"Success With Direct Mail"
you want to be successful with direct mail advertising? This chapter has 20
parts, and each and every one is important. And this is just the
overview of the subject.
But direct mail
advertising does work, and if you stick to
it, you will get the results you want. That is what Professional
Advertising is all about.
the 20 parts of Direct Mail Advertising:
Parts of a Direct Mail Piece
Letter Part One
Letter Part Two
and Johnson Boxes
Your Direct Mailer
for Increasing Response with Direct Mail
Direct mail advertising is an
extraordinarily powerful marketing tool. No other media allows you to
target your audience so exactly.
You can send a large volume of
information if your clients need it, or just a postcard. And you will
know almost immediately if your direct mail adverting program is a success, and what your
return on investment is.
Direct mail is an immediate
response media – people either respond immediately, or they throw away
your mailer. We must work to get that immediate response.
mail advertising also works to build up customer loyalty. It’s how you stay in
contact with your customers, and tell them they are important.
shows that 68% of customers that don’t return to a company say that
the company never contacted them, was indifferent, or had a poor
attitude. Dropping your customers a letter is the solution.
Because direct mail advertising
around a while, you can benefit from tried and true strategies. Some of
these will seem counterintuitive, and some will seem like aggressive
salesmanship. But the only thing that counts with direct mail
advertising is the
The good news is that we know
what works. The direct mail advertising industry has been improving its craft for a
hundred years. More than any other form of marketing, direct mail
advertising can be
measured and improved upon. You will know exactly what you get for your
investment, every time you mail a letter.
If you want to use direct mail
start by looking in your own mailbox at the pieces that come again and
again. Why do they work?
does Publishers Clearinghouse mail those bizarre looking envelopes?
Because Publishers Clearinghouse knows exactly, to the penny, what
works. And you can benefit from that experience.
One more note before we start:
Your direct mail advertising has a job to do - it must sell. If you are going
to succeed with direct mail advertising, you are going to have to be a little
aggressive. Think about how many people sort their mail over the trash
container. You have about six seconds to convince them to open your
piece, and not throw it away.
If they do open it, you have
another eleven seconds to convince them to really read it. Then
your mailer must aggressively direct the reader toward responding. Each
and every page must push for a response. Each benefit must demand a
response now. Immediately. Right this minute. How many people will come
back to your piece later? Not enough. It’s now or never.
With direct mail advertising, success
depends on these three things [in order of importance]:
The quality of the mailing
The attractiveness of the
The copywriting and
All of these factors can be
changed. You can modify any part of the package to try and get a better
So the real key to success with direct mail advertising is
testing. Test each part of your
mailer until you find the best possible combination that achieves the
highest profit for your company. And then you test some more.
In direct mail advertising, the
‘Control’ mail piece is the version of the mailer that got the
highest response rate at the highest profit per order in previous
mailings. You count how well you did with your mailing, and then try to
improve upon the response/profit rate of your control piece.
Unless you are very lucky, you
will need to go through several generations of mailings before you
achieve the best return rates. Certainly you may be profitable with your
very first mailing, but with direct mail advertising you can always do better.
For example, it was commonly
believed that sophisticated clients would never respond to “junk
looking mail” to purchase financial services. No one even tested the
idea. Well, they were wrong. By creating more visual and sales oriented
material, the response went way up. You don’t know until you test.
advertising can be
a post card, or it can be a 200-page catalog. Either way, direct mail
advertising has some basic components.
- The response device
mailer will often also contain some or all of the following components:
- A Lift
letter – a brief second letter that tries again to close the sale.
– guarantees, bill me later, toll-free phone number
– free gifts [yours to keep even if you return the product]
– color, model, quantity, accessories, variations
case studies, testimonials, statistics
devices – peel-off stickers, fill-out cards, fold outs
Understanding the various
options and direct mail advertising component parts will lead you to success with
your direct mail advertising.
