Good direct mail design: let form follow function

Good direct mail design is like good design in other fields. The best work results from a designer who understands how design is used to accomplish something.

In other words, form should follow function.

In the case of direct mail, the function is to deliver a sales message to a list of recipients to persuade them to take some kind of action, such as placing an order, requesting information, or going to a Web site.

The wrong way to design direct mail is to come up with a “creative concept,” then force fit the copy into the design.

The right way to design direct mail is to understand the selling message and the goal of the mailing, then allow the design to naturally flow from these ideas.

For example, if the goal is to build traffic for a Web site, it would be silly to create an elaborate envelope package. Since you’re not asking for money and the action you’re asking for is easy, all you need is a small piece, such as a postcard.

On the other hand, if you’re selling a product with a $500 price tag, you shouldn’t try it with a postcard because you’ll need a lot more room to convince your recipient to part with his money, provide a means of response that may include a reply form, and include other information such as instructions or your return policy. Read more

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What happens when you mail stinky cheese?

For years the most popular article on my Web site has been a reprint of Postal Experiments, an article from the Annals of Improbable Research.

stinky cheeseIt seems that researchers, in a fit of scientific hilarity, wanted to see what the United States Postal Service would or would not deliver. So they mailed a carefully selected batch of odd items to see what would happen. This included:

Of course, not all the mailed items were delivered. An unwrapped hammer never arrived. A bottle of unopened spring water dropped into a pickup box was confiscated and consumed by a postal carrier as he worked his route. A can of soup, a lemon, and a bald tire are a few of the other things that didn’t make the journey. Read more

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Service pricing: Hourly rate or fixed fee?

If you provide copy, design, consultation, or any kind of service to advertisers, you already know how difficult it is to deal with pricing.

One of the hardest decisions to make is whether to charge by the hour or to charge a fixed rate.

This is just one of many issues I’ve been thinking about lately after reading Steve Slaunwhite’s definitive book on the subject, Pricing Your Writing Services. It’s written from the professional writer’s perspective, but the principles apply to graphic designers, Web professionals, consultants, and many other service providers as well.

The short answer to this quandary is that it’s better to charged a fixed rate in most cases. Why? Well, that requires a longer answer.

Quoting hourly prices seems more natural when you’re starting out. That’s because we’re all used to the hourly concept. People are often paid hourly. And it’s an easy answer to the question “What do you charge?” But hourly rates present problems for professional level service providers. Read more

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Deceptive direct mail or clever selling tactic?

When you’re creating direct mail or any form of advertising, it’s important to be an aggressive advocate for the product or service you’re selling.

But you always run the risk of crossing the line between advocacy and deception. The problem is knowing exactly where that line is. Everyone has a different standard for ethical behavior.

Here’s a letter I received recently. (I’ve blurred all identifying information.) It appears to be perfectly legal and fairly typical for a direct mail solicitation today. In fact, I receive many letters like this from a variety of businesses.

economic stimulus letter

The letter arrived in a plain envelope. Neither the envelope nor the letter displays a company logo. Read more

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Kaboom! The selling magic of Billy Mays

Billy Mays is the king of direct response TV ads.

Don’t know who Billy Mays is? Yes you do. Watch this video.

Everyone knows Billy Mays. And for good reason. While direct response TV commercials are all designed to get your attention, Billy Mays is the one pitchman who can grab your attention even if you’re in another room.

Mays started his selling career right out of high school pitching products on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He honed his craft at home shows and state fairs around the country. He became famous after meeting the founder of Orange Glo International, a manufacturer of cleaning products.

Orange Glo hired Mays to promote their various cleaners, including OxiClean, Orange Clean, and Orange Glo. Sales soared. This success propelled the company into the top 10 privately owned companies from 1999 to 2001, according to Inc. Magazine.

What makes Mays’ pitch so effective? Enthusiasm, directness, and authority. A Billy Mays pitch is packed with nonstop energy. He’s pleasant, but doesn’t joke or clown around, always getting right to the point. His voice is loud and commanding, a style perfectly suited to selling on a busy boardwalk, but also perfectly suited to breaking through to preoccupied TV viewers.

I think few would say they “like” to watch a Billy Mays commercial. He’s considered obnoxious by many. But that’s irrelevant. Just as people say they dislike catalogs while continuing to place orders, they say they don’t like Mays’ in-your-face style while emptying the store shelves of the products he pitches.

In marketing, you should learn from what works, not from what you like.

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5 ways to kill good copy with bad design

You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Copy is king.”

Sure. That’s because direct marketing is all about the message, and copy delivers the message. But … and this is a very important but … design is what delivers the copy.

