How to Write a Complete Direct Mail Package, Piece-by-Piece
Direct mail is a wide-open marketing medium. By that, I mean you don't have the format limitations of other traditional media, such as print ads or radio spots.
Assuming you comply with basic USPS guidelines, you can create and mail just about anything, including as much information as you need.
However, creating a mailer can be a daunting task if you don't have years of experience, so let's take a quick look at the basics of writing and designing the granddaddy of all direct mail formats, the "classic" direct mail envelope package.
The underlying secret to this format is the principle of "divide and conquer." That means when you're creating a direct mail package, you should understand the purpose of each element and allow that element to do its particular job.
This is the distinctive feature of any direct mail package: an envelope that carries all the other elements through the mail. It's called the "outer envelope" or OE to distinguish it from the "reply envelope."
The appearance of the OE can be anywhere on a scale from plain, with little or no copy or graphics, to bold, with lots of teaser copy and images. Plain or bold is a strategic choice based on what you believe will get the most people to open the envelope and read the contents.
If you have a highly desirable product or service, and you're sure the mailing list includes your ideal prospects, bold is a great way to go. Teaser copy and graphics can get people interested right away and set them up for the sales pitch inside.
But if you have any doubts about the product, the right thing to say or show, or your mailing list, it's often a good idea to use a plain envelope. While it doesn't help your sales pitch, it doesn't hurt it either. And because it gives no clue about the contents, people have to open it to see what it's about.
Envelopes come in a range of standard sizes and can be custom manufactured to nearly any size within USPS specifications. They can also be made from various types and colors of paper or other materials and can have one or more windows or be closed faced.
This is the heart of any direct mail package. My personal rule is that if you have an outer envelope, you MUST include a letter. The letter is your voice. This is where you speak directly to your prospect, one-on-one, and present your offer.
As with any other element of a direct mail package, you can illustrate your letter and make it as colorful as you wish. However, in most cases, it's better to make the letter look like a standard letter without too many bells and whistles.
Writing letters is something of an art form, so there is no set formula. Master copywriters often do their best work when they break the rules. But there is a certain structure that most letters follow:
- Headline or "Johnson Box"
- Salutation, such as Dear Friend, Dear Joe, or Dear Cat Lover
- Short, attention-grabbing first sentence
- Body copy that tells a story, presents a problem and solution, and/or presents your offer, along with benefits and details
- Call to action or CTA, such as "Call 1-800-123-4567 to order now" or "Visit widget.com to download your free trial today"
- Guarantee to back up your offer
- Deadline (if appropriate) to prompt faster response
- Sign off with a handwritten signature
- P.S. or Post Script that presents a prime benefit, restatement of the offer, deadline reminder, bonus offer, or whatever you want to highlight
This is an optional component. I say it's optional because, often, your direct mail package can work as well or better without it, depending on circumstances.
If you use one, remember my advice about "divide and conquer." The brochure is not just an illustrated version of the letter. It is specifically used to provide support information for the letter. It should illustrate features, list benefits, provide proofs, make comparisons, and list technical details to lend credibility to what your letter claims.
The format of a brochure is limited only by your imagination and budget, but usually it takes one of a few basic forms. It is a flyer, one-sheet, or "broadside" with one primary selling surface, folded to fit in the envelope. It is a standard "brochure," folded to create four or more pages. Or it is a "panel" piece with one of many types of folds and copy and images divided between the various panels so that when it is opened, the reader sees each panel in a particular order.
Personally, I opt for the broadside whenever possible. I like having just one primary selling surface, much like a print ad, with secondary information on the back. The copy is not dictated by folds and, often, I design broadsides so that you must open them completely to read headlines and see the images. This isn't elegant, but it's effective at creating more involvement. (I learned this trick from a Playboy mailing that used, shall we say, strategic folds.)
Insert or Lift Note
This is also sometimes called a "publisher's note" because magazine subscription mail packages often contain them. The purpose of the "lift" note is just what it sounds like: to give the package a lift in response.
Usually, a lift note is signed by a different person than whoever signed the main letter. The lift note is small, generally printed on a slip that is folded, with a short headline or teaser on the outside. The note copy can present a last-minute thought or a special offer, deal with a specific objection, or highlight a benefit.
One little trick I have is to use a lift note for testing offers or presenting special messages to each mailing list. When I'm creating several package versions, I can sometimes get away with changing nothing but the lift note, which makes production and proofing easier on everyone involved. Changing the package is as easy as swapping one note for another.
Many mailers today rely heavily on response via phone or website, so there's pressure to eliminate mail-back reply forms. However, a physical reply is helpful for highlighting your call to action even if you don't typically get response by mail. And, of course, if you do want mail response, the reply form is a must.
The reply can be as simple as a card that can be filled out and dropped in the mail or as complex as a multi-page order form. If you're wanting to generate sales leads or if you're offering a free trial, a simple reply is all you need. For completing sales by mail, you'll need a more complex form to capture product choices, billing information, shipping address, and so on.
Whenever you ask for personal information, such as a credit card number, you must also include a reply envelope, generally a BRE or business reply envelope.
And unless you have testing results to show that it's more profitable to ask for a response by one medium only, such as reply mail, it's usually a good idea to present additional reply options, including a phone number, web page, or fax number.
That, in a nutshell, is how to create a complete direct mail package. There is much more to it, of course, and many copywriters and direct mail gurus have spent lifetimes learning how to make direct mail work. However, this gives you a basic road map to get you started if you've never written a package.
Dean Rieck is one of today's top direct-mail copywriters and has created sales and generated leads for more than 250 companies, including Intuit, Rodale, Sprint and American Express. For a free copy of his white paper, "Getting Response in a Down Economy: 4 Key Principles to Boost Your Direct Mail Profits in Today's Difficult Market," visit www.DirectCreative.com. He can be reached at Dean@DirectCreative.com.