The response device is a return
card, a coupon, a fax-back form, a phone number, an e-mail, etc. It is
probably the most important part of your mailer, and you probably want
to start you direct mail advertising piece by thinking about the response device.
The job of the response device
is to transition the reader from interest to acceptance and response.
Think of it as the sales closer. It has a big job to do. It must get
attention, sum up the offer in an exciting way, and close the sale or
get the desired response.
The design of your response piece will most
likely have the biggest impact on your direct mail advertising results. It has to sell,
and sell aggressively. It has to scream for attention. It has to command
that the reader act now. It must be aggressive.
So here are the general rules for the
response device in direct mail advertising:
different response devices. Try three different styles, and then try
more against the winner. You will never know how good your direct
mail advertising response
can be until you test.
not hide your response device – make it stand out and emphasize
it. Point at it.
people to respond now. Command them to act immediately.
identify the response device. It can be a reservation certificate, a
no-risk trial option, a request card, an RSVP, a coupon, etc. Just
mark it clearly.
“rush”, “free”, “limited time offer,” type wording.
strong visuals and excitement unless the mailing is very serious
[like fund raising.] Red is a good color for the response device
because it gets the adrenalin going.
it easy to respond. It should be clear and very simple. Leave ample
space for writing, and use heavy, uncoated stock paper. Tell the
people exactly what to do. Preferably already have their name and
address printed, so that they just have to sign and return your
business reply mail so that the postage is prepaid on the reply
envelope or card. You pay per returned piece. Do not make them look
for a stamp.
offering different options, make the one you want them to choose
YES acceptance statements. “YES, please send me…”
check boxes for options or yes statements.
Use visuals to point to the boxes.
options like “keep me on the mailing list” or “send more
information.” People who respond are good potential future
legal disclaimer copy away from the benefit or response device copy.
Responding to direct mail
normally an impulse. The prospect responds immediately, or not at all.
Everything must move the prospect toward a decision to respond right
now, and a good response device is the key to getting them to act.
A small reality check: The
typical response for direct mail advertising is between ½% - 3%. If you are
thinking you can get a huge response – think again. 3% is an
extraordinarily good response in direct mail advertising, unless you are mailing to your own
customers. When you calculate your budget, keep this in mind.
The Letter Part One
The real advantage of direct
mail advertising is that you can offer a large amount of sales information to your
prospects. You can give detailed benefit descriptions, and list all of
the reasons why your products are great. The letter is the place to do
Having said that, understand
that most people will not initially read your letter. People will scan
the letter. You have about eleven seconds. They will first read their
own name, then the headline, the subheads, any highlighted copy,
handwritten notes, captions, your signature, the post script, and maybe
the first 50 words.
Your prospect will then either
respond, read the whole letter, or discard the letter.
In direct mail advertising, your letter must:
Highlight your biggest
benefits with the parts of the letter that they will scan.
Be as easy to read and as
exciting as possible.
Here are some general
structural rules for creating your direct mail advertising letter:
your letter. Try three different versions, and then test against the
winner. Testing is the key to your direct mail advertising success.
be afraid of long copy. If they are interested, and your story is
good, they will read it. Letters are commonly 3-4 pages long.
short sentences and paragraphs, and vary the length of your
sentences. Keep your first sentence as short as you can.
common, everyday language, even if you are writing to a highly
educated or technical audience. This is not the place to show off
multiple headlines and subheads.
captions under any photos or illustrations.
indents and indented copy blocks.
bullet lists, underlining, capitalization, italics, etc. for
may distract the reader and hurt your response.
rubber stamp impressions for attention.
emphasize the key benefits that tell your story. Don’t overdo it.
‘handwritten’ messages in the margins. These will be read.
breaks should occur in the middle of a good sentence.
to business letters should use black ink on white #60 paper.
will read the postscript. It should add urgency, encourage action,
focus on or repeat a key benefit, add a new benefit, or give an
assurance [a guarantee]. And use only one p.s.
in your direct mail advertising.
and Johnson Boxes at the beginning of a letter will get read. [See more
on these below.]
president or the CEO should normally sign the letter. Sign your name
clearly because people want to be able to read your signature. Also
print out the name and title. Any ‘handwritten’ notes in the
letter should match the writing of the signer.