Assuming that copy is the only important part of a printed direct marketing message is like thinking that the screenplay is the only important part of a movie. A movie starts with the script, but until it’s translated into visuals, there’s no movie.

It’s the same with advertising, direct response advertising in particular. The sales pitch starts with the copy, but the copy must be translated into visuals before you have a complete message that people can read and interact with.

Even a simple letter requires some design: page size, type, color, logo placement, underlines or highlights, signature in blue, and other elements. Get these items wrong and the design will obstruct the copy rather than enhance it.

How? Here are 5 of the most common ways design can kill your copy:

Start with a visual “concept.” There’s nothing wrong with concepts per se, but the message should guide the concept, not the other way around. I once had a client who would send a design and ask me to fill in the blanks with copy. This led to terrifically weak direct mail. Of course, starting with copy from a writer with no regard for design can be nearly as bad. Read more

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The direct mail envelope quandary: plain or bold

The envelope is arguably the most important part of a direct mail package. It’s more than a container for sales materials. It’s the element that determines whether people will spend time with your message or toss it in the trash.

While there are endless variations for envelopes, you can divide most into one of two categories: plain or bold.

plain direct mail envelopePlain envelopes are those that display little or no advertising copy. Some are totally plain, showing nothing but the outgoing and return address. Others add a minimum of copy or graphics to help encourage you to open the envelope, such as the AAA direct mail piece shown here. Read more

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Free computer tools for copywriters

computer tools for copywritersThey say the best things in life are free. Some of the best things for copywriters sure are.

One of great things about running a copywriting business is that your overhead can be incredibly low. You can work from your house, avoid commuting, dress casually, and take advantage of all the comforts of home.

And when it comes to some of the tools of the trade, some of the very best are totally free of charge.

Here are a few of my favorites:

OpenOffice - I loath Microsoft Word. It used to be a fine piece of software, and the .doc format is a standard most clients will want. But it’s become so loaded down with features, it’s a pain to use. And since millions of others feel the same way, OpenOffice is now available to replace all the core Microsoft Office products. Read more

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FTC approves new anti-spam rules

If you thought CAN-SPAM was the end of e-mail spam rules, you’ve been fooling yourself. The Federal Trade Commission recently issued four new rules to tighten CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003). The rules are meant to fine-tune existing rules and best practices.

1. An e-mail recipient cannot be required to pay a fee, provide information other than his or her e-mail address and opt-out preferences, or take any steps other than sending a reply e-mail message or visiting a single Internet Web page to opt out of receiving future e-mail from a sender.

2. The definition of “sender” has been modified to make it easier to determine which of multiple parties advertising in a single e-mail message is responsible for complying with the Act’s opt-out requirements.

3. A “sender” of commercial e-mail can include an accurately-registered post office box or private mailbox established under United States Postal Service regulations to satisfy the Act’s requirement that a commercial e-mail display a “valid physical postal address.”

4. A definition of the term “person” has been added to clarify that CAN-SPAM’s obligations are not limited to natural persons.

Read more

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Tweaking your way to copywriting hell

About once a week, someone contacts me with a letter or ad they want me to “tweak.”

Definition of tweak: “I read a book on copywriting over the weekend and wrote my own copy. It sucks. I desperately need your help, but I’m too cheap to pay you to write something for me.”

This, my friends, is a no-win situation for a highly paid copywriter.

If you tell the prospect their copy sucks, you’ll insult them. If you quote them your full price, you won’t get the job. If you take the job and do it on the cheap, you’ll have a hard time because a) you’ll have to rewrite the copy without it appearing that you rewrote it or b) you’ll have to start from scratch and get paid a fraction of what the work is worth.

How you handle a tweaker is up to you, but here’s what I do:

I ask to look at the copy before I say anything else. If the copy really isn’t that bad, I play along and agree to a rewrite. If the copy is bad, I say so. I quote my price for new copy and let the chips fall.

Will this result in a loss of business? Yes and no. Yes, because if you charge high fees, any time you give a quote, you’ll lose business from someone not willing to pay what you charge. No, because if someone can’t afford your fees, that’s not a client you want anyway. You really aren’t losing anything by not working for those who do not fit your client description.

What if you’re just starting out and need the money? Take the job. Early on, you need experience more than anything. And you won’t have to deal with the “opportunity cost” of working for less than your standard fees because you probably don’t have work queued up for weeks or months anyway as do many top copywriters.

Takeaway: Beware the tweak. For some copywriters, this means more trouble than it’s worth.

I’m curious, do designers and other freelancers experience the tweak too? Are there similar situations in other businesses?

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