Creating a Truly Cohesive Direct Mail Package
In effective direct mail package that works to its best potential is not just a collection of nested components all designed with matching colors and a familial graphic look. A cohesive mailing is a careful amalgam of message elements all functioning in slightly different ways, and yet all working to put forth a central sales message and to achieve a single objective.
Think of a Single Person
Imagine for a moment that your direct mail package is a person with distinct characteristics and a unique style. Of course, that "person" is going to "say" different things at different times and in different ways when communicating with someone. He may introduce himself in an attention-getting way (outer envelope); he may get very personal and address your individual expectations (letter); and he may get very clear and even blunt about what action he wants you to take (reply form); but he always is going to present an overall personality and message effectone that only a single person can.
The type of "person" you envision will change depending upon what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to sell directly or generate a lead? Do you know the reader? Does the reader know you and your product? If so, how well? What kind of personality should your package have? How should this person act and speak? Will it be a hard-driving salesperson, or an easy-going conversationalist?
What your "person" says (copy) and how he says it (style) will be driven by the answers to these questions and others. If you do your homework and do it well, most of the time, the appropriate person will reveal himself to a large degree.
The Sum of Its Parts
Although the possible formats for direct mail packages are extensively varied, from simple postcards and self-mailers to elaborate oversized packages and showmanship pieces, the "classic" format today still consists of a mailing envelope, a letter, a brochure or circular, an order or reply form, and, in some cases, a lift note. So for the sake of our discussion, here's a look at what generally is accepted as the "standard" direct mail package components and how to orchestrate your cohesive approach throughout the different pieces.
Outer Envelope: Because it's competing with so many other messages and other "people" in the mail, your outer envelope must gain attention first. The school of direct response I grew up in called this "stopping power."
Think of the package-as-person concept. Unless the person's opening line, so to speak, is something that hits home and prompts the customer to open up a bit to a dialogue, all the rest is moot. This is why the teaser copy on the outer envelope is so hyper-critical. The envelope's voice, tone and style are reflective of not only a knowledge of who the prospect is, but also the product, timing and other factors. The outer envelope immediately should establish a feeling of importance, value, urgency, prestige or even bargain.
Take for example a very successful new-client acquisition campaign I wrote for the Nightingale-Conant Corp. a few years ago for the six-cassette audio version of Earl Nightingale's landmark success formula, "The Strangest Secret." The teaser on the outer envelope, "I woke up at four o'clock one morning and literally cried 'Eureka!' It was there in my mind ..." is emotive and attention-grabbing and hints that a tremendous, beneficial secret would be revealed inside. And the second teaser, "Today millions claim it as the single idea that changed their lives ..." implies that this information has worked for others, and can work for the reader as well. It also established the first-person Nightingale quote approach that would be used in the mailing's other components.
One final thought on the outer: The attention you've gained and intrigue you've created must make sense once your prospect gets inside. Don't shift gears suddenly, or your reader will feel fooled or tricked and any honest receptivity to the rest of your message will be lost.
Letter: The letter is a cohesive package's primary means of communication and personalized delivery. It is the most personal, one-to-one interaction with the prospect after the outer. Not only should the letter address the product, its features and benefits, the offer, and the call to action, but also the prospect's thoughts, beliefs, wants and needs, desires, expectations, and other prospect-oriented characteristics.
Your tone and style in the letter will be determined by the kind of person you are speaking for (the signer of the letter) and by the prospects to whom you are speaking. The "person" I asked you to visualize as your anthropomorphic package is a bit different but very much related to the person who you will become as the writer of the letter.
Think of the package as a person again. The letter serves as the first response to the interest and intrigue you've hopefully established on the outer. If it was a retail or door-to-door salesperson, the letter would be the part of the salespitch where he tries to identify with the prospect. Don't get me wrong; the product or service, its attributes and benefits, and end benefits and values all should be woven into the letter. But its approach is not so much to shed light on the product, but to introduce the product from the prospect's viewpoint.
In the Nightingale-Conant package, the letter head features a Nightingale quote again, restating the offer and promising an optimistic end benefit. The letter proceeds with a personal note from Vic Conant, the company's president, which focuses on the prospect's wants and expectations by introducing the key aspects and features of the program as the ideal way to satisfy those wants and achieve those expectations.