Letter Part Two
Your reader knows that your
direct mail advertising letter is trying to sell them something. By reading your letter, they
are consenting to review your sales material, and to consider your offer.
You must sell them on your idea just like they walked into your showroom
or your office. They expect you to give them all of the relevant sales
You must be very excited and
enthusiastic. If your subject is serious, you must be serious and
graphic. If you are trying to instill fear, you must go all the way.
If you are not excited, how do
you expect them to be? Don’t let image get in your way. If you want to
succeed with direct mail advertising, use every method there is to succeed. You must
sell your reader on your objective, or you fail.
OK. It’s your words that sell
in your direct mail advertising. Some words are better than others. Some writers are better than
The ability to write a great
business letter, report, news story, e-mail, or book does not mean
a person can write a great sales letter. The only thing that counts in
direct mail advertising is
the response rate to that letter. Don’t be overconfident here.
Professional copywriters get paid for a reason.
Professional copywriters spend years developing their craft. If you
intend to use direct mail advertising, you should try and have a professional review
everything you write. Our chapter on Copywriting
reviews important writing tips, but it is not comprehensive. If you do
nothing else, please remember to focus on the prospect and the benefits
they get, and stay in character.
The truth is that your new
prospect does not really care about you or your company. They are
concerned about themselves and how you can improve their lives. They are
going to make an emotional, impulsive decision to respond. After they
call you, you can convince them of your abilities. But first, your
letter must convince them to make contact.
Direct Mail Advertising Letter Writing Tips:
have only a few seconds, and then they throw away your letter. Get
to the point immediately.
be wishy-washy. Your letter should have one coherent subject. Stay
on subject, stay in character.
absolutely clear with your copy – with all of your copy. Don’t
get fancy or complicated with your message. Use common, everyday
language. Do not use technical language, even for technical people.
must build rapport and trust with the reader. Do not be superior or
condescending. Be their friend. [And we are sorry if our style is a
little blunt sometimes, but honesty is the only policy in
make extravagant or unbelievable claims with your direct mail
advertising – even if they are true.
a list of all the features of your products or services. Now
pretend you are the customer, and ask the question “What does this
do for me” for each feature. The answer is the BENEFIT to the
customer. People buy benefits, not features. “Saves Three hours” is
a feature. “Three hours to spend with your children” is a benefit.
biggest benefit you offer that makes you different from your
competition is your unique selling position [USP]. It is critical
that you determine what you USP is, because that is your lead
benefit. It makes you special.
your USP in your headline or first paragraph. Put your biggest
benefit right up front, because your reader will not wait.
about them, not about you. Try this. Count how many times you write
“you” versus how many times you reference your own company [us].
Now, take out all of the references to your own company, and
replace them with references to your customer.
opening is the most important part of your direct mail advertising letter. Open hard and fast
and don’t let go. Stay in character, and stay on message. Don’t
flip flop around. Decide who you want to be, and be that person
throughout the entire letter.
aggressive with descriptive writing. Be graphic. Be visual.
forget that you have to sell. List benefits, and ask for the sale.
Repeat the process throughout the letter. Look at other direct mail
letters. List benefits, and ask for the sale. Repeat. List benefits,
and ask for the sale. Now. Immediately.
must tell them what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and make the
process as easy as possible. You must tell them what you want
them to do.
don’t know which part of your package or letter will be read
first. Thus every part must feature benefits. A direct mail
starts out fast, and continues all the way through on every part of
words that sell in your direct mail advertising letter. If you really want to write this yourself, go to
the library, and get books on sales copywriting and direct mail.
Find words and phrases that have a proven track record, and use
other people read over your communications. If they are confused or
lost, do not try to argue with or convince them. Listen to them
carefully. Rewrite your letter so that the common person gets it.
