Design and the Outer Envelope
Acceptance or rejection. This is the immediate decision recipients make when they get your direct mail package. They base their impulse on the vibe they get from the package's outer envelopeand it happens in only seconds.
As David Wise, a freelance designer in Burlington, VT, puts it: "It's quite sobering to go into a local post office, and watch people get their mail from their P.O. Boxes and then dump all the direct mail in the trash can."
He explains that the main role of the outer envelope is to be opened; some [envelopes] tell too much, or tell you enough to know that you don't want to open them."
What are your outer envelopes saying? It depends on the copy, material, postage treatment, color and other elements of design you've combined to create a specific message and look.
Sandra Blum, president of Blum & Co., an ad agency and communications consultancy in Fairfield, CT, takes insight from approaches used by the package goods industry. She explains that companies in this sector have found that the look and color of product packaging is essential to successful sales and brand competition.
This concept applies to direct mail, say Blum, even though the primary objective of direct mail design is to get the copy read.
The outer envelope is the embodiment of the appeal, offer and product. If you just appeal to greed with "free" messaging and nothing else, Blum continues, you might get the envelope opened, but you do less to prepare the prospect for the coming sales pitch.
With the proliferation of mail and advertising messages, you need a consistent look, says Blum, even though each effort is designed to do well in its own setting.
It's All About the Audience
To ensure that instantaneous accept-or-reject decision is a positive one, your outer envelope needs to make a connection with the audience.
Copywriters establish this connection by learning as much about the target market as possible. It's no different for the designer, says Karen Weinstein, a freelance designer in New York City.
"When I do a package," says Weinstein, "I ask all the same questions of the client that the copywriter did. It helps me get a better understanding of the audience and what I'm trying to sell to them."
Weinstein pays attention to the lists that are going to be used for the mailing, and prompts her clients to think about their audience in terms of popular culture. For example, she says, to get at what's hot for a particular market, I want to know not only their industry's Britney Spears-like trends, but the baby Britney Spears trends, too.
You also have to remember, says Wise, that people have their own perceptions about your products. If the message or look in your direct mail package is different than what they expect, then people won't connect with it.
Those same perceptions, as well as your direct mail campaigns, don't exist in a vacuum. When you're not launching a product, your effort exists in a continuum of images and messages; you can choose to go against the messages and creative approaches others have mailed before, or try a variation of what has already worked.
You're striving for a careful balance of brand and new ideas with an existing product, says Wise.
Since you can't change people's perceptions in the space of a few seconds, you need to roll out the proverbial red carpet with your envelope, he explains.
On a side note, the age of the audience is also relevant to choice of design and type, says Wise. Older audiences require slightly larger type size and more contrast, whereas younger prospects are more able to comprehend a variety of type treatments and design elements.
The Psychology of Materials
Direct mail is tactile, says Blum, so you have to think about the physical relationship people will have with your efforts when they hold it and interact with it.
Certain materials say something about the message and offer that are contained inside. For example, says Weinstein, kraft paper says business or urgency.
For upscale offers, paper stocks with a flannel texture or a heavier weight say money, says Blum.
Clear poly, on the other hand, says Blum, is unique, in that people are both inside and outside the packaging at the same time.
Weinstein agrees, adding that since poly allows you to display the contents of the mailing, you've got to make sure that you have the right "yummy" showing through that will draw the audience into the package.
Another version of poly is foil, which is helpful in generating attention in the mailbox, but it's also flashy and may tire quickly, says Blum.
For outer envelopes that use photography, coated paper stock works best.
While paper is important, explains Wise, it's an element that he often has no control over, because many marketers buy their paper in bulk for the year. Even if he were to covet a toothy paper stock, the costs usually exceed budget for a client's campaign; he would rather spend time on design and color.
What Photos Offer
We're not necessarily talking about putting a picture of the product on the outer envelope. Depending on what you're selling and what the offer is, you don't want to tip your hand so quickly.
"Photos are used when you want to capture the emotion that you use to make a connection with the prospect," Blum explains. Photos take people out of their everyday lives and into another realm where everything is possible.
You especially see photos in offers for food, crafts, gardening and collectibles, where people need to see the product to envision their potential relationship with it.
Photography is used to best advantage when it ties into the copy. For example, a polybag mailing for Outside magazine designed by Wise features a photo of a pair of climber's hands coming over the top of a rock in a mountain vista. This image connects with the copy to present a dramatic illustration of the magazine's take on outdoor exploration.
Blum and designer Jyl Ferris worked on a direct mail package for another outdoor-theme magazine, National Geographic's Adventure. The two used a photo from a previous Adventure magazine cover for the entire front of the #14 outer envelope, and devoted the entire back of the envelope to an enlarged shot of the sunglasses premium. While premiums are typically shown in smaller scale, to hide the cheaper quality of these items, Ferris used special lens equipment to make a cheapo premium look good when blown up, says Blum. The overall effect was "in-your-face," which was perfect for this publication's audience.
