Does Your Copy Have "Pocket"?
Creating an effective direct mail package has long been a marriage of left- and right-brain thinking. Of science and art.
On the science side, we have list research: Where do I find the most qualified potential buyers for my product? And product research: Who's my competition and what's my product's selling advantage? And customer research: What do people like about my product, and what motivates them to buy?
Of course, direct mail also remains an art. Art appeals to people more at the emotional level than the cognitive. What's more, emotions can strongly influence buying decisions, and they certainly influence giving decisions. To paraphrase the esteemed copywriter and creative consultant Joan Throckmorton, when the mailbox is full, when the response rates have fallen off, and the same tried and true techniques no longer work, then the "art" of direct mail becomes critically important.
And like it or not, some of the old techniques are no longer working as they once did. According to a 2001 study, the almighty word "free," if overdone, puts people off. In addition, Third-Class stamps often work just as well as First-Class (people simply don't notice the difference). And those sacrosanct post scripts are often not noticed to the extent you might think they are.
Almost always though, and particularly in competitive times like these, a deftly written and illustrated piece of direct mail has the best chance to call attention to itself, involve readers, steer them along, and propel them to the finish so they take the action you want them to take.
In the music industry, that kind of successful creativity is called "pocket."
When a song has you tapping your feet and humming the melody, when it appeals to you as much subconsciously as it does consciously, it is said to have pocket. It's catchy. You can't resist it. The same holds true for well-crafted direct mail copy. Its opening compels attention, its middle has a rhythm that keeps the reader involved and moving toward the close, and the letter's final phrasing better end with a bang, not a whimper.
The EnvelopeOpening Bars
It is the envelope that, like the opening bars of song, sets the stage for what comes next, much like the opening bars of a memorable tune. Think of "Satis-faction" by the Rolling Stones or the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Envelopes, no matter the sender, no matter the offer, can be as diverse and compelling as the imagination allows. Let me offer a few examples.
I've long loved and admired the outer envelope from the British magazine Granta, which dares to urge prospective subscribers to "Throw Away This Envelope"perhaps the epitome of reverse psychology in envelope teaser copythat was mailed for years. Too often today, in my experience, direct mail managers are quick to take the safe approach. By doing so, they reduce their risk, and the mailing is likely to "perform" at some level of satisfaction. The trouble is, they deny themselves the chance of a breakthrough success.
What strikes you first about the colorful 6" x 9" from the Houston Museum of Natural Science are the bold colors and graphics. The envelope is splashed with reds, black and gold, and it features a Chinese pagoda and dragon. The flip side of the outer brings membership benefits to the fore immediately: "Free Tickets!" VIP Private Showings! Valuable Discounts! And Much, Much More!" The great copywriter Bill Jayme used to liken the envelope to the "hot pants on the hooker." Start the selling right away.
Melody is the element of music that has the widest and most direct appeal. It's what you remember and hum after hearing a song. It's the musical line that guides you through the piecemuch like the theme in a well-crafted direct mail letter.
Consider a launch package for Islands magazine, written a number of years ago by the late Hank Burnett. Hank's copy is sonorous, ethereal. You can practically taste the saltwater and feel a sea breeze blow through your hair: "Somewhere out there, beyond the blue horizon, lies the island of your dreams ... isolated by oceans from trouble and strife, from concrete and plastic, from politics and pollution ... a place where geography grants immunity from the impositions and incivilities of day-to-day life. Now you can find it, explore it, experience it and enjoy it ... through the pages of a magnificent new magazine for the escapist in us all."
Or take the The Nature Conser-vancy's famous Crane package. It was written by Frank Johnson (for whom the Johnson Box is named) 20 years ago and is still being mailed today. Why? Probably because it is playful and sprightlya complete departure from so many ultra-serious and foreboding letters from nonprofit organizations. Oh yes, it also happens to sell and sell:
The bug-eyed bird on our envelope who's ogling you with such a bad temper has a point. He's a native American sandhill crane and you may be sitting on top of one of his nesting sites. As he sees it, every time our human species has drained a marsh, and plowed it or built a city on it, since 1492 or sothere went the neighborhood. It's enough to make you both edgy. So give us $15 for his nest egg, and we'll see that a nice, soggy spotjust the kind he and his mate need to fashion a nest and put an egg in itis reserved for the two of them, undisturbed, for keeps. Only $15.