This is the only way to get effective direct mail advertising.
insult your loyal customers by offering better deals to newcomers.
say something is very important if it is not.
Tests show that you have about
six seconds to convince your prospect to open your direct mail
advertising letter. There are
many different strategies to insure that your letter first gets past any
gatekeepers, and then gets opened. Let’s review a few of these.
first thing you need to do is test. Try your envelope with copy and
without. Try it in color and plain. Try it with and without
graphics. You don’t know how or if the envelope copy will impact
on the return rate unless you test it.
discount the importance of the envelope in your direct mail
advertising. The best letter, brochure,
and response device in the world won’t help you if the prospect
open the letter.
it’s response that counts. Don’t let your image get in the way
of a colorful, interesting envelope that gets opened.
job of the envelope is to get the letter opened. That’s it.
That’s all. Don’t try to do anything else with the envelope. You
will just increase skepticism and devalue the offer contained in the
Your offer belongs in the letter - not on the envelope.
you are doing business-to-business direct mail advertising, a plain white #10
envelope addressed to the recipient will probably get past the
secretary and delivered to the recipient.
the recipient knows you, don’t scream, “Open me” on the
outside of the envelope. This leads to skepticism in one-on-one
you use copy on the envelope, think of it as a teaser headline. You
need to capture the concept while creating curiosity and excitement.
Ask a provocative question or promise a benefit. You don’t want to
give away the whole show, but you do need to create interest.
a question is safer than making a statement on the envelope if you
don’t know the recipients state of mind. A question will more
likely get the
reader involved in your direct mail advertising piece.
absolutely clear with your direct mail advertising envelope copy. Don’t
get fancy or complicated with your message. Think common, everyday
over-promise on the envelope.
you put a free gift inside your mailer, don’t just write “Free
Gift Inside” on the envelope. A peek through window that actually
shows part of the free gift is more effective.
ask for a commitment on the envelope. That’s why you have a
size of the envelope and the type of paper you use convey a message.
Who do you want to be? Stay in character, and that includes the type
of envelope you use in your direct mail advertising.
let your designer dictate any part of your direct mail advertising piece. A
prettier envelope does not automatically increase your response, and
it can definitely hurt response. You have to measure. Let your
accountant tell you what’s working.
odd size envelope will jump out at people. But make sure that your
fulfillment house can handle it, and make sure that the addresses
properly show through the window.
Also double check with the post office about the cost of mailing odd
post office will advise you on envelope rules. Pay close attention.
They offer free booklets and classes to help you.
words that sell to encourage people to open the envelope. “Free”
is probably the best, but new, open now, exclusively for, proven
success, secrets of, how to, discover, limited offer, easy,
confidential, etc. etc. etc. all can and do work. Or you can start
your story on the envelope with one or two great lines, and then
write, “continued inside…” The key to success with direct mail
advertising is to test, test, test.
How to create brochures is
covered in detail in Effective
Brochure Design. There are no special rules that apply to your brochure for direct
except one. Test your mailer both with and without your brochure.
Perhaps you can test a mailer that offers a free brochure upon request
– then you know you have a hot prospect.
You probably don’t want to
test different brochures in your mailings because of cost. Concentrate
on testing your letter, your envelope, and your response decise. [Don’t forget
that the most important thing to test is your mailing list.]
letter is a second, one page letter in your direct mail advertising that is used to
increase response. It highlights the key benefits of the offer, and
usually comes from a different person in the organization.
You may have
seen lift letters that start out “I don’t understand why you have
not yet taken advantage of this special offer…” It uses a different
method of going after the customer. Often this is effective because
different people respond to different types of stimuli.
Think of the lift letter as a
testimonial. It should be short, stress the main benefits again, come
from a different person, look different [different layout and font], and
just be signed by the sender. No p.s. here – the entire letter is a
postscript. And the only way to know if a lift letter will work for you
is to ______? [Test it].
