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.

bold direct mail envelopeBold envelopes are those that let it all hang out, so to speak. They start selling immediately, showing the product, screaming the offer, listing primary benefits, or otherwise letting you know what the mailing is about. This envelope from a mail order flower business is an example I received recently.

How do you choose? Actually, I think you should test both. Testing is always the best way to answer questions about what works best.

In general, however, a plain envelope tends to work best when your product or service requires explanation, when prospects make incorrect assumptions about what you’re selling, when there may be negative associations with your company or product category, or when a low-key approach is more in line with the tone of your offer.

A bold envelope can work well when your product or service is clearly understood, when there is a strong desire for what you’re selling, when you have a superior offer, when you’re mailing to proven buyers, or when a splashy design fits your offer.

My rule is this: when in doubt, go with a plain envelope. It’s hard to go too far wrong this way. It creates curiosity and (if it’s done right) stands a good chance of getting opened.

Again, if you can test, test. This is the only way to know for sure. Results can surprise you.

Just one more note: don’t be afraid of the plain envelope. Some designers or ad agencies shy away from the plain look because, well … it’s just too plain looking. But “ugly” works. I’ve proven this in test after test for a wide variety of products and services, even those where the first instinct might be to go for the big, bold look.

Why? I think it’s because the more time you can get people to spend with your mailing, the more likely you are to make a sale. A bold envelope lets some people decide too quickly. A plain envelope forces people to open it and handle the items inside. Those extra few seconds are often all you need to get people reading and involved.

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2 Responses to “The direct mail envelope quandary: plain or bold”

  1. The Naked Idea » Blog Archive » Should the envelope be plain or should it be BOLD? on July 7th, 2008 1:41 pm

    [...] was reading “The Direct Mail Envelope Quandry” at Direct Creative and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this argument with [...]

  2. Roy Holcombe on August 4th, 2008 6:10 pm

    The only way to know if your direct-mail campaign will work is by “testing”. No doubt. This is the marketing mantra for ongoing success. But, make sure you are able to effectively keep track of your efforts or you’ll never prevail. When in doubt do what the “big boys” in your industry do. They’re the “big boys” for a reason.

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