Rhythm is the Greek word for "flow." Ancient people thought it the controlling principle of the universe. Rhythm is the symmetrical proportions of an arch. It is the repeated movement of a dance. It is the meter in a well-crafted writing, the ebbs and flows in a direct mail letter.
A letter written by the New York copywriter John Walsh is a classic. Created to sell a book by consulting genius Dick Benson, Walsh's letter harkens back to the earliest and best kind of direct mail letter copywhen a letter was meant to read like a lettera personal, one-to-one medium of communication. The subtle rhythm of Walsh's writing involves you and carries you effortlessly along until, almost without noticing, you've completed page one and are turning the page and reading more. Let me give you a quick sampling:
I was in a meeting once with Linda Wells, who is another direct mail writer, and a prospective client whom Dick Benson had introduced us to. "Don't get me wrong," said the prospective client at one point, "I agree with 90% of what Benson says."
"That's not bad," I said. "It means you're only wrong 10% of the time."
He hired Linda.
If you find only humor in the incident, you miss my point. The words fell from my lips without thinking, as if I were commenting on the weather or what day of the week it was.
Indeed, disagreeing with Dick is, to me, like saying it's raining when the sun is blinding or that Labor Day falls on Thursdays.
That is up until today.
For now he's gone and done perhaps the first dumb thing in his life. He's written a book.
Contrast Walsh's involving narrative style with the insistent copy taken from one of Fast Company's early mailings. The writing is reflective of the name of the magazine itself; there's an urgency and speed to it. Consider:
Get out the highlighter, the scissors, the note pad, the routing envelopes. Your free issue of Fast Company is just a reply card away!
Fast Company is unlike any business publication you've ever known. As revolutionary as the new face of business it reports on. Don't expect a magazine that lulls you to sleep on the train. Or merely offers you "perspective." This is front burner stuff all the way. Intelligence you can act on, pass along, and profit from. Today.
Harmony lends a sense of depth to music. Engaging direct mail letters, much like engaging music, can have added depth by splicing in useful facts and information for the prospect. Depth is often built into the "belly" of letterspages two and three. But letters also can employ compelling facts right away. Take a long-time control for the Kennedy Center, for example.
The mailing's offeran invitation to join the Kennedy Center at a 20-percent discount and purchase advance tickets ahead of the general publicis set forth in a Johnson Box and in the first two paragraphs of the letter. The special purchase privilege is embellished slightly in the second paragraph, explaining to recipients that they will have the "special opportunity to purchase advance tickets to see the very finest in theater, music, and dance at the most prominent, and beautiful, venue for the arts in Washington."
Then, to back up that sweepingand easily dismissed statementthe letter launches into two paragraphs filled with programmatic detail about past (and typical) Kennedy Center seasons. The letter reads:
When I say the "very finest," I mean it. Past Ticket Priority purchases have included the Broadway musical version of Disney's acclaimed Beauty and the Beast, Terrence McNally's pre-Broadway Master Class, and Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera.
I'm also referring to previous Ticket Priority offerings to such renowned dance companies as The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as other superb Kennedy Center presentations such as the National Symphony Orchestra with celebrated conductors Leonard Slatkin, Sir Neville Marriner and Roger Norrington.
Another example is a letter inviting the reader to accept a mini-subscription to The Nation that explains "week after week you'll find yourself getting the kinds of News and Views that have virtually disappeared from the mainstream media." For the next two pages, the letter elaborates on and defends that statement. Topic sentences from the next several paragraphs read:
The Nation digs out the news that otherwise goes unreported. The Nation brings you news before it happens. The Nation makes headlines of its own. The Nation gives you the truth on the news that others misreport. The Nation puts newsmaking documents into your hands. The Nation puts old news in new context. The Nation regularly offers you views as well as news.