An overline is a sentence over
the top of your direct mail advertising letter. It appears before your introduction. A Johnson
Box is a box enclosing text that appears in the same location – at the
top of the letter. It commonly features the main benefit or your unique
handwritten overline is probably the most read part of a letter. It is
the one line everyone will read. So it should be the best line in the
letter. It is your headline, so it better be good. Please read
for more about headlines.
A Johnson Box should be treated
just like an overline. It is your headline. It must grab your readers,
and entice them to keep reading.
Overlines and Johnson Boxes are
great for a blatant sales piece. But they may not be appropriate for
more conservative business-to-business letters.
Facilitators make it easier for
customers to make a purchase decision. Your “100% Guarantee”, the
“bill me later”, your toll-free phone number, and any other device
you use to make the decision to buy easier is a facilitator. Use every
one you can in your direct mail advertising. Always make it as easy as possible for your customer to
come to a purchase decision and to make the response you want. [For
example, never make them go looking for a stamp.]
Incentives are the extras you
throw in to make the sale. The “free gift, yours to keep even if you
return the product” is an example. Time limit discounts and special
membership benefits are also examples of incentives.
People love choices, and
choices get the reader involved in your piece. If they
can pick color, model, accessories or variations, they will be happy.
However, there is a tradeoff. Each choice you give does
increase the difficulty of ordering.
If you add choices to your
direct mail advertising, you would do well to observe people as they try to read and
comprehend your piece. What is crystal clear to you may be very
confusing to your customer, so be careful. The better you know and
target your audience, the better you will do. And of course, test.
Examples in direct mail
advertising include case studies,
testimonials, surveys, official third party endorsements, and
statistics. 60% of consumers believe ads that offer a money-back
guarantee. 57% believe ads that carry an official third party
endorsement. 46% of consumers believe claims based on survey results.
People believe examples, so you want to use them if you can in your
direct mail advertising.
If at all possible, you want to
involve people in your mailer. You want them to interact with your
materials. This is one reason why busy layouts work in direct mail
advertising. Everywhere they
look there is something new and exciting. Peel-off stickers, surveys,
fill-out cards, fold outs, and brochures are examples of involvement
Testing your Direct
Testing is very
straightforward, but there are rules to follow. First, you want to only
modify one aspect of your mailer at a time. Send the exact same mailer
package with three different letters, and measure which one gets the
If you changed multiple parts of your
direct mail advertising, like the
letter and the mailing list, you would not be able to tell which change
made the difference. You must make and test changes one at a time.
Remember that profit is the
ultimate goal. You might double the price of your products, and have
response drop by 80%. But what happened to your profit? If your profit
goes up, then you’re on the right track.
You want to test your mailing
list, your offer, your response device, your letter, and your envelope,
probably in that order. If you are only doing a small mailing, try two
or three different letters. You may be very surprised at the difference.
Over time, even your best
direct mail advertising package will wear out. Don’t get complacent. You should always test
your control piece to see if you can beat it.
To know how one piece works
against another, code your response device. This is as simple as
printing a different code marking on each response card so that you can
tell which direct mail advertising offer generated the response.
Finally, you need to think
about your sample size. With direct mail advertising, you really need to send a few
thousand mailers to get an idea of how a change impacts on your return
rate. If your mailing is not that big, your sample size still needs to
be at least 500. However, your results will be questionable. So don’t
bet the house on the results from a sampling of just 500 mail pieces.
Your Mailing List
The best mail list you will
ever have is the one with your past customers on it. Always advertise to
your existing customers first.
Mailing list companies
can provide you lists that are very specific, and very targeted. The key
is to know who your best prospects are. The more specific you can be with your
mailing, the better you will do. Define your customer well, and you will
be happy with the results. Read Market
Remember, the most important
item for success with your direct mail advertising is the quality of your mailing
list. We can’t stress this enough. Carefully target your customers,
and then test one mail list against another. It’s the only way.
