The daily digital data deluge leaves customers swimming in a sea of superfluous emails. Business and personal communications get priority for customers' attention, so marketing messages frequently go unread, often deleted without ever being opened. Even when customers do read marketing emails, the offers rarely motivate customers to take action.

However, there are ways to improve the success of marketing communications. In her recent book, Maximizing Lead Generation, Ruth P. Stevens highlights the dos and don'ts for developing targeted direct-response programs that encourage audiences to embrace the offers that grace their screen. By creating a hook that pushes customers to take even the smallest step forward, companies then generate leads they can follow up on, escalating the interaction to the next level and building a foundation for possible business in the future. But companies will never encourage the desired actions by spamming inboxes with irrelevant messages.

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The following excerpt outlines Stevens' top tips on what companies should and shouldn't do to attract new leads:

How to Develop Offers They Can't Refuse

Direct-response marketing efforts all have one goal and one goal only: to trigger a response on the part of the target. It is the offer that motivates the audience to overcome their inertia and take the action you are looking for.

Your offer must provide a compelling reason to respond. The offer can be an incentive with personal benefit to the recipient, or it can be related to solving a business problem. Whatever incentive is selected, the offer is a critical factor in moving the prospect to action.

Here are some dos and don'ts of developing high-octane offers:

Do...

• Keep the offer simple. Business buying can be a long process, so it is tempting to skip to the end in one communication. Always remember that lead generation is simply about getting a response and moving the process forward one step at a time.

• Match the offer to the customer's stage in the buying process. If the customer needs to see a demo of the product before he or she will buy, then offer a free demonstration.

• Craft offers with perceived value. Industry white papers are a good example of offers business buyers find worthwhile. Information that helps people do their jobs makes a fail-safe basis for offer development.

• Try service-oriented offers. Use faster service or higher service levels as an incentive to respond or buy.

• Think about offers as "soft" or "hard." Soft offers are attractive and low-risk, and they have a high perceived value and broad appeal. Free premiums such as a t-shirt or a calculator are popular soft offers in business marketing. Hard offers tend to stress business value, and they require more effort on the part of the respondent, such as attendance at a free seminar or an invitation for a sales person to call. To help you think about how hard offers and soft offers can best be applied, consider the following principles:

• Use a harder offer if you are looking for a more qualified prospect. You will receive fewer responses, but there will be more likelihood to buy. This approach makes sense when you are targeting a relatively unqualified universe of prospects, and you want to attract only the wheat and leave the chaff.

• Use a softer offer if you are trying to increase your prospect list or widen your net. Soft offers yield many inquiries that can be nurtured later. This is an especially useful strategy if you have a limited universe of prospects and you want to penetrate the universe as deeply as possible.

• Use a hard offer toward the end of the buying process when the prospect is reviewing vendors and about to make a commitment. Retention offers, such as frequency discounts, make sense after the transaction is complete.

• Combine hard and soft offers. Get the best of both worlds by combining the qualifying power of a hard offer with the attraction of a soft offer. As an example, you might offer a free premium (soft) in exchange for a meeting between a customer and a salesperson (hard), and explain that the salesperson will deliver the free premium on arrival.

• Make sure the offer is clear, understandable, and compellingly stated. The way your offer is presented—in both copy and design—impacts its effectiveness.

• Test offers regularly. Your testing criteria must evaluate both the front end (the initial response) and the back end (the conversion to sales). You might find that soft offers convert as well as hard ones, enabling you to increase your results and lower your marketing costs.

• Match the offer to the medium. What works in email or print might not work in the mail or over the phone. In search engine marketing ads, you are limited to just a few words of copy, so the offer must be simple and easy to communicate.

• Calculate the entire cost of making the offer. Include the costs of
purchasing, fulfillment, packing, and shipping for a physical item. Information-based offers can be distributed with zero variable expense, which makes them all the more efficient.

• Experiment with several offers in a single message. The customer can then select the offer most appropriate to his or her stage in the buying process, whether it is a white paper, a seminar, or a sales call.

• Keep the offer appropriate to your industry and your company image. It goes without saying that you should avoid anything in poor taste. But the offer you choose does say something about your firm and its image. Some companies strive to associate themselves with certain levels of dignity or traditionalism, in which case they might select a polo shirt over a t-shirt as a premium. Start-up companies, on the other hand, often want to associate themselves with the latest cool tech gadget when choosing a premium offer.

Don't...

• Don't be afraid to offer a personal benefit. Remember the dual nature of the business buyer, who is both the company representative and the person whose response motivators are as much about his or her own benefit as the company's.

• Don't forget basics from consumer direct marketing. Use guarantees, stress exclusivity, make the offer easy to understand, add urgency, and always test.

• Avoid very soft offers, such as sweepstakes. These can be productive for building a database or when there are other good reasons to widen the net. But for B-to-B lead generation, this type of offer must be used with caution. If you do use a sweepstakes offer, engage a company or agency that specializes in them, so that you are in compliance with all the rules.

• Don't listen to colleagues who argue that you don't need an offer because "the product will sell itself." They're wrong! Use an incentive offer in every lead-generation communication. Without an offer, your response rate will plummet.

Don't ignore industry research on offer performance. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) publishes data about what's working across the field of consumer and B-to-B direct marketing, so it's a good idea to access that research as part of your thinking process about offer development.

Excerpt from MAXIMIZING LEAD GENERATION. Copyright 2012. Reprinted with permission from Que Publishing, an imprint of Pearson Education, Inc.