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3 Direct Mail Variants of the Traditional Envelope

January 30, 2013 By Paul Bobnak
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Editor's note: This excerpt comes from "Design & Formats for Boosting Direct Mail Response" and was contributed by our friends at Direct Marketing IQ. To download the full direct mail design report, Click Here.

In a mailbox that's a little less crowded than just a few years ago, there's still a daunting task at hand: How to stand out to the prospective customer or donor.

Even with a full battery of exciting tools at your disposal—like 4-color, variable data printing (VDP) or extra windows to tease the offer inside, just to name a few—the good ol' envelope is still just an envelope. That is, except when it isn't—and I'm not talking about a self-mailer.

Yes, you can still keep all of the elements of a tried-and-true direct mail envelope package that you know and love—letter, inserts, reply form and reply envelope—exactly the same. The difference is what you can use to hold them. Variations that do the same job as the traditional envelope have enjoyed some success, thanks to adventurous non-profit mailers.

Take the brown paper bag. Although it first appeared in the Who's Mailing What! Archive way back in 1988 (from Lycoming College), it really caught on in the first decade of the 21st century, with quite a few food banks and social service groups, like the New York City Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. Usually measuring around 5˝ x 10˝, the bag first attracts attention precisely because of what it is: a flattened lunch bag with an address sticker on one side, tabs across the open end to seal in the typical inserts, and often, the letter printed on the opposite side.

What makes it so powerful as a format is that it can be easily tied in directly with the pitch of an organization. Philabundance's Grand Control (mailed for more than three years), for example, tells the potential contributor that "there are 900,000 people here in the Delaware Valley who don't have enough food to fill this lunch bag." And, the bag doesn't always have to be brown. Washington D.C.'s Whitman-Walker Clinic mailed an effort that helped illustrate its mission (providing medications to people living with HIV/AIDS). In this case, it was a white paper bag bearing an Rx symbol.

But let's face it, the immediate visual appeal of this mailers also limits its applicability to most organizations. No worries: two other formats have also popped up in the mailstream in recent years that should have wider appeal.

One is a poster outer, a thicker, coated stock paper usually folded into thirds, and the ends spot-glued or wafer-sealed shut. It mails with dimensions of, say, 6˝ x 11˝, but measures 6˝ x 17˝ when fully opened. Greenpeace and Amnesty International, for example, have used this format to mail appeals that could have been dispatched in standardsized envelopes. After all, the enclosed materials (letter, reply form, etc.) were nothing out of the ordinary. But the additional advantage is the inside of the outer. Like a calendar or bumper sticker, when displayed, the single picture or sign is a terrific, visible way to advocate for a cause.

Another envelope variation, called the PlyPak by one manufacturer, has been dubbed the "brochurelope" because it cleverly uses all of its interior real estate to take the place of brochures and buck slips in the direct mail package. Measuring a little larger than a standard #10, this format employs a thicker stock paper with 4-color bleeds right to the edge. Its panels are spot-glued; pull them apart from each other, and they open up like petals on a flower. Sitting atop the middle panel is the letter and reply envelope, as well as other components. It's a compelling package that, in the hands of the right designer, copywriter, and project manager, can wow a large variety of audiences.

Yet another nice play on the envelope is seen from Vocus, which markets its PR software in an invitational-style self-mailer that folds open, and then the reply card hinges open to the side and makes it very easy to respond for the B-to-B prospect.

Also, you'll note how well personalized the effort is, as well as the inviting premium (a Barnes & Noble gift card).

The bottom line with each of these formats is that they are different enough from the same old envelope that they get themselves opened. So, job No. 1 is done. After that, it's up to the other components of the package to keep the prospect interested, and then, to respond.

Paul Bobnak is the director of the Who's Mailing What! Archive, owned and operated by Direct Marketing IQ. Reach him at And if you'd like to read more from the Direct Marketing IQ report, download "Design & Formats for Boosting Direct Mail Response."



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