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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4 Responses to “The brutal truth about how people read mail”

  1. James - DigitalKeyToInfo on November 21st, 2007 2:23 pm

    It is a classic case of design over marketing.
    There is a reason why so many online marketers still use those ugly sales pages that look just like those only sales letters you get in the mail.

  2. Dean Rieck on November 21st, 2007 2:58 pm

    Good point. Online sales pages are about focusing attention and leading people through a sales argument. Too much eye candy would pull people off message.

    Direct mail should do the same. All ads should, actually. Not that they all have to be ugly, it’s just that pretty isn’t the point.

    Pity the poor agency writer or designer who cares about response. What ever will they do with a portfolio full of winning but ugly work? They’ll never get another agency job.

  3. Shama Hyder on November 21st, 2007 4:16 pm

    Great post! First rule of marketing- get their attention.

  4. Dean Rieck on November 21st, 2007 5:21 pm

    Right. And it applies to any medium, including TV, radio, ads, inserts, Web, e-mail, billboards, everything. If you don’t grab people, they move on. Fast.

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