I could tell you that average temperature in world is 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But that fact wouldn’t keep you from getting sunstroke in Cairo. Or frostbite in Tuktoyaktuk. Averages tell you only so much.
Direct mail results only tell you part of what you need to know. They tell you percentage of people on your list who responded. That’s it. They don’t tell you if you broke even. If you made a profit. Or if sales people who followed up on leads closed any sales.
Response rates are misleading if you read them incorrectly. For example, I recently wrote a fundraising package for a North American nonprofit. The letter, mailed to a list of 6,850 donors, generated 35 gifts (responses). Run numbers and that’s a response rate of half of one percent, a dismal result. But this number is misleading because my client (against my recommendation), mailed letter to everyone donor in his database, including lapsed donors who had not made a donation for years.
So I asked my client how many active donors he had in his database. Two hundred, he replied. That’s 200 active donors out of a list of 6,850 total donors. Run numbers again, and you’ll see that my letter generated a 17.5% response rate when mailed to active donors, or, to put it another way, when mailed to a good list.
Another problem with response rates, valid as they are, is that you cannot use them for every industry. Take Olympic Games. When a nation applies to International Olympic Committee, requesting that Olympic Games be held in their capital city, they need a 100% response rate to succeed. They need one “client” to buy their proposal or their mailing has failed.