How to write the “classic direct mail package”

Advertising direct mail takes many forms: envelope packages, self-mailers, catalogs, magalogs, flyers, postcards, and more.

That’s one of the advantages of direct mail. You don’t have the format restrictions of magazine print ads, the time restrictions of radio or TV ads, or the technical restrictions of e-mail and Web site advertising.

As long as you comply with basic postal guidelines, you can send pretty much anything through the mail. This is good for products and services that require a lot of information to convince people to buy or try. But it can be a challenge for copywriters and designers without significant experience in creating ad mail.

direct mail package exampleLet’s take a quick look at how to write and design the granddaddy of all direct mail formats, the classic direct mail package.

The most important principle to understand is “divide and conquer.” That means that when you’re creating a direct mail package, you should understand the purpose of each element and allow that element to do its particular job.

Outer Envelope. This is the distinctive feature of the classic direct mail package: an envelope that carries all the other elements through the mail. It’s called the “outer envelope” or OE to distinguish it from the “reply envelope.”

The appearance of the OE can be anywhere on a scale from plain, with little or no copy or graphics, to bold, with lots of “teaser” copy and images. Plain or bold is a strategic choice based on what you believe will get the most people to open the envelope and read the contents.

If you have a highly desirable product or service, and you’re sure the mailing list includes your ideal prospects, bold is a great way to go. Teaser copy and graphics can get people interested right away and helps set them up for the sales pitch inside.

But if you have any doubts about the product, the right thing to say or show, or your mailing list, it’s often a good idea to use a plain envelope. While it doesn’t help your sales pitch, it doesn’t hurt it either. And because it gives no clue about the contents, people have to open it to see what it’s about.

Envelopes come in a range of standard sizes and can be custom manufactured to nearly any size within USPS specifications. They can also be made from various types and colors of paper or other materials and can have one or more windows or be closed faced.

Letter. This is the heart of any direct mail package. My personal rule is that if you have an outer envelope, you MUST include a letter. The letter is your voice. This is where you speak directly to your prospect, one-on-one, and present your offer.

As with any other element of a direct mail package, you can illustrate your letter and make it as colorful as you wish. However, in most cases, it’s better to make the letter look like a standard letter without too many bells and whistles.

Writing letters is something of an art form, so there is no set formula. Master copywriters often do their best work when they break the rules. But there is a certain structure that most letters follow:

Brochure. This is an optional component. I say it’s optional because, often, your direct mail package can work as well or better without it, depending on circumstances. If you use one, remember my advice about “divide and conquer.” The brochure is not just an illustrated version of the letter. It is specifically used to provide support information for the letter. It should illustrate features, list benefits, provide proofs, make comparisons, and list technical details to lend credibility to what your letter claims.

The format of a brochure is limited only by your imagination and budget, but usually it takes one of a few basic forms. It is a flyer, one-sheet, or “broadside” with one primary selling surface and folded to fit in the envelope. It is a standard “brochure” with multiple panels and folded to create 4 or more pages. Or it is a “panel” piece with one of many types of folds, with copy and images divided between the various panels so that when it is opened, the reader sees each panel in a particular order.

Personally, I opt for the broadside whenever possible. I like having just one primary selling surface, much like a print ad, with secondary information on the back. The copy is not dictated by folds and, often, I design broadsides so that you have to open them completely to read headlines and see the images. This isn’t elegant, but it’s effective at creating more involvement. (I learned this trick from a Playboy mailing that used, shall we say, strategic folds.)

Insert or Lift Note. This is also sometimes called a “publisher’s note” because magazine subscription mail packages often contain them. The purpose of the “lift” note is just what it sounds like: to give the package a lift in response.

Usually, a lift note is signed by a different person than whoever signed the main letter. The lift note is small, generally printed on a slip that is folded, with a short headline or teaser on the outside. The note copy can present a last-minute thought or a special offer, deal with a specific objection, or highlight a benefit.

One little trick I have is to use a lift note for testing offers or presenting a special message to the list being mailed. So when I’m creating several versions, I can sometimes get away with changing nothing but the lift note, which makes production and proofing easier on everyone involved. Changing the package is as easy as swapping one note for another.

