How to Design a Direct Mail Package for Response

With the growing popularity of the internet, it’s all too easy to forget about other forms of reaching customers directly. But surprisingly, direct mail response rates are actually increasing, thanks to better list maintenance and targeting. And while a compelling offer is a must, without the right design and copy, your piece will never get opened and your offer won’t even be considered. Here are nine essential design tips to maximize response with the right offer to the right audience:

1. Plain Janes can win. Design in direct response ads exists solely as a vehicle to make the sale. It’s not there to “create a mood”, get the reader to exclaim “how clever”, or build your corporate image. Sometimes, the best direct response ads have the corporate imagemakers chewing their bow ties in despair. They are homely, “down market”, even downright crude – in the best sense of the term, implying simple, honest and unpretentious.

Some of the most expensive items have been sold solely by a letter, typed out on a simple computer, and “instant printed” cheaply in just two colors. For example, one direct marketer made several five-figure sales by sending customers and prospects a photocopy of a “new product” press release. This outpulled response from their glossy brochures, because its modest format bypassed sales resistance and, moreover, gave recipients a privileged “preview” of an item others would not see until magazines printed it weeks later.

2. Photos must support copy and convey benefits. Powerful four-color photographs grab attention, but will only work in direct response if they support the benefit – and the benefit is spelled out in the copy. The photo should show a person enjoying the product’s benefits, and not merely show the product. They won’t work if they just stop the reader. Their objective is to get the reader to read and respond.

3. Copy is king in direct response letters…and the letter is far more important than the brochure. It can often stand alone. In split tests, a letter and response device alone have often pulled just as well as a more expensive package that includes a brochure. And if there’s one rule in direct mail on which most agree, it’s that long copy usually outpulls short copy. The more copy the reader reads, the more likely they are to buy. The more expensive (or unlikely) the offer, the more copy you need to do the job. One travel agent sold $5,000 vacation packages – in the Arctic – solely by means of a seven-page letter.

This breaks the rule of brevity, which applies to billboards and press releases. In direct response letters, if what you want to say can be said in one page, take two pages, and say it all twice – but in different words. This doesn’t mean being long-winded: your style must be tight, lean and powerful, or you lose readers. But repetition of key benefits, describing the same sunset from many different angles, works.

4. Every component must sell. Put the entire sales message on every item in the mailing package. That means the coupon. The reply envelope. The letter. The price list. As well as on the brochure. You can’t predict which item the prospect will read first, or how the items will be separated later.

The acid test is: will every item, if spotted casually by a third party in, say, someone’s in-tray, cause them to stop and read it? And give them enough information on its own to order from you?

In particular, the response device is the place to summarize the benefits, the absence of risk, the free gift or discount, the need to respond now or be forever regretful. It should be a mini-ad all by itself. Because here is where the prospect will hover indecisively, pen in hand. It’s where he or she needs the greatest encouragement to proceed.

5. Good design in direct response is not achieved by whim…it’s a precision-engineered machine. To work, it must follow proven rules. First, gain attention with your headline (and/or photo). Immediately, offer your key benefit. Follow with subordinate benefits. Give proof of your benefits, with testimonials, independent reports, etc. Show why the prospect runs no risk, by detailing your guarantee. Ask for the order, explaining how easy it is to place the order. Tell them what they’ll gain by ordering before the cut-off date, or what they’ll lose by delaying.

Remember too the order in which readers read, and position each stage of your selling sequence in the reading order. For example, the postscript in a letter (or last paragraph in a direct response ad) is often the second part read, immediately after the headline (or the photo caption). Here is where you repeat your strongest benefit. Or give a reason to reply now. Or repeat the premium offer. Or all three. Don’t be afraid to have two PSs.

For the same reason, a sales letter should have odd numbers of pages: three or five or seven. Why? The last page is the strongest selling page, in terms of the “call to action”. Thrust it in front of the reader. Make it always a right-hand page, i.e. don’t ask the reader to run over. (So if yours is a two-page letter, expand it to three pages. You should more than pay for the extra paper by extra orders.)

Add variety to your letter design by varying the paragraph width. The eye is drawn into and down a page where each successive paragraph is five or ten characters slimmer than the one above, like a reverse pyramid. Varying the widths also lets you highlight separate copy elements, such as a case study, testimonial or list of benefits. And break paragraphs and sentences over each page, to tempt the reader to turn over. 6. Use action colors. The bright primary colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue offend corporate ad specialists, because they are strident. Which is why they work. (Brown, buff, silver, mustard yellow or beige print colors convey quality, but they do not excite. Do not use them, if you want response.) Paper color in a direct mail letter should be white or cream, with black or blue print, if you want response, as these combinations are the easiest to read.

That said, there’s evidence that printing your reply card or other action device on a pastel colored stock, say, green or blue, will lift response, as it calls attention to itself in the package.

7. Every design feature must sell. For example, you’ll certainly create attention if the top of your letter is covered in dirty fingerprints printed in a second color! But they had better lead directly into your key benefit. For example, “These aren’t the only marks burglars leave behind” – for a security product. “How often has the repairman had his fingers on your photocopier?” – for an office equipment firm.

Graffiti grabs the reader too: hand-scribbled notes, arrows, circles, diagrams…printed in a second color. Yellow highlighting over your key points also lifts response. Underlinings work, particularly if done by hand in a second color.

But because these devices are so powerful, each must reinforce a benefit and be used with discretion. Over-doing them leads to clutter.

8. A direct mail letter should be computer-produced…and should look like an original, just like your office correspondence. Not typeset. Not justified at the right margin, even if your word processor makes this easy. Indent heavily the start of each paragraph. And leave wide margins left and right, at top and bottom, of your text.

9. The more items in a direct mail package, often the more responsive it is…(and the more expensive). Start with a full, busy package: use the response from this as your control. Then take elements out one by one until the profitability falls. This is better than starting with a lean package and building up, because you can test precisely the relative value of each component. And you are less likely to get discouraged by a poor initial response.

One advantage of direct mail is that there is a massive amount of historical data showing what works and what doesn’t. It’s as much science as art. Put the known science of direct mail to work for you.

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