Direct mail resources galore at USPS.com

If you create or use direct mail, you may know that the United States Postal Service has not always had a helpful website. There was a time when it was poorly designed and made finding information difficult.

But as the USPS feels the pressure to act (or pretend to act) more like a competitive business, they have shaped up their website nicely. Today usps.com is nicely designed and offers an easy-to-navigate treasure trove of resources for business mailers and consumer mail users alike.

Here are just a few of the key resources you’ll find when you click on the “business” button at the top left of the home page.

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Cheap direct mail ideas can work wonders

Like all forms of direct response advertising, direct mail is a cost-conscious medium. Creativity in direct mail is not about dreaming up clever headlines or snazzy graphics. It’s about finding the least expensive way to make the most amount of money. Low cost, high value ideas turn copywriters into heroes.

Times bookmark insertConsider this simple insert from a direct mail package I received recently offering a subscription to The New York Times. They could have enclosed a large, four-color insert detailing the benefits of subscribing. But why?

Many subscription packages these days are little more than “invoice” letters, providing a deep-discount offer and a reply form. They’re about as simple as it gets for a direct mail package.

The reason? Popular newspapers and magazines are already well-known. Most people have read, or at least heard about, publications like The New York Times. They don’t need to be told in detail about why it’s a great paper to read. All they need is a good offer at the right time.

This particular direct mail package consists of a two-color letter, printed on one side, with a perforated reply form at the bottom. The letter copy is short but personalized. A brief list of benefits is on the right, with the most important being the offer of 50% off for 6 months.

You can return the reply form in the enclosed business reply envelope, call an 800 number, or subscribe online. It’s all very straightforward.

The insert is the nifty trick I want to point out.

In direct mail, getting people to open the envelope is difficult. Maybe 80 percent or more of recipients will throw away the envelope unopened. This is ironic, since I believe most copywriters and designers spend very little time thinking about the envelope, spending most of their time on the contents. But the envelope is crucial.

In this package, the envelope is clearly branded with the Times logo and return address. So people know who it’s from. And there’s a simple envelope teaser:

FREE GIFT INSIDE

Save 50% for 6 months when you resubscribe today.

Those three words, “FREE GIFT INSIDE,” is the extra incentive to open the envelope. And the gift? The nifty insert, which is a bookmark. It’s just a little bit of paper and a smidgen of ink. But it’s not a rip-off, because the bookmark is printed on slightly stiff paper, enough to serve as a real bookmark. People who read the Times are “readers,” so a bookmark is appropriate. And the bookmark provides five handy tips on solving The New York Times Crossword Puzzle, one of the most popular features of the paper.

This makes the insert just enough to get people inside the envelope and just enough to be a real gift. There’s the cleverness of it. Low cost, but high value. And a potential boost in the number of people who open the envelope and therefore read the offer inside and respond.

Question: What “cheap” direct mail ideas have you seen or used recently that offered the winning combination of low cost and high value?

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Is the government monopoly on mail a good thing?

It may sound odd to talk about the United States Postal Service (USPS) as a “monopoly.” But that’s exactly what it is.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution affirms the ability of the government to “establish Post Offices.” And various laws give the USPS a “statutory monopoly” on non-urgent First Class Mail and the exclusive right to put mail in private mailboxes.

Translation: It’s illegal to deliver most types of mail, including letters, postcards, catalogs, magazines, and bills, if you’re not the USPS. That’s virtually everything any business would mail to customers or prospects. Yes, you can send something via an “urgent” service, such as FedEx, but the law stipulates that what you send must be urgent. Plus the law forces the delivery service to charge at least $3.00 or offer the service for free and place the thing you’re sending on your porch or somewhere other than in your mailbox.

There might be good arguments for such a powerful monopoly in the early days of the U.S., but what about now? Should the USPS continue to hold a monopoly on all “non-urgent” mail? Or should businesses be allowed to compete for whatever sort of delivery service they want to offer?

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The future of direct mail and advertising intrusiveness

Ted Grigg posted some interesting thoughts recently about the impact of direct mail vs. online advertising.

Due to its escalating cost, more demanding execution and relative rarity, direct mail appeals garner more attention from recipients than the same messages found in their crowded email inboxes. With the explosive growth of email, printed direct mail has now gained more respect among consumers.

In addition, direct mail is more intrusive than the Internet that relies 100% on the consumer to access the advertiser’s web site.

There are two important points I’d like to make about this.

First, I agree that direct mail carries a powerful punch. And I have no doubt that it will become more effective as time goes on, despite any new technologies that may arise, perhaps because of new technologies.

As online opportunities multiply and consumers turn their ire away from “junk mail” and toward “spam,” we’ll see consumer attitudes about mail become more and more favorable. People have short memories and can only hate so many things at one time. As they hate spam more, they’ll love direct mail more.

Second, there’s that word, “intrusive.” I love online advertising and agree with the idea of opt-in as a necessary strategy, but a pernicious misconception is evolving out of the online community that this idea should apply to all forms of advertising, that no one should ever be exposed to sales messages that they don’t ask for.

Bull.

