Ugly direct mail works and here’s why

ugly direct mailEveryone likes pretty things. In nearly every situation, people prefer pretty over ugly.

Pretty people tend to earn more. Pretty houses are worth more. Pretty almost always beats ugly, except when it comes to direct mail.

In the world of direct mail marketing, ugly has a big advantage.

To the right is an example of what most people would call an “ugly” direct mail piece. It’s a simple solicitation about refinancing my house. And I’ve received it three or more times now.

The envelope is a standard white Monarch with a canceled stamp and what appears to be a handwritten address.

The letter inside is a short handwritten note with a business card stapled to the top. The letter is personalized with my name.

The envelope is one-color. The letter and business card are two-color, printed on one side. The whole package is small and cheap. No bleeds, die cuts, photos, or frills.

I love it.

Yes, to me this ugly piece of direct mail is absolutely beautiful. Why? Because there is no pretense of cleverness. This piece seeks to generate phone calls and it does absolutely nothing else.

In case you can’t read the letter text, here it is:

November 26, 2010

Dear Mr. Rieck,

I feel I can help you reduce your monthly payments by refinancing you into a lower fixed rate Conventional or FHA mortgage.

I wrote to you twice before but never received your reply. Please give me a call.

Yours Truly,

Tracy Kindall

That’s it. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

This is lead generation, so it doesn’t have to say much. There’s nothing complicated to explain. The letter just promises to lower my payments and presents a call to action.

The piece is not without its flaws. The stamp cancellation indicates Baltimore, MD while the return address is Medina, OH. So we know this isn’t really a personal letter from the sender.

In addition, while the font is quite good, you can tell that every letter looks the same. Every “o” is the same as every other “o,” for example. But I doubt too many people would notice such things.

Overall, this is a well-conceived mailing. The first time I received it, I opened it before realizing that it was “ad mail” and not a personal letter. I smiled and mumbled to myself, “You got me.” So if it got me to open it, with my years of direct mail experience, I know it’s getting ordinary home owners to open it as well.

So why would an ugly direct mail piece like this work? Because it looks real. It looks personal, like something a real person would send. It doesn’t trigger the junk mail alert radar built into everyone’s brain. It doesn’t pummel the reader with cliche copy. It gets to the point instantly.

Ugly direct mail works because there’s no design to get in the way. This has been proven through experience. I’ve even seen the results of head-to-head ugly vs. pretty tests, my own and my clients’.

My advice: never be afraid to test ugly direct mail. It’s not a branding medium. It’s a direct response medium. Do what works to get response.

What about you? Have you ever tested ugly vs. pretty mail?

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11 Responses to “Ugly direct mail works and here’s why”

  1. Direct Marketing Companies on November 30th, 2010 6:47 am

    Nice Tips. As any good direct marketer would tell you, testing is the key to a successful direct mail campaign. Having the right balance of test elements allows you to understand what components are working, and what needs continued refinement.

    There are some basic components for testing a lead generation direct mail campaign:
    1.test the list sources
    2.test the offers
    3.test the creative (from paper stocks, to formats, to copy).

  2. James on November 30th, 2010 12:29 pm

    Gene schwatz always said he ” specialized in ugly” especially since beautiful looks like ad copy and nobody lines up to read promotional stuff

  3. Dean Rieck on November 30th, 2010 12:36 pm

    Right. People only read what they’re interested in.

  4. Andrew on November 30th, 2010 1:18 pm

    here is my 2 cents.
    1.) Even though its ugly do we really know if it works ?

    2.) Real estate agents are guilty of just doing the bare minimum and not getting anything. I know because I work side to side with this industry and I have heard it all.

  5. Dean Rieck on November 30th, 2010 1:31 pm

    I’ve worked with real estate people too and know exactly what you mean. However, given the techniques involved, I’m confident this mail piece was not conceived by the agent. It’s mailing from another state, so my guess is that the agent is using a mailing service. And since agents hate to spend money, and I’ve received this piece many times, I’m also confident it’s producing calls.

    To be fair, I’d have to talk to the agent to know the exact response. But I’m showing this piece as an example of ugly mail, which in general does work. I’ve tested ugly vs. pretty head-to-head and shown this to be true.

  6. John Lepp on December 13th, 2010 11:20 am

    Nice post Dean. I’ll add my two cents from a art directors point of view. I laugh whenever people (usually copywriters) say – if you want something to perform well, by all means DO NOT let a designer put his or her hands on it. And i have to agree. It is HARD WORK designing something simply – especially when I have clients who want me to “sexify” it, or complain – “it’s too boring”. A good – sorry – a GREAT designer knows how to design for the medium and more importantly for the audience. I KNOW why 14 point Courier is the most beautiful font in the world, and if your designer doesn’t (go ahead and ask them), then they are the right person for the job. Cheers Dean.

  7. John Lepp on December 13th, 2010 4:24 pm

    Dean – made typo – can you fix?
    I KNOW why 14 point Courier is the most beautiful font in the world, and if your designer doesn’t (go ahead and ask them), then they are NOT the right person for the job. Cheers Dean.

  8. Carol Ziogas on December 22nd, 2010 9:45 pm

    I have to say, the first time I received one of these “handwritten” direct mail ads, I did open it and give it a read-through. It was also the last one I ever opened, because since learning to recognize this type of ad, they’ve all gone straight into the shredder, unopened.

  9. Cynthia on January 26th, 2011 12:50 pm

    Ugly can also be official looking or simply a two color package. The thing is – especially for nonprofits and companies that aren’t supposed to be “flashy” like athletic apparel manufacturers or auto makers – the mailer shouldn’t look like you spent a ton of money on your advertising; people want to know you’re not wasting money on marketing and instead passing the savings and value along to the buyer.

  10. Ugly direct mail works and here’s why on May 29th, 2011 12:48 am

    [...] Pretty people tend to earn more. Pretty houses are worth more. Pretty almost always beats ugly, except when it comes to direct mail. via [...]

  11. Judith on September 3rd, 2011 11:45 pm

    Simple and direct to the point. That’s the beauty of “ugly” direct mail. It worked for me the first time I saw one and I’m pretty sure it worked with others too.

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