Direct Mail: Now Fitter Than Ever

by Maria Parrella-Turco on Jan 22, 2013

Success Series

Use variable data printing to create highly customized messages.

During my decade of experience in marketing, I’ve seen a lot of failures—and many more successes. With the Internet, the art of fitness marketing is more complex than it once was. However, many of the basic principles still apply. Take direct mail, for example. Some might say that this form of marketing is dead. However, variable data printing is proof positive that direct mail is fitter than ever. This article explains the basics of VDP and then offers some bonus direct mail advice for fitness managers.

What Is VDP?

VDP—also known as personalization, customization, variable information, one-to-one marketing and versioning—is “the use of digital technology to link print engines to databases that contain content for printed documents” (Electronics for Imaging Inc. 2006). Essentially, it works like this: During the print run of your latest advertising piece, VDP takes text and images from your database and integrates them into a document that you’ve preconfigured to meet your marketing needs. As a result, whether a print run is 10 copies or 10,000, VDP can suit each copy to each individual’s needs (Electronics for Imaging Inc. 2006).

For example, in the past you may have sent your membership base a generic postcard that said, “It’s time to renew your membership” or “Buy a personal training package today.” With VDP, you can customize each piece to the needs of each member, based on the information you have in your database. That same postcard can now read, “Ann, it’s been 9 months since you’ve been in. Renewal is soon; let’s talk about how to meet your needs.”

With VDP, you’re able to measure results precisely, but what’s more impressive is the return/response rate—measured in phone calls, Web inquiries and walk-ins, and/or by the number of activations. Revenues and profits associated with personalized marketing programs are over 31% greater than those associated with general marketing (Electronics for Imaging Inc. 2006).

Your content, however, still needs to be highly relevant.

VDP Essentials

A VDP campaign has the following advantages over old-style direct mail:

  • The mailing is individually crafted.
  • You can try out different formats to determine which is most cost-effective and gives the best response rate.
  • Each mailing piece can contain a unique URL—a PURL, or personalized uniform resource locator, using a recipient’s name—that directs the recipient to a landing page with a call to action. Data is also acquired and stored.

PURLs are a great way to measure response and open rates. Each time a PURL is triggered, the lead information is sent to a designated staff member for follow-up. If the recipient completes the information on the landing page, another email is triggered. When the lead arrives at the recipient’s personal landing page, you can collect both active data and passive data, which will refine your marketing and educate you about your audience.

The more relevant the communication is to the consumer, the better the results. VDP provides highly targeted direct marketing communications that improve response rates, allow for accurate metrics and drive return on investment. Simply personalizing a mailer with a person’s name can increase response by as much as 44% (Broudy and Romano 2000). It’s now affordable to use direct mail to make highly relevant touchpoints.

The Rest of Your Direct Mail Marketing

Applying VDP is a winning move. Here are some general tips to make all of your direct mail more effective.

When constructing your message, know your target’s pain points. All consumers have specific “pain points,” or areas that they can’t easily address just by choosing another brand. In the fitness industry, one common pain point is people’s resistance to joining a fitness facility. Find out why you’re having trouble converting people. For example, maybe potential clients hate long-term commitments or enrollment fees. Or perhaps they have time management issues and they need you to help them figure out a plan that works.

Focus on the offer. The offer you make to potential clients is a significant criterion for conversion. If you’re not a low-price player, then market free trials, short-term opportunities and high value. For example, add a month to your basic membership, or let people know about your spa-like changing rooms.

Don’t sell just on price. With the birth of the low-price competitor, some fitness facilities have failed by trying to sell on price alone. Competing this way leads to a discounting war, lower profitability and often bankruptcy. Why not focus instead on creating so much value that the perception of price becomes insignificant? For example, market your group exercise programs (most of which are free, but add value to membership).

Be a solution. Stop hawking membership-only offers; instead, provide programs and solutions. For example, even though there are more fitness options than ever, obesity is a major epidemic. Fitness facilities haven’t been offering compelling solutions. Look for ways to provide and market short-commitment programs with a guaranteed result, guided by a motivational coach.

Give it time. A marketing campaign needs time to gain momentum. If you try direct mail for only 1 month, you will most likely be disappointed. If you want to truly penetrate a market, try at minimum a full 3-month campaign that combines direct mail and other media (using VDP, of course). Then measure your results.

Get data-centric. Record and analyze all data, and conduct a return-on-investment analysis. Get a tracking number to record incoming calls, and use a custom URL to track Web leads and measure walk-ins. These will help you gain a clearer understanding of your ROI. Most marketing companies that work specifically for the health and fitness industry now provide ROI reports that include member information. You can also get a data comparison list, which provides an accurate ROI report.

For a truly successful direct mail marketing campaign, combine VDP with your current programs and use the techniques discussed above. These strategies have great potential to boost your marketing success and yield a commendable ROI.


Broudy, D., & Romano, F. 2000. Personalized and Database Printing. Torrance, CA: Micro Publishing Press.

Electronics for Imaging Inc. 2006. ABC’s of VDP: A variable data printing basics guide. _Letter.pdf; retrieved Dec. 13, 2012.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 25, Issue 2

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About the Author

Maria Parrella-Turco IDEA Author/Presenter

Maria Parrella-Turco is a senior partner of New Paradigm Partners, a health club industry consulting firm. She is also COO of fitRewards, the fitness industry's first reward and loyalty program. She h...