Advertising MUST be intrusive. Marketing demands it. Our industry, indeed our entire economy, relies on it. Advertising cannot be passive. It must push messages as aggressively as possible. How could you introduce new products and services otherwise? There’s a reason companies hire sales people — because they push. Advertising is simply salesmanship in print (or sounds or images).

Can you imagine being forbidden to mail anything unless someone specifically asked for it? How many businesses would survive if they were prevented from running ads, putting up billboards, broadcasting radio or TV spots, distributing literature, or otherwise pushing messages without express permission from potential customers?

No one wants to waste money on unresponsive prospects. But we must be careful about misapplying the opt-in idea. Better targeting is what we need, not the mindless and idealistic idea to eradicate intrusiveness.

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The brutal truth about how people read mail

Every time I see a piece of direct mail that’s a work of art or filled with clever copy, I wonder what the creative team is thinking.

Like the other day when I got a clever mailer from Sprint. The cover headline was “You can’t add hours to the day …” That’s it. No other words. No explanation. No offer. No clue. Of course, the rest of the headline was inside, assuming you have nothing better to do and keep reading.

Most people won’t. Because they have 20 other pieces of mail. And have to pick up the kids from band practice, and fix dinner, and feed the dog, and do the laundry, and finish a report for work, and on and on and on.

I guess many creative people in marketing departments and ad agencies are so busy being creative, they simply don’t have time to think about how busy other people are.

If they did, they’re realize that maybe eight out of 10 people will chuck their mail right out of the box simply because it’s advertising. Those who do look at it will only glance at it. And they’ll be glancing for something that interests them. Notice I didn’t say they’re glancing for something that “entertains” them. When they don’t see anything interesting in a few seconds, whoosh! Two-pointer into the round file.

That’s how I read my mail. I bring it into the kitchen and stand next to the trash bin. Or I sort it in my garage on top of the row of garbage cans so I can instantly stuff what I don’t want into one of the recycling containers. It never even gets into the house.

People are fast and ruthless. Aren’t you? I’ll bet all copywriters and designers are too. They’ll chuck the junk as fast as the rest of us.

But somehow there’s a disconnect between the real world they live in and the fantasy world they assume the rest of us live in.

Watch your spouse or a workmate open mail sometime. Then think about how that should affect the way you write and design mail. Sort of makes you sick. But it should inspire you to be a little more realistic too. And the same applies for any other type of ad.

I have a more detailed look at how people read direct mail over in my article archive.

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Postcard copywriting and design blunders

Most people sort their mail ruthlessly. They spend maybe two seconds at the most deciding whether they’ll read something or trash it. So if you’re writing or designing any direct mail piece, you need to capture their attention and get them interested FAST!

I got this postcard in the mail yesterday. Glance at it for no more than a couple seconds then continue reading below.

real estate postcard

Okay your two seconds are up. Do you know what this postcard is selling? Kitchen cabinets? No. Mortgages? No. Hard to tell by looking at it, but it’s actually advertising some condos up the street from me.

Now I know about the condos. I’ve heard about the real estate group selling them. But I honestly couldn’t figure out what this card was about until I studied it, which is something most people will never do.

To be fair, on the back there is copy that uses the words “ranch and townhome condominiums.” But the copy is structured so you have to piece it together in your head to understand it.

The problem here is one of both copywriting and design. The writing doesn’t clearly state the subject. And the design makes the headline and copy hard to read. That’s death for any selling message.

The headline reads, “I looked at 19 different types of cabinets.” That makes me think the postcard is about kitchen cabinets, not condos. The copy doesn’t clarify this at all. It goes on, “This one spoke to me. More choices. More quality…” And so I remain confused about the real subject.

The copy ends with “…more reason to buy than ever before.” Buy what? Then there’s a box with a mortgage rate. Whoa! Now I’m really confused. I thought we were talking about cabinets.

This is a classic problem. The creative concept masks the intended message. The headline and photo are focused on an idea that is not instantly connected to the actual subject, which is buying a condo.

Worse, there’s no call to action anywhere on the postcard. So I have no idea what they want me to do. Visit? Call for an appointment?

This is an example of how NOT to write and design a postcard. What would I do to correct it? Trash the whole thing and start again. I’d come up with an offer, say a free interior design guide. Then I’d offer it to anyone who toured the condos. You could still show a great photo of an impressive kitchen, but I’d want to show people enjoying the kitchen, not holding a door.

I’d give a clear call to action. Give dates when people should take the tour. Provide a map on the back so people could find the neighborhood. I’d even insert a personalized message to summarize the offer, which is one of my trademark techniques for postcards,

And of course my headline would be crystal clear. Something like “Visit The Estates this week to see how you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this, with your choice of high-end cabinets and granite countertops, all for less than $800 a month!” The design would lay out the headline so that “you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this” would be emphasized in larger type, sort of a headline within the headline.

Now I didn’t put much work into that headline, but it immediately issues a call to action and makes a promise that’s enticing. I’d follow this up by explaining how home buyers could design their own kitchen and get their free designer guide.

See the difference? My approach focuses on getting people to tour the homes so the sales people can do their work. The original approach just throws ideas out there with no consideration of whether people understand what the subject is or what action they should take.

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