Brochure: A brochure is used to support the sales claims and arguments being made in the letter about the product. It also provides and presents any claims, features and benefits not already in the letter. Simply put, the brochure is the nuts and bolts presentation of the product. If you need to state some claim or promise in a slightly different, more objective way, the brochure or folder is where it's done.
So how does this component work with the others? If you consider the package-as-person concept, the brochure acts as either a salesman's presentation of his product's features, or the literal leave-behind or reference piece. Once the prospect's needs, wants and desires are addressed in the letter with claims, promises and convincing end-benefit references, the brochure provides all the support with repeated claims and benefits, plus the factual litany of features and details.
In the Nightingale-Conant mailing, the brochure features another Nightingale quote on the front. Continuing inside, the prospect sees an actual photo of an old manual typewriter with a message and promise as if Earl Nightingale had written it himself. The brochure then opens up to a full-spread presentation of "The Strangest Secret," its historical origins and its power. First-person quotes create headlines and subheads that are consistent with the rest of the package; the cassettes are explained in full detail; and testimonials support the envelope's implication that this product has worked for others. All of these facts, details and claims support the promises and claims presented in the letter.
Order Form or Reply Form: First and foremost, the order form must be considered a selling piece that works in concert with the rest of the package; it is also the deal closer. This is why I don't particularly like the term "response device." This term implies a lack of strategic message considerations. It's not merely a device, and it's not thrown in just for necessity's sake.
Here, the offer should be repeated clearly and concisely; the premium, if there is one, should be described again briefly; key benefits should be stressed one last time; and all the details and itemizations should be clearly spelled out, including pricing and terms, if it's a direct sales campaign. In addition, it needs to look like, feel like, sound like and "work" with all the other components, not only in fact, but in tone and style as well.
Again, if your package is a person, this reply component is that same person repeating, reinforcing and underscoring your central message and offer one last time, only this time he now is asking for the order on top of it all. For a truly cohesive direct mail package, your reply form or order form is an integral player in "closing the deal" on the concept and overall sales message.
In the Nightingale-Conant reply form, the promise and offer are repeated; another Nightingale first-person quote is used; a picture of the product reinforces what the prospect will receive; action instructions are clear and even repetitive for a reason; and the terms are described and clarified.
Lift Letter or Note: This is a component that should do just what its name implieslift, as in lift response. It's very dependable if done correctly. But, most often I see lift letters that simply are shorter, alternative versions of the primary letter, quite often with identical or similar phraseology and used just as a way to repeat the offer.
The note should directly reinforce or enhance your selling message, but do so with a rationale that's removed from that of the main letter. In other words, it must have a reason for being and that reason must be evident in the copy.
The note nearly always should come from a different person than the lettersomeone with a strong promotional perspective, such as an editor, customer service representative, director or even another customer. This allows you to introduce a new point of view and change your character a little. This should strengthen your sales message and offereven if the lift letter doesn't actually mention the offer per se.
In terms of the package-as-person concept, you'd have to view the lift note as a different, but similar person. Imagine the retail salesperson or door-to-door person again; the lift letter is his manager or partner stopping by and sticking his head into the discussion to remind you that the week-long bargain sale ends at close of business today. It's the customer who is walking by and makes the offhand remark that he just bought that same car or refrigerator a week ago and can't believe how much he likes it.
The lift note should augment the sales message of the letter, brochure and reply form, rather than simply repeat it.
Don't Forget Verisimilitude
I first learned this lesson from an old pro, Herschell Gordon Lewis, so I can't take credit for it. But I've remembered it and used it and reminded myself of its power in every direct mail project I've written.
Verisimilitude is not just the truth, it's the appearance of truth, and a cohesive package can help you achieve that appearance. Consistency prevents a build up of skepticism; it begets cohesiveness and cohesiveness begets suppression of skepticism. Beware of contradictions in your copy, especially from one component to another, even if your "voice" changes slightly for strategic reasons, such as in a lift note.
Follow these ideas and lessons for better cohesiveness in your direct mail packages and you'll notice a marked improvement in response and overall program success. I guarantee it.
Kevin Shea is an independent creative director, copywriter and creative consultant. He operates Kevin J. Shea & Associates just outside Chicago, Ill. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.