolling the Internet. When I discovered Mal Warwick (who is known primarily as a nonprofit fundraising guru) it was like a revelation. In addition to his tips at www.malwarwick.com, he’s written 17 books on direct marketing, including “How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters” (Jossey-Bass). I dragged him away from polishing up his upcoming book, “Values-Driven Business,” (which is being written with Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen) to turn his mind to real estate.

Q: The thing about real estate agents and direct marketing is that the field’s very crowded; I bet I get a piece of mail a week asking me to sell my condo. Is there anything specific that agents can do to differentiate themselves?

A: The place to start is by focusing on the customer. Most marketing copy is what I would call “manufacturer’s copy” – it’s focused on the features of the product, rather than its benefits to the customer. If you as a customer are looking to buy a hammer, you don’t care about the features of the hammer; you want a nail in the wall.

Q: About half the mailings I get from agents show photos of themselves. Should I be sending out photos of myself?

A: I’ve seen photos on the majority of the real estate mailings I get. I think the logic goes that the more you can represent yourself as a real person, someone the buyer or seller might want to get to know, the more you can establish the relationship of trust that’s necessary.

But you have to consider the character of the mailing.

Q: I’m doing a mailing now in which I’m trying to get people to sell me their homes.

A: I would think having the piece mimic personal correspondence would be the most effective approach; something that inspires people to think you’re a discreet person that understands the character of the real estate market.

Q: So what should the letter say?

A: The letter inside ought to make the case for working with you, the Realtor. You do that by discussing a little bit about your track record. That needs to be presented not as bragging, but as benefit. Instead of saying “I sold X houses for Y money in Z years,” you’d say, “because I was able to sell so many houses in so many years, I can do the same for you as your Realtor.”

Q: What about calling or e-mailing?

A: You might want to consider telemarketing in addition to direct mail. Telemarketing does have a bad name, but it can be effective; you would have to get access to the Do-Not-Call list so you don’t run afoul of whatever restrictions are in place. The headquarters of the Direct Marketing Association is in New York City; you could ask them.

Also, e-mail is fine — if you have permission. If you’re going to use spam, I’d say forget it, since you’ll alienate a large portion of your potential audience.

Q: If I’m doing a mailing that looks like a personal letter, should I send a response card? I hate to ruin the personalized look of the piece, but members of my firm tell me that postcards can come in after-the-fact with leads on them.

A: I have literally gotten responses to mailings 20 years after the fact. A couple of years ago, I got a response to one of the first mailings I sent out in 1980; someone sent in a check to a long-defunct political committee. I don’t know what they were thinking.

You might want to try a card with a prepaid reply envelope  — that’s more discreet than a postcard, and with a major financial transaction, who would want the neighbors to know?

Q: I’m getting a 1 percent response rate, which I think is pretty good, but I’m only sending out 30 letters a day. One of my partners suggested I send out 3,000. Should I do more of a blanket mailing and stop hand–addressing my envelopes?

A: The rules for response rates change by market and by the nature of the offer…but for an unsolicited offer to engage in that kind of financial transaction, 1 percent is phenomenal.

As far as customizing them, to be trusted, a letter like that does need to look like it came from a person. Even if you’re going to send 3,000 letters, there are service bureaus you can pay to hand-address letters for you. And I’d suggest sending the letters with first-class stamps on them.

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