There’s a simple reason Debbie Leclerc has been sending offers to her customers by mail since 1989: It works.

At least twice a year patrons of The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island receive a full-color 8-page newsletter packed with coupons and helpful how-to articles on proper pool care.

Sure, she tweets and blogs, but when it comes to driving sales, “it still seems the traditional U.S. Postal Service is the one that wins out,” says Leclerc, co-owner of the Coventry, R.I.-based firm.

What began as strictly a pool maintenance company is now a full-service firm boasting seven retail stores. Throughout all its changes over the years, those biannual mailers have been the one constant.

“People walk in with copies of the newsletter,” she says. “They’ll say ‘I saw your article on chlorine demand. Can I ask you more questions?’ … It’s not just that they got it, they opened it, they read it and tossed it. They’re holding on to it.”

Though mail’s effectiveness has declined over the years, it still has a robust following. Ironically, the fact that it’s antiquated is partly why it works. “There’s so much digital noise right now that it’s almost a respite from all that,” says Brett Lloyd Abbott, president of MYM Austin, a marketing agency in Texas specializing in the pool industry. “There’s no such thing as spam blocking on a mailbox. … With direct mail, you have no choice but to hold it in your hand as you aim for the trash can.”

Abbott is currently digging up the addresses of swimming pools his clients built decades ago. “Chances are extremely high that whoever lives in that house today is not the person who bought that pool,” he says. Those homeowners will receive postcards from the builders offering a free inspection. “If I bought a house with a pool and the guy who built it wants to come over a take a look at it, I’m thinking: ‘Heck yeah! Come on over. I’d love to get your free advice,’” Abbott adds.

A direct approach

Among all the channels through which marketers can reach an audience, postal delivery remains a viable option because it lets them zero in on a very specific audience — such as animal-lovers-with-an-annual-income-of-$100,000-living-within-three-miles-of-a-pet-cemetery specific. Innovative Mail Services in the Greater Chicago area recently launched such a campaign. While bereaved pet owners aren’t exactly a pool pro’s target demographic, it’s a good example of how postal addresses trump email addresses in terms of reaching a niche audience, says owner Sebastien Villon.

Builders can utilize these services to find households with, say, an annual income of $250,000 with nothing but turf in their backyards. “Those would be excellent candidates for a new pool,” Villon says.

List brokers, such as Pool List USA, can slice and dice demographic data seemingly every which way. With a database of nearly 5 million residential pools, the list service can not only pinpoint where pool owners live and what type of pool they own, it can tell you how old their pools are.

“Swimming pools don’t move, so direct mail is still a valid — albeit pricey — way to effectively market to pool owners,” says the Irwindale, Calif.-based firm’s marketing director, Shelly Miller, who previously served as a marketing executive overseeing the distribution of some two million direct-mail pieces annually for a major pool supplies distributor. “Emails move on with the people, but pools stay at one address that we have on file basically forever.”

Say you’re a service technician and you want to grow your business without sending mail to your existing customers. List brokers can identify those pools along your route that you’re not currently maintaining.

Another way to do that: Google Earth. Satellite images will give you a bird’s eye view of any given neighborhood. When reaching those potential new customers, give your message a personal touch. “You can even say, ‘Hey, my name is Joe and I’m servicing the pool at address 123. I noticed you’re three doors down.’ When it’s that targeted, it’s a more irresistible message,” Abbott advises.

VivoPools has had a fair amount of success utilizing list providers. For the most part, they’re pretty accurate, says Willan Johnson, CEO of the firm, which is based in a Los Angeles suburb. “I would say, however, they still don’t necessarily have all the pool owners.”

With more than a dozen locations in five states, VivoPools has found direct mail to be less effective in major metropolitan areas where homeowners are inundated with offers from other service companies. Last summer, a direct mail campaign in Los Angeles yielded an unexpected response. “We received a few phone calls from prospective clients saying ‘Gosh, we’ve received five mailings from pool companies this week!’” Johnson recalls. “I think in larger markets, because you have so much competition and everybody is using the same list of homeowners, the opportunity to create a unique message and differentiate yourself through direct mail is declining.”

He estimates mailers sent in mega markets typically earn a .5 percent response rate, well below the expected 2- to 3 percent that marketers say is an industry average. “It still remains an interesting and effective way to acquire customers” — but only in smaller markets, he says.

When VivoPools deploys direct mail pieces to prospects, it’s typically done in conjunction with a broader campaign. To promote saltwater systems in Tuscan, Ariz., for example, the company aired commercials on the radio then had postcards delivered to target neighborhoods to drive the message home. “We saw a significant increase there by combining those two elements together,” he says.

These days, Johnson is allocating only about 10 percent of his marketing budget for direct mail. That’s down from about 25 percent three years ago. The firm is spending more on search engine marketing, which puts its message in front of those who are actively searching online for a pool service provider.

Keep in touch

In his book, Permission Marketing, author Seth Godin writes that today’s consumer is bombarded by so many digital diversions, that “more than ever, the tactile experience (opening, unfolding, touching) is the catalyst that actually causes the target to notice, pause, interact and respond.”

For that reason, Leclerc spares no expense when publishing her newsletters, which are printed on premium, glossy paper stock. “When something feels chintzy, it [makes people think] ‘Maybe their products are chintzy!’” she says.

Likewise, VivoPools will spring for the extra 20 cents per mailer to supersize their postcards. It’s harder to ignore 5-by-10-inch cardstock when sorting through mail.

Oversized mail is second only to catalogs as the best response-generating print media, according to the Direct Marketing Association.

But if you really want to get their attention, think beyond paper. Abbott has heard of pool companies who’ve sent beach balls to potential customers with a note inviting them to imagine how much fun it would be to play in your very own pool. “Personally, if I’m trying to promote a high-end swimming pool, I’d like to do something a little more [sophisticated],” Abbott says. Still, the idea has merit. Brainstorming sessions at MYM Austin led to some clever concepts, such as a picture of a pool printed on transparent film. The homeowner could tape it to a window, giving the illusion of a gleaming aquatic amenity in their backyard.

And who’s to say every piece of mail needs to be selling something? During the holidays, Leclerc sends her customers postcards — past season’s greetings have featured Santa Claus soaking in a hot tub with Rudolph — just to let them know The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island is grateful for their business.