Quick tips for writing variable direct mail copy

variable direct mail copyVariable copy is a response-boosting direct mail technique that has been around for a long time.

In the old days, you would print your piece (letter, reply, brochure, whatever) with blank spaces. Then you would run the piece through another machine to fill in the spaces with “variable” copy.

The variable copy could be a person’s name, a deadline date, a special price, etc. It looked a little ridiculous, since the variable copy never matched the rest of the printed piece and you had to leave a big space to allow for the copy dropped in.

But it worked.

Today, digital printing technology has made variable copy both easier and more believable. In many cases, you can personalize deep into the copy, inserting nearly any variable available. I use this technique whenever I can because it nearly always gives response a lift.

But how do you write copy for variable data? It’s not hard, but there are a few things to consider.

Find out what data is available. Some mailing lists have little more than name and address. Others have tons of information, such as gender, income, marital status, ethnicity, age, education, occupation, hobbies, and more. You have to work with whatever information is available.

Decide what data you should include. Just because you have a lot of data doesn’t mean you should use it. If you’re writing copy for a letter selling Christian books, it might make sense to talk about religious affiliation. But it doesn’t make sense to talk about ethnicity. Use only the data that enhances your message and makes it more relevant.

Identify key areas to personalize. Since you’re going to the trouble of inserting variable data, you should place it where it will make the most difference. Hot spots include headlines, subheads, call to action, the first few lines of a letter, the P.S., bullet list headers, and photo captions.

Consider other types of variable data. Besides variable text, you can add variable maps, offers, photos, charts, feature lists, etc. With the right printing equipment, you can make just about anything variable.

Plan your spacing and line breaks. You indicate variable copy by inserting place holders. For example, <city> indicates that the city of the recipient should be inserted. The tricky part about this is that a city name can be short, such as Fly. (Yes, Fly is a real city. It’s in Ohio close to where I used to live.) Or it can be long, such as Rancho Santa Margarita.

If you can, find out the shortest and longest data for every variable you plan to use. This will help with spacing. If you put a variable in your headline, you have to consider what the headline will look like whether the variable is short or long.

For line breaks in running text, try to insert your placeholder where it won’t cause weird breaks or awkward hyphenations. In a letter, for example, I might place the variable in the short last line of a paragraph.

Don’t overdo it. The point of variable data is to make your copy more personal and relevant, not to make it sound like a bad sweepstakes offer: “Mary Smith! You’re going to love this crock pot for preparing dinners for the Mary Smith family. Just return the order form, Mary Smith, and we’ll rush this amazing crock pot to the Mary Smith home today!”

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