Interactive Tricks of the Trade
The tricks of the trade for outer envelopes that get used again and again last because they work for simple reasons.
For example, windows paired with personalized messages, response deadlines or stickers perform because they connect the outer envelope to the order card, says Blum. Since the order card is inside the package, recipients have to open the envelope to see the rest of it.
Weinstein's favorite action device is a response sticker positioned on the outside of the envelope, but it's an expensive element, she says. Sometimes she'll use personalization for a boost, too.
Blum has experienced mixed results with personalization, perhaps because it can sound fake if not handled precisely. She thinks personalization needs to be integrated seamlessly into the message and design concept, and perhaps placed far away from the address window for better credibility.
For her money, she would rather use an envelope window for a sticker or a reply-by date.
Of course, says Weinstein, sometimes the plainer, the better in direct mail. If you get too fancy with design, you can lose the message.
Many trends are not good, says Wise, because people are going around selling the trend to all their clients, who are buying it hook, line and sinker.
The mailing patterns Wise pays attention to are when control efforts jump from format to format; for example, a polybag that turns into a magalog or a bookalog, and then switches back to the original envelope package. That evolution, he says, tells you what's getting people's attention in the mail at a given time.
At the moment, there doesn't appear to be anything new on the horizon for postage treatment.
It's pretty much all been tested with established rules of thumb, says Blum.
For example, she says, everyone knows that live bulk-rate stamps help impart a First-Class look to bulk mail.
A few years ago, Tension Envelope marketed a stamp indicia that was tested to mixed results by companies like Gerber Life. Those stamps don't seem to be around today.
Blum remarks that marketers continue to test variations to see if anything will lift response. One company has tested printing a branded indicia, and was rewarded for its efforts. Another tested printing an indicia on a slight tilt, and that also produced a small lift.
Branded meter marks aren't a bad idea either, says Blum, but you have to stay away from graphics of birds that too closely resemble the U.S.Postal Service eagle trademark image.
Color Affects Response
Studies have shown that people react similarly to different hues. For example, red tends to excite people, which is why restaurants find a way to incorporate this color into their decor.
And everyone knows what shade is described as "institutional green," and what that means.
Color principles also can be used effectively in direct mail. Weinstein says the colors red and yellow are considered to be the king and queen of direct mail. But blue can be a king too, she says, when it's used in the right way for the right market.
Blum reports that she has been having luck with clear blue hues in recent direct mail projects. She thinks the reasoning may coincide with The Color Institute's pronouncement of cerulean blue as the color for the millennium. Orange, however, is a hue that many of her clients seem to avoid.
Blum adds that, other than the
traditional black, red and white you often see in direct mail, color trends do pop up over time; companies
either follow the pack or go against the trend.
How important can color be? Well, one of the easiest and most effective ways to revive a flagging control is to simply change the color of the outer envelope.
In a recent test for a book targeted to women, a publishing company took its control that had been mailing in a pink envelope and tested it against a white outer. The offer, contents, copy... all stayed the same. The winner: the white envelope by a sizeable margin.
The Copy-Design Connection
Any direct mail designer worth his or her salt will tell you that the purpose of design is to get the copy read. But the next part of this concept is that the copy needs to be the right message.
Weinstein finds it greatly important to work with a copywriter who understands how to sell with copy, because "the designer has to make those words jump off the page in two seconds."
If the message doesn't work, she says, it's hard to make the design work either. When she gets stuck on a particular assignment, she will collaborate with the copywriter to re-work the focus, which results in a stronger connection between the copy and design.
Regardless of what message you're trying to sell, she continues, you want the design to relate to the message and deliver a pay-off inside the package; whatever's promised on the outside must be delivered on the inside.
David Yale, a freelance copywriter in New York City, says that creating outer envelopes isn't the hey-day that it used to be. The response-winning formulas that have worked year after year are showing fatigue, because prospects have been trained to anticipate what's inside the envelope.
To get attention in what he calls "the age of consumer skepticism," copywriters have to do more than put a strong benefit on the outer envelope. Some of the techniques he has had success with include using odd words or phrases that startle prospects and pique their curiosity, and positioning teaser-style copy in a narrative form that hints at a solution to a problem that prospects are experiencing.
Yale also recommends marketers dig through their controls, as well as tests that produced marginal results, for concepts that might be used as the platform for an outer envelope. Sometimes, a lift note or insert holds the key to a new test idea. If, he says, a lift note was able to jack up response by 50 percent, think what that idea could do for an outer envelope.
That's why Yale thinks envelope tests are becoming a major creative strategy for savvy direct marketers