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.
Let’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:
- Headline or “Johnson Box”
- Salutation, such as Dear Friend, Dear Joe, or Dear Cat Lover
- Short, attention-grabbing first sentence
- Body copy that tells a story, presents a problem and solution, and/or presents your offer, along with benefits and details
- Call to action or CTA, such as “Call 1-800-123-4567 to order now” or “Visit widget.com to download your free trial today”
- Guarantee to back up your offer
- Deadline (if appropriate) to prompt faster response
- Sign off with a handwritten signature
- P.S. or Post Script that presents a prime benefit, restatement of the offer, deadline reminder, bonus offer, or whatever you want to highlight
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.