The Linchpin of Direct Mail and Email

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What your prospect first sees can make 100 percent of the difference!

In 1993, I was hired to consult with a law firm whose client was a major health magazine that got itself entangled in a nasty lawsuit.

The backstory briefly: In a direct mail test circular, the magazine had purchased the rights to a series of four photographs of a man showing off his muscled body. These appeared as tiny illustrations deep in the middle of the brochure. The test was a success. The mailing was reprinted and mailed in the millions.

Through dumb, careless oversight the magazine—a paragon of integrity—failed to renew the rights and pay the guy for using his picture in the rollout. He sued for theft of copyright.

The publisher immediately admitted the error and wrote a letter explaining it was inadvertent. He apologized profusely and sent a check. Not good enough. The aggrieved strongman’s lawyers wanted compensation equal to all the money paid to send out the mailing (including creative and postage), all subscription revenue the mailing generated and all advertising revenue for the coming five years.

As founder and publisher of the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! Newsletter and archive, and one of the country’s leading experts in junk mail, I was hired to determine what percent of the success of this direct mail package could be attributed to the guy’s little pictures deep in the middle of the brochure. To do that, I had to first analyze the part each element played in the success of the mailing:

  • Outside envelope
  • Letter
  • Circular
  • Lift piece(s)
  • Order card
  • Reply envelope
  • And then what percent of the response could be attributed to this series of little pictures of the muscle man. This was the amount the publisher would offer to pay.

Let me say at the outset, the case was settled out of court and I never had to testify. But I performed the analysis.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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    Ah, Denny, your gray hair is well-deserved since there are few who are as knowledgeable, which of course comes mainly from learning through experience.

  • Chris Benson

    @DaveB, I’m with you… My wife and I have been married for over 20 years and we’ve never had pay TV, but we get approximately 3 pieces of mail (or more) every week from each of our 3 local services Wave Cable, DirectTV, and Dish, and I always tell people it would have to be cheaper in the long run if they just gave me free cable. You’d think after 300 pieces they’d cross me off the list!

    Denny, you never said what % of the response you’d estimate was attributable to Mr. Muscle Man – were we supposed to assume some non-zero amount but far less than 1%?

  • Carolyn Hansen

    Your sample envelopes (aside from Xfinity) are real grabbers. I want to read what they had inside right now!!

  • Stan

    Hi Denny, Thanks for such a great synthesis and the impressive examples. Stan

  • DaveB

    Hi Denny,

    Comcast is sending mail like it’s free. Yesterday I got two pieces from them, one Xfinity and one Comcast. One was personalized to a household member and one to ‘Our Neighbor’.
    I maintain a PO Box for a closed business and only get the mail once a week, Every week there’s a piece from Comcast. Maybe Comcast is attempting to single handedly keep the Postal Service in business.
    Thanks very much for the definition of Xfinitiy, I had no idea what that was….

  • C. Thomas (Tom) Smith, III

    But the Comcast envelope had a QR code in case you wanted more information?!

  • BoomerMarketing

    It’s been many years since our last get-together in Denver. I study your column weekly and enjoy your thoughtful refresher courses. I took the graduate course from Target Marketing way back in the early 1990’s. I submit this envelope as a control breaker, one of my most successful, since it targeted young men 17 to 30. Seven words and a high-impact design opened the package.

  • BigB

    Nice eye-opening article, and it comes at a good time, as i spent an hour last night trying to come up with a good envelope teaser and in the end just slapped something on that sorta made sense because I was frustrated. I’ll be revisiting that this morning…..

  • BKeene

    Thank you Denny. This article gave me the "kick-in-the-pants" reminder to pay attention to the delivery system. I completely overlooked the USPS barcode label issue. Your check list is now tacked to the wall next to my desk.

  • Steve

    Boy is this terrible. Where the heck is the media player to the right. Just give me the content and try to sell me latter. An old pro.