Good Direct Mail is Alive!
Remember the old Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie? He's strapped to the table all bandaged up, waiting to get zapped by lightning. Once the sparks fly, Boris' hand gives a twitch or two, and the good Dr. F. screams "It's ALIVE!!! It's ALIVE!!!"
That, my friends, is the difference between stupid direct mail packages and great direct mail packages.
If you were here for last month's column, you'll remember I held forth on why I hate voucher packages and why I think they're bad for the industry.
I also railed against the tendency to hire mediocre talent to write and design direct mail. And I opined that perhaps those who hire the writer/designer teams may not be sure how to evaluate a creative portfolio and tell the good guys (and gals) from the not so good.
Back to the tower and Franky. Good direct mailin general, but specifically for magazines, books, and newslettersis alive! It has a soul and a personality. And, just like in the movie, when you read good direct mail, sparks fly, lightning bolts crash, diodes spin, electricity pops and crackles! And the creature (i.e., the consumer) wakes up out of his complacency and responds. Bottom linegreat direct mail works!
So how do you recognize a direct mail package that's "alive"? Well, the short answer is: You'll know it the minute you see it. And isn't that the way it should be?
After all, potential respondents don't take courses in analyzing good packages. They don't get under the hood to see what makes a good package tick. They give your package about three secondsthen either toss it or put it in the "read later" pile. So when you're looking at samples from either a writer or designer, be an end user. Be a potential respondent. Be the mom who's just spent the morning doing car pool, running errands all day, then back to the car pool, and finally home, in the kitchen with the kids, sorting through the day's mail. If it doesn't grab her, it shouldn't grab you either.
My point is you should (at the very least) be able to detect a pulse the instant you see and read the outer envelope. Now is it the copy or the design that matters? It's both. They go hand in hand. Think Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, the lyrics alone were good. The melodies by themselves were catchy. But together, it was magic. So, too, in direct mail. Great copy teamed with great design is magical. And creates a pulse, a vibe, a presence that's instantly detectable.
So what's great copy? It's "the concept" or "the big idea" expressed in a witty, snappy, or intriguing way. Allow me to digress.
I used to work at Ogilvy & Mather. Years ago it was one of the top five ad agencies in the world (not sure if it exists anymore.) But advertising legend and direct mail pioneer David Ogilvy always told us that every successful piece of advertising began with a "big idea." The headlines, copy and design all worked to communicate and support that big idea.
When Bill Jayme launched INC., the big idea was: "INC. is the new magazine for people who start small businesses."
Jayme's outer (shown at right) was all white with the word "Mousetrap" big and black. The subhead was:
So you've built a better one. Now what? Presenting INC., the new magazine about you and your company.
When Emily Soell launched Condé Nast Traveler, the big idea was: "Finally a travel magazine that's completely different from the rest." Her outer headline:
Announcing a magazine for people who love to travel but don't care much for travel magazines.
When I launched Men's Journal, the big idea was: "Introducing a new men's magazine from ROLLING STONE for a hipper, more daring kind of guy." The outer read:
WARNING! What's inside will turn your stomach, send you off the deep end, and land you behind bars. (But, hey, you'll be a better man for itpromise!)
The references were to stomach curls, diving into the ocean from a yacht, and riding a mountain bikewhich were all revealed in the brochure.
Feel the pulse? Detect the heartbeat? Want to go inside and read more? You bet!
Each of these outers had very clean design, with no four-color photos, just two colors each. The design let the copy do the work.
When would the opposite be true? When should design trump copy? For a magazine like Outside (show us a dazzling vista) or Martha Stewart Living (show us Martha and pretty flowers), and any kind of cookbook (show us a gooey, sinful chocolatey dessert.) Add a headline full of life, and you've got a great chance for a winner.
Attitude. Soul. Grit. These are the things that a successful outer (and by inferencepackage) ought to have. If there's a defined product benefit, that helps too.
What about size? Format? My rule is don't let the tail wag the dog. Settle on the big idea first. Decide what copy and photo/design concepts best communicate that big idea. Then choose the size/format that allows the best presentation of the concept. I've got controls as 9" x 12" polys, 6" x 9" paper, 6" x 11-1/2" paper, 9" x 9" paper, double postcards, and triple postcards. I fit the concept to the format.
So, the next time you're looking at samples of other people's work, look for the living among the dead. Ever pick out a new puppy from a litter? You see eight or 10 little fuzz balls climbing and rolling around each other. Some much more active than others. Some just huddled in a corner like wallflowers. Which would you choose? Think about that when you're poring over direct mail samples.
One last thought, then I've got to get to work. Consider the person behind the product. When you assign a project to a creative team, you're entering a close working relationship with them for the next eight to 10 weeks. Ask around. Find out who's good to work with, and who's too much of a pain. Over the years, I've found a correlation between great work and great people. Winners create winners.
Next time, I'll get into the guts of a good packagethe land beyond the outer envelope (or between the plastic of the poly.) And I'll point out packages that were doomed from the startones that should have never left the building, much less gone into the mail. Stay tuned ...
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.