Five Ways for the Letter to Overcome Short Attention Spans
Every day, marketers battle the shrinking attention spans of their potential customers. While the electronic channels appear to operate on the same wavelength—and, in part, created those waves of attention and inattention to begin with—of our scatter-brained society, direct mail naturally struggles with it.
Direct mail requires the prospect to read sentences, paragraphs and—gasp!—even pages. How anachronistic. Of course, unless it wants to go extinct, every company that uses direct mail needs to acknowledge this attention-span problem and adapt—just as it is grappling with the postal rate changes. But, no, that doesn’t necessarily mean gutting the package.
Instead, consider six ways to get that attention back just long enough to improve your chances of getting a response.
1. Provide Plenty of Value
Just because prospects have decreased attention spans, it doesn’t have to follow that letters get shorter, says Peggy Greenawalt, president and creative director of Tomarkin/Greenawalt in Hartsdale, N.Y. “It has always been true that when you give people the feeling that they are getting a lot of stuff for their money—value—they are more apt to buy. A long letter makes it seem like you’re getting a lot, even if the reader just scans it,” she remarks.
If you do make the letter shorter, she recommends you use a four-page booklet format in a smaller size. That way, “you can cram in a feeling of ‘more stuff,’” says Greenawalt.
But there’s a method to such creative madness. Instead of filling the open air around the Johnson box and the signature, as well as the big margins in an 8-1/2˝ x 11˝ letter, or writing long lines to use up the margins, Greenawalt says to fold a similar sheet size to four pages so the real estate can be used more efficiently. Also, she advises to not drop the still effective P.S.
2. Make It Quick, Even if It’s Long
The trick to overcoming the perceived attention-span problem is to make a letter a quick scan, suggests Greenawalt, who says that the important words and ideas must pop visually.
She lists these examples: a great Johnson box, easy-to-spot subheads, underlines, highlights, color and handwritten margin notes, short phrases, short paragraphs, and a repeat of the words you want heard.
3. Make Sentences Short and Sharp
What about the letters with apparent flab? “Only badly written letters have flab. People who don’t know how to sell tend to write long sentences and to use proper grammar they learned in school,” asserts Greenawalt, who urges copywriters to write the way they talk. “If your ear can catch it, your eye can catch it,” she says.
Heidi Wells, copywriter and owner of Direct Marketing Creative Services in Chicago, states that the long, drawn-out openings don’t belong in today’s mail piece. “In general, if a letter doesn’t get to the point right away, the target will tune out,” she explains.
4. Distinguish Between Soft and Hard Offers
Of course, length and content also depend on the offer. “For subscription marketing soft offers, we’ve had lots of success with single-page letters,” acknowledges Todd Lerner, copywriter/designer and owner of Todd Lerner Advertising in Farmington Hills, Mich. Because he figures the prospect is getting a free issue to check out, the letter can be kept short and sweet—with the letter imploring the prospect to simply return his enclosed card and experience the magazine for free, then briefly talking about the benefits and features of the publication.
For hard offers, it’s a different story for Lerner. “What seems to be working these days are official/transactional-type packages with no letter at all,” he shares. He does, however, like to add a personalized, letter-like paragraph or two onto the form when he can, and sometimes he’ll test a little memo insert.
Wells agrees with that approach. “For a well-known publication, a great offer is often all that’s needed to grab a reader’s attention. So a one-page letter/statement of benefits would suffice,” she says.
5. In Most Cases, Keep the Star in the Picture
“In direct mail, the letter is the star. The salesman who sits across from the prospect face to face to do the personal pitch. The voice. THE SELL. The other pieces inside the envelope are the supporting cast,” claims Greenawalt, who asserts that both magalogs and bookalogs are doing great right now.
If anything should hit the cutting-room floor, she votes for the brochure. “Some publishers have tested out of flyers and brochures with no drop in response. Newsletters have actually seen a lift (not to mention a lower package cost) by cutting the brochure.”