How to Write Better Direct Mail Letters (Part One)
By Lois K. Geller
I came back from a long business trip on Sunday, and my mailbox was bursting with direct mail offering me everything from free wine with dinner at my local Italian restaurant to a card offering me 30 percent off anything at Loehmann's.
One thing stood out as I read the mail: The letters just don't talk to me. I see package after package with boring, stilted, self-serving letters that nobody could possibly read from start to finish. The occasional gems still make it through—and they're rays of sunshine. But for every one of those, there are 100 that make me want to scream.
Our creative director, Mike McCormick, spoke about this at last year's DMA Conference in San Francisco. This column is adapted from his presentation.
Like Mike, I believe a great direct mail letter can do wonders all by itself. The flip side is that a bad direct mail letter can reduce response. So I want to encourage people who, for whatever reason, can't improve their letters to consider the no-letter option. Some self-mailers work just fine without a letter. And maybe you don't want a letter, because the wrong letter can unsell your proposition, and actually reduce response. It's got to be better to go with no letter than a response-killer.
In general, a letter package will outpull a self-mailer at least two to one. We just ran a test for a business-to-business (B-to-B) client, and the letter version beat the self-mailer version 4-to-1!
One of the great things about letters is they don't cost much to test. Leave all other components the same—except for tracking codes—and just change the letters. This kind of testing is just a great idea. We've used it to learn that one winning consumer letter outpulled the second best letter 7-to-1, and one B-to-B letter increased response by 1,300 percent.
I can't think of a reason not to test letters. It costs almost nothing and can yield huge results.
Writing is a Solitary Pursuit
The actual writing isn't 100 percent of the game. Preparation, attitude and editing may be more important.
You get briefed, see what worked and didn't work in the past, and what the competition is doing. You understand the product and the benefits of using it, you know what motivates the target audience, get an appreciation for the offer, and then you go off by yourself and sit down to write.
But before you do, you should review a list of things to avoid—things that can kill your letter before you even start. Here are a few:
Write to motivate your target audience. Writing to yourself is a common and major sin. Your prospects don't particularly care about your company; they care about what you can do for them. The letter should be written to them—the target audience. This is tough to do, especially when your bosses think they're your target audience, which of course, they aren't. If you have a serious difference of opinion, suggest one of those low-cost letter tests.
Avoid "corporate-ese" copy. It's stilted, boring and self-serving. Corporate-ese reads like a bad annual report. If you find yourself writing things that sound like mission statements (e.g., "in our ongoing efforts to maximize"), you're writing corporate-ese.
You don't have to write dry B-to-B letters. There's no such person as "business." There are only people at businesses, and to reach those people and motivate them, B-toB letters must trigger a personal reaction. A while back, 3M was selling presentation equipment through a seminar program about presentation skills, and it wasn't doing well. It asked us to fix it. Its original mailer had extolled the business benefits of things such as getting people to work well together, achieving consensus, having more productive meetings, etc. All were benefits to the recipient's company, about which the recipients really don't care.
We tried a different approach, starting with a simple line: "You will be a more powerfully persuasive presenter no matter how well you present now." The body copy suggested you'd make more money, be respected and get promoted if you took this seminar. Pay dirt! The seminars were jammed. The mailer answered the recipient's question: What's in it for me?
Try not to let a committee get involved in writing the letter, editing it or approving it. A letter is a one-to-one communication, and committees are not one person. Committees are very good at draining all the personality and passion from a letter. You may have heard that a moose is a deer put together by a committee. Avoid it, if you can.
Do Your Homework
You can't write a great sales letter off the top of your head. You need information. Immerse yourself in your task. Read everything you can about the product, the company, the people who buy it, the people who use it, the competition and past efforts. Use the product. Try the service. Call the 800 number and go online. Experience the process and understand the offer. Write down a list of all the reasons why it's a great offer.
Read the creative brief or take notes when you are verbally briefed. Then put your notes into a memo, and send it to the person who gave you the assignment. Ask for comments on your version of the brief as soon as possible. This can save you a good deal of trouble later on, because you can refer to it when people start quibbling about your copy.
Eventually you'll know everything you need to know about what you're selling and who you're selling it to. Then, you'll pause to consider that you're not selling what you think you're selling.
Every direct mail letter is selling the same thing: Response.
If the lists are right, and the offer is right, then just about every response will be a valuable response, even if it's just for more information. We often forget that.
If you write to sell the idea of responding, you'll win much more often than you'll lose.
The other stuff is important, but the core idea never changes. Respond—now.
Decide Which Kind of Letter to Write
There are many kinds of letters, including: news, testimonial-based, personal experience, yarn-spinner, shocker, exclusive "insider" info, problem/solution, confessional, focus on guarantee, focus on price, etc. Add a road map—some kind of structural flow—to keep it focused.
AIDA is a pretty good road map. It stands for attention, interest, development, action. It means:
>Start with a grabber such as "hey you."
>When you've got their attention, you have to keep it: "Wanna save 30 percent on your dry cleaning?"
>Then expand on it: "Drop your dry cleaning off on Monday before noon and pick it up on Friday."
>And finally action: "If you sign up before the 15th, you'll get a free high-quality laundry bag."
Finally—and you still haven't written a word—think of an attitude, a personality, or some kind of edge that will help people realize you're a human being writing to them and not some committee-infested corporation.
Who do you want to be in this letter? Guru, innocent, helpful, friendly, conversational? It's important that people like you and respect you, and feel that you understand them. They won't buy from you if they don't. And you'll get their trust by writing with the right kind of personality.
You've now completed the prep work required to write a great direct mail letter that generates response. Next month, we'll discuss the writing, editing and approval processes.
Lois K. Geller is president of Mason & Geller Direct Marketing, a full-service direct response agency in NYC. She is the author of "RESPONSE! The Complete Guide to Profitable Direct Marketing." She can be reached at email@example.com.