Envelope Tips to Combat Anthrax Fears
by Dean Rieck
In late 2001, only days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, America experienced a bizarre anthrax scare. Letters with anthrax spores began showing up in the offices of news media and two Democratic U.S. Senators. Five people died and 17 were infected.
This created a serious issue for direct mailers because millions of Americans were afraid to open envelopes. I wrote this article for DM News to give U.S. mailers advice and inspiration to overcome this unusual problem. I'm posting it here as an example of how copy and design principles are relative to context and are not absolute.
By the time you read this, you probably have received a postcard from the Postmaster General about how to identify and handle suspicious mail. According to the USPS Web site, it's being mailed to "every household in America, every rental Post Office box and all military APO and FPO addresses." This comes on the heels of a warning for all Americans to "wash their hands" after opening mail.
Because of this and massive press coverage on anthrax scares, people are looking at mail more carefully than ever before. And early reports are that response rates are falling. Basically, the mood now is "when in doubt, throw it out."
It's too early to know whether response will bounce back or remain lower for the long term. But it seems prudent to adjust our approach to direct mail design to anticipate and ease the fears and doubts of our customers while this is an issue.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Avoid plain envelopes. For the moment, curiosity has been replaced by fear. So you may be better off with envelopes that look more like advertising and less like personal mail. That is, until there's an incident involving ad mail. If that happens, all envelopes will be suspect.
- Identify yourself clearly. Display your return address, logo, phone number, URL, and anything else that shows who you are and enhances your credibility. If you've been careful about building your brand, you're way ahead of the curve on this. If you've been ignoring your brand, now you'll pay the price.
- Avoid odd shapes and bulges. If you're sending samples or bulky enclosures, be sure to identify your contents on the outside of your envelope. You may even use polybags or window envelopes to let people see inside.
- Avoid restrictive markings. Words such as "personal" or "confidential" could backfire. Again, it would be wise to specifically identify the contents of an envelope and avoid anything that smacks of the unknown.
- Avoid excessive postage. Lots of stamps or unusual postal designs are a red flag now. Even a single stamp or metered postage could raise doubts. I suggest using a simple printed indicia whenever possible.
- Avoid a foreign look. No, this isn't politically correct. But let's be realistic. If your envelope looks like it's from another country, it's likely to be trashed. In these times, "foreign" no longer automatically translates into "exotic." Signs and symbols of America, on the other hand, will be received well as long as the mood of patriotism is strong.
- Keep the design clean. In normal times, a messy look faux coffee stains, doodles, ink stampings, etc. can work well. But it may be better to keep it simple and avoid the unusual.
- Use handwriting cautiously. The personal look of a hand-addressed envelope or handwritten copy may work against you now. I would even avoid a typewriter font, since the idea of someone personally typing an envelope could raise doubts. To be safe, stick to clean typefaces.
- Try postcards and self-mailers. They're open and therefore inspire more confidence than closed envelopes. They are particularly good for generating leads or pulling people to a Web site or online kiosk. Some businesses are using postcards to announce an upcoming package.
- Check your security procedures. You say you don't have any? You'd better. And you'd better make sure all your providers have them, especially lettershops. Just one incident involving a consumer mailing could sink your business and hurt the rest of us.
What's the big message here? Be simple and direct. Avoid the unusual. And make your advertising look like advertising. This is a good time to focus less on tricky techniques and more on good products and strong offers.
No one has experience with what we're going through now. So these suggestions are speculative and subject to change. A single event could instantly negate any or all of these ideas. And no one can predict the long-term effects on particular techniques or on mail advertising as a whole. Only testing will show what will work and what won't now and in the days to come.
But don't panic. Despite current uncertainty, let me assure you that mail is more than a medium. It is part of the American way of life. So if your response has dropped off recently, hang on. Americans are amazingly resilient, brave people. And they LOVE to buy through the mail. So be patient and persistent in your testing.
We will adjust. We will endure. We will prosper.
Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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