Reply Form. Many mailers today rely heavily on response via phone or Web site, so there’s pressure to eliminate mail-back reply forms. However, a physical reply is helpful for highlighting your call to action even if you don’t typically get response by mail. And of course if you do want mail response, the reply form is a must.

The reply can be as simple as a card that can be filled out and dropped in the mail or as complex as a multi-page order form. If you’re wanting to generate sales leads or if you’re offering a free trial, a simple reply is all you need. For completing sales by mail, you’ll need a more complex form to capture product choices, billing information, shipping address, and so on.

Whenever you ask for personal information, such as a credit card number, you must also include a reply envelope, generally a BRE or business reply envelope.

And unless you have testing results to show that it’s more profitable to ask for a response by one medium only, such as reply mail, it’s usually a good idea to present additional reply options, including a phone number, Web page, or fax number.

That, in a nutshell, is how to create the classic direct mail package. There is much more to it, of course, and many copywriters and direct mail gurus have spent lifetimes learning how to make direct mail work. But this gives you a basic road map to get you started if you’ve never written a package.

And by the way, ignore all those dire warnings about direct mail vanishing because of postal rates or the growing popularity of online marketing. There is a certain magic to receiving an offer in a printed, physical form. Even now as the economy is down and mail volume is dropping, many businesses are reporting that response rates are up.

Direct mail has become a highly sophisticated selling medium and reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. Even if mail is one day delivered in a different way, there will always be a need for printed, delivered advertising … and for people who can write effectively for this medium. The direct mail package in some form will be with us for a long, long time.

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9 Responses to “How to write the “classic direct mail package””

  1. Matt Ambrose on December 19th, 2008 7:16 am

    Print is far from dead. Particularly when you consider how it’s becoming more integrated with digital. According to some studies people prefer to receive offers in the mail, which means it can act as the trigger for online campaigns, such as PURLs or email.

  2. Scott Mahler on December 19th, 2008 1:26 pm

    It’s funny that we need an article to describe the art of direct mail. It just goes to show you how dependant we’ve become on the internet. Next thing you know, we’ll need somebody to explain how to use our land lines.

  3. Dean Rieck on December 19th, 2008 2:46 pm

    Matt: You’re right. And remember the predictions that computers would create a “paperless” office? What really happened was an explosion of document creation. New technology will, I think, just help more people create paper-based advertising.

    Scott: I hear you. I know one person who complained she couldn’t get her TV to work. She was clueless about how to even turn it on. Turns out it was just bad remote batteries and it never crossed her mind to get up and use the controls on the TV itself.

  4. Write the Classical Direct Mail Package, Copywriting Jargon and More | Top SEO Writing Services on December 22nd, 2008 4:17 pm

    [...] How to write the “classic direct mail package” – It discusses not only the letter itself, but also other items such as the outer envelope and the reply form. [...]

  5. Online Printing on December 22nd, 2008 7:52 pm

    Interesting and helpful post, keep em coming, thanks =-)

  6. Frank on January 26th, 2009 9:30 am

    That was a very informative and complete blog post! Worth reading, and a very nice detailed explanation of direct mailing packages. nice work :)

  7. Prabu Rajasekaran on April 29th, 2012 5:37 am

    Hi Dean,

    Your write only rock-solid content. Thank you very much.

    I have one doubt: Your argument that a brochure is an optional component to a sales letter makes a lot of sense. But, I’ve sometimes received a two-fold brochure from Google for its AdWords program that doesn’t carry any letter. Are they doing it wrong or is it an exception?

  8. Dean Rieck on April 30th, 2012 1:06 pm

    Prabu: Yes, they’re doing it wrong.

  9. Farrey on September 17th, 2012 1:44 pm

    Thanks for the informative article Dean. I just wanted to say that direct mail offers unique advantages that most advertiser do not take advantage of.

    Unlike digital media advertising, mailers offer a tangible advertising piece that can connect with prospects through more senses than just visual sense.

    We have tested different paper surfaces, shapes, finishing and even smell of the printed piece and we learned some amazing intel in regards to how different demographics respond to the feel and touch of the unique mailers.

    This data helps us to increase conversions in our mailing campaigns and we still take full advantage of direct mailing in our advertising.

    Thanks again for your detailed writing.

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