All of the rules for direct
mail advertising apply to post cards and self-mailers. You need to get to the point,
focus on the benefits, stay in character, make an attractive offer, make
it easy-to-response, minimize the risk, and tell the reader what to do.
Featuring coupons is probably the best and most effective way to use
postcards in direct mail advertising.
Here is a list of ideas on how
to increase the response to your direct mail advertising. But the subject is so big that
this is only a starting point. If you are serious about using direct
mail advertising, consider using a marketing consultant to assist you. It’s absolutely worth it. Please contact Professional
Advertising for these services or more information.
post office will advise you on envelope mailing rules. Pay close
attention. They offer free booklets and classes to help you.
good mailing list management computer program will presort and print
bar-coded addresses for you. It is absolutely, positively a
requirement if you are doing your own direct mail advertising.
you use a fulfillment house to mail your package, make sure their
machines can handle your specifications before you print your
materials. You do not want to stuff and label everything by hand.
your own [and other people's] direct mail advertising to see what works. Look for mail in the same category as yours;
that is mail that is
selling similar products to like clients.
not be afraid to ask for the sale. Ask for the sale or desired
response directly, and urge people to respond immediately.
using the same mailing list until the response rate falls below the
the lifetime value of a customer, and calculate your marketing costs
accordingly. In other words, if the customer is highly valuable,
spend more money going after them with your direct mail advertising.
hide the fact that your mailer is an advertisement. The reader knows
what it is, and they are giving you their attention. When they open
direct mail advertising, they are
agreeing to read sales information.
them information fast. There is no such thing as keeping a reader in
suspense in direct mail advertising.
level of emotional appeal does the reader need? What does the
product or service demand? Do you need a full color brochure? Be as
verbally and visually graphic as you need to be to get their
a second response device in the brochure. Ask the reader to “tell
a friend” and pass along the brochure.
a second response device in the mailer. It can be used as a lift
brochure must pay its own way in your direct mail advertising. Test
to measure your return when you use a brochure.
to support any claims with research data and statistics. Third party
endorsements are the best.
testimonials. If possible include contact information for the person
making the recommendation.
devices work. Try to get your reader physically involved with your
mailer. Peel-off stickers, pages that unfold, or a survey or quiz
can really work to increase response.
careful giving away free things, like a free copy of a report or a
free magazine. You may get a large
response, but then not be able to convert the leads into customers.
Payments may be very slow for “bill me later”, or prove
impossible to collect. You may get a lower re-subscription rate from
the clients that do pay. A more formal mailer with no free offer may
work better in the end.
commonly sort their mail over a wastebasket. Envelopes are often
kept while postcards are thrown away.
mailing programs work for many offers. Advertising is about staying
in front of your customers long-term, and it applies to direct mail
Often, the same offer to the same group will pull progressively
better over time because your customers get to know and trust you.
pricing, uneven dollar and cent amounts are perceived as a better
value than round figures.
that your mailer will be read at random. You can’t control what
will be read first, so every part of your direct mail advertising
piece must sell.
are sending mail to people who didn’t ask for it. As
such, you need to be intrusive. You need to entice them to spend
time reading your piece immediately. The benefits you offer need to
be immediate and highly beneficial to the reader. And your message
must be complete.
will stop reading if they think your offer may be too expensive.
Deal with value and price as soon as you can in your letter. Read
Strategy in Advertising
for more information.
Ask For Help
As always, we strongly
recommend that you hire a professional designer, and ask a marketing
professional to help plan and review the work. It’s a cheap investment for something
you are going to mail out to the whole world, and reprint endlessly.
Direct mail advertising is a big subject, and
it’s easy to go wrong. A second opinion from a professional is an
investment worth making. Please contact
Professional Advertising for these services and additional assistance.
Advertisements - Brochures - Direct Mail - Logos
& Marketing Consulting Services
Writing & Communication Design
Please see Working
with Professional Advertising
for more information.
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