A paragraph accompanies each lead sentence, providing the reader one or more on-point examplesharmonics at work in direct mail.
Form is the quality that presents to the listener, or reader, an impression of conscious choice and judicious arrangement. All faces have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but in each face those features are found in wholly individual combinations. To explain further, a mailing from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is sent in a large 12" x 14" envelope, making it impossible to ignore. The laser-printed teaser, addressed to the recipient, is cleverly crafted and compels the reader to detach the perforated strip and open the mailing: "Mr. Vallejo, if you were born between 1925 and 1937, you have a big stake in the battle being fought over your Social Security and Medicare benefits. Yet, unlike nearly 15,000,000 other Americans who want to get the most from their retirement income, you haven't answered my previous letters. I think I know why."
The letter is as unique and compelling as the carrier. It features a personalized, temporary membership card, the word "ALERT" in a large, red rubber stamp, and large black type printed on yellow, ruled paper. In addition, there's a blue handwritten note calling attention to the enclosed free address labels. Clearly, there is a lot of conscious thought at work in this package. Its form was no accident.
By contrast, a mailing I created for the African Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit international conservation organization, features a somber, gray #10 carrier with a black-and-white photo of a mountain gorilla. The teaser, also printed in black, reads, "Please Do Not Abandon Them in the Mist!" The letter's Johnson Box features an unsettling story whose words and imagery reflect the mood set forth on the outer. The Johnson Box reads:
There is a profound silence in Africa just before the dawn, when the creatures of the night have finished their shift and the creatures of the day have not yet begun. The noise of men marching through the forest must have made a terrifying contrast to that silence. Mrithi would have shouted a warning that they were in his territory. The patrol that found his body estimated that the attack must have come at about 4 a.m. Local farmers on the edge of the park said they heard many gunshots at about that time ...
It was my intent for this package to paint, in both words and graphics, a bleak, tormented picture of the lives of the 650 mountain gorillas left on Earth. Its look, its wordsits formreflect conscious choices.
Tempo and Dynamics
Tempo is the pace of the music, the pace of your copy. Dynamics denote how loud or soft the music is, how loud or soft your copy is. The two usually go hand in hand. Here are a few examples.
An invitation to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is written in a measured tempo; its dynamics are soft. The opening paragraph of the letter reads: "It is with pleasure that I enclose a limited-edition Colonial Williamsburg 75th Anniversary Restoration Bookmarka memento commemorating the 75th anniversary of our historic restoration efforts here in Colonial Williamsburg."
By contrast, an acquisition mailing from the New Yorker is much more up-tempo, short and punchy. The dynamics are moderatenot too soft or loud. Listen:
Reading is good for you. And reading The New Yorker is as good as reading gets. It's the best reading on this planet. The best reporting. The best fiction. The best cartoons. The best reviews. Not to mention the best covers. Best poems. Best notes on the town. Best nightlife. Best shows. Best showings. Best books. In a word, the best things to do. The New Yorker.
Finally, consider this example from a mailing for the publication Brill's Content. While the tempo is definitely upbeat, it's the dynamics that separate this copy from the earlier examples. It's much louder. In fact, the Johnson Box copy starts off almost "yelling" at you:
How can they get away with that? Whatever happened to accuracy and fairness? Doesn't anybody care about getting it right anymore, instead of getting it first? Just whom can you trust to give you that straight scoop? Why isn't somebody holding the media accountable? Now, somebody is. Introducing Brill's Content, the new consumer guide to the Information Age ...
End of the Song
To review, direct mail is a sometimes ungainly, sometimes beautiful marriage of art and science. However, science alone can take you only so far. Then it is up to the "art" of direct mailthe creativeto carry the day.
Start off by learning all you can about the product or service you're selling. Study your target audience and what motivates them. Devise a bulletproof offer. Then strive to give your mailing pocket. Put melody, rhythm, harmony, form, tempo and dynamics to work, creating a unique piece of direct mail that captures the readers' attention, keeps them involved, and propels them to take the action you want.
The piece you create just may be a chart-topper.
Fred Vallejo, a Caples and ECHO award-winner, has 21 years of direct response experience. He can be reached