The Linchpin of Direct Mail and Email
In 1993, I was hired to consult with a law firm whose client was a major health magazine that got itself entangled in a nasty lawsuit.
The backstory briefly: In a direct mail test circular, the magazine had purchased the rights to a series of four photographs of a man showing off his muscled body. These appeared as tiny illustrations deep in the middle of the brochure. The test was a success. The mailing was reprinted and mailed in the millions.
Through dumb, careless oversight the magazine—a paragon of integrity—failed to renew the rights and pay the guy for using his picture in the rollout. He sued for theft of copyright.
The publisher immediately admitted the error and wrote a letter explaining it was inadvertent. He apologized profusely and sent a check. Not good enough. The aggrieved strongman's lawyers wanted compensation equal to all the money paid to send out the mailing (including creative and postage), all subscription revenue the mailing generated and all advertising revenue for the coming five years.
As founder and publisher of the WHO'S MAILING WHAT! Newsletter and archive, and one of the country's leading experts in junk mail, I was hired to determine what percent of the success of this direct mail package could be attributed to the guy's little pictures deep in the middle of the brochure. To do that, I had to first analyze the part each element played in the success of the mailing:
- Outside envelope
- Lift piece(s)
- Order card
- Reply envelope
- And then what percent of the response could be attributed to this series of little pictures of the muscle man. This was the amount the publisher would offer to pay.
Let me say at the outset, the case was settled out of court and I never had to testify. But I performed the analysis.
The 100 Percent Element—The Outside Envelope
The first element to look at was the outside envelope.
Legendary freelancer Herschell Gordon Lewis made the analysis very simple. He wrote:
"The only purpose of the carrier envelope, other than keeping its contents from spilling out onto the street, is to get itself opened."
Quite simply, if the mailing is thrown out unopened, the envelope is a 100 percent failure.
An envelope that is opened is 100 percent successful.
Whereupon, it is discarded and counts for zero in analyzing the success or failure of the mailing.
What are the elements that get an envelope opened? Kansas City freelancer Pat Friesen identified the six outer envelope "hot spots." They are:
1. Corner card/return address. Is the sender familiar or a stranger?
2. Addressing. Window, label, computer type, handwritten? Are the recipient's name and title correct?
3. Postage. Live stamp? Printed indicia? Metered indicia? (Printed indicia usually indicate junk mail.)
4. Teaser copy (if any).
5. Back envelope flap (if any design or copy).
6. Back teaser copy (if any).
The Email Version of the Outer Envelope—100 Percent or Zero
With a message in your email inbox, only two elements exist on which to make an open/delete decision:
1. From line. Is the sender familiar or a stranger?
2. Subject line. The equivalent of the teaser in direct mail.
"All direct mail gets opened over the trash can," wrote freelancer Lea Pierce.
The online corollary to the Lea Pierce dictum: "All email in the inbox is scrutinized with fingers on the delete button."
Like the direct mail envelope, the from and subject lines count for either 100 percent or zero.
Mel Martin, "The World's Slowest Copywriter"
Many writers spend endless hours creating the perfect direct mailing or email campaign and then slap on teaser copy or subject line as an afterthought and sent the thing off.
Not Mel Martin, the freelance copywriter who single-handedly turned Marty Edelston's Boardroom Reports into a publishing empire worth many hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Mel Martin was the world's slowest copywriter," Edelston told me. "It would take him three or four months to write a direct mail package. He could get stuck for a month on a letter opening."
He would also spend a week or two working out the envelope teaser copy.
The Creative Director's Envelope Checklist
- Space in upper right for indicia (stamp, printed or metered).
- Return address (either in upper left corner on flap in back).
- Placement of window (so that address on card shows through).
- Address in scannable typeface (so USPS machine can print barcode).
- Room at bottom for USPS to print or affix adhesive strip with barcode.
- Are all internal pieces folded so that they are machine insertable?
- Does inserting machine have enough stations/pockets to handle all inserts?
- Weight of the final mailing package. (Maximum 3.3 oz. More and you pay penalty.).
The Creative Director's Email Checklist
- From Line
- Subject Line
The Worst Envelope
For the worst envelope I have ever seen, click on the first image in the mediaplayer to the right.
Recently I switched to Comcast for Internet access.
Three months later, I received the fat red 6"x9" envelope that triggered this column.
Clearly Comcast's amateur perpetrators know nothing about the mechanics of direct mail, let alone the Envelope Checklist above.
As you can see a white label was plastered over the teaser copy, obliterating the message.
WELCOME TO XFINITY®
XFINITY TV, INTERNET AND VOICE
The USPS barcode strip was plastered over additional teaser copy.
At the time, I had no idea what Xfinity is. I have since discovered it is Comcast's three bundled services.
Launched by Comcast in 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal, Comcast spent $640 million to advertise this new brand.
Now Comcast is about to spend an additional $170 million in damage control trying to explain Xfinity to a world of other confused consumers.
I could write a book on the number of rules this Comcast mailing broke. Instead, I invite you to compare the disastrous Comcast envelope with some classic direct mail envelopes that fulfilled their purpose as described by Herschell Gordon Lewis. They prevented the guts of the mailing from spilling onto the street and they got opened.
In the mediaplayer at the right, click on:
Image No. 1: The Comcast embarrassment.
Image No. 2: Two long-term controls by Mel Martin, who put Marty Edelston in business.
Image No. 3: Three masterpieces by Bill Jayme and Heikki Ratalahti.
Image No. 4: Copywriter's copy and design for Florida Homeowner Mailing Envelope.
Takeaways to Consider
- "The only purpose of the carrier envelope, other than keeping its contents from spilling out onto the street, is to get itself opened." -Herschell Gordon Lewis
- If the mailing is thrown out unopened, the envelope is a 100 percent failure.
- An envelope that is opened is 100 percent successful.
- "All direct mail gets opened over the trash can." - Lea Pierce.
- The online corollary to the Lea Pierce dictum: "All email in the in-box is scrutinized with fingers on the delete button.
- The Creative Director's Envelope Checklist
—Space in upper right for indicia (stamp, printed or metered).
—Return address (either in upper left corner on flap in back).
—Placement of window (so that address on card shows through).
—Address in scannable typeface (so USPS machine can print barcode).
—Room at bottom for USPS to print or affix adhesive strip with barcode.
—Are all internal pieces folded so that they are machine insertable?
—Does inserting machine have enough stations/pockets to handle all inserts?
—Weight of the final mailing package. (Maximum 3.3 oz. More and you pay penalty.).
- The Creative Director's Email Checklist