Creating Direct Mail That Makes the Sale

Last Updated May 2, 2007 6:32 PM EDT

The most effective marketing approach for any product or service is one that can be personalized to reflect the needs of customers. A well-managed direct mail campaign can meet this objective. Direct mail can be eye-catching and creative, and a mail package allows you to include different types of enclosures to highlight the benefits of your product or service.

What's more, you can measure precisely the results of direct mail, so you can test different approaches to learn what works best. For good results, you need to include a response mechanism that's easy for the customer to use, such as a business reply envelope or an e-mail address, so that your customers can give you feedback.

What You Need to KnowDon't most people just throw direct mail in the trash?

Not necessarily. According to research (Direct Mail Information Service, 2004), 60% of people open direct mail, but only 40% open and read it. Business managers opened 70% of their direct mail but, on average, filed only 20%. Executives now employ direct mail "filterers," who open their mail for them and decide whether it's worth passing on.

Is it possible to create direct mail that can actually make a sale?

Yes, but like any other marketing activity, you'll get the best results from working toward a specific objective. The more information you have about the recipients of your package, the more focused your package can be. Direct mail is a very precise medium, so it is possible to create highly customized and attractive mailings that draw the attention and meet the information needs of your sales prospects.

How far can we personalize direct mail?

That depends on the number of recipients and how much time and money you can invest in the mailing. If you have a small number of recipients, you may be able to personalize each direct mail package to the individual, perhaps including a purchasing incentive tailored to that person. If you have a larger number of recipients, you may be able to segment the list and tailor your message and your offerings to subsets of the main list. Make your direct mailings as customized as possible, given the resources you have available.

Can we measure the quality of direct mail creative work?

Direct mail is an extremely accountable medium, and the results can be measured precisely, making it possible to judge whether or not a particular creative approach has worked. However, creative work is only one of the factors that influence campaign success, so many companies test different creative approaches to try to identify how they affect results. Remember that customizing the offer to the interests of the recipient is more important than any amount of creativity in the direct mail package.

What to DoUse Direct Mail Letters Effectively

Letters are a universal communications medium and an integral element of any direct mail package.

Personalized one-to-one letters are ideal for companies with detailed information on their prospects. The letter should reflect the individual's main interests and concerns, and the specific sales offer can be tailored to him or her. Subsequent mailings can continue to build a relationship with this person.

Letters can also be customized by market sector ("Dear Physician," "Dear Banker"), offering specific benefits to groups of customers.

If you enclose additional materials in your package (see below), the letter can add personalization by explaining why those enclosures will be of interest to the recipient.

Write Persuasive Copy

Use powerful headlines to get the attention of the reader. Words such as "free," "new," and "improved" attract attention, while price benefits such as "sale" and "reduced" also have impact.

Keep your writing simple, with short sentences and paragraphs. In longer letters or brochures, use headings and subheadings to make sure the reader picks up key messages without having to read every word.

Tell your prospects what they need to know in order to make a decision about your product or service. Your message should address their most important concerns and requirements.

Although you will need to mention the features of the product or service, really emphasize the benefits. For example, the extremely high operating speeds of a power drill may be technically interesting, but the benefits to a builder are greater productivity and the opportunity to finish a job quickly.

Offer the prospect a clear, powerful proposition. Your copy should encourage the prospect to take action—contact the company for more information, ask for a demonstration, or order immediately to qualify for a promotional offer. Describe your biggest benefit first. Everything that follows should be written to make the potential customer move on to the next step.

Create a Well Designed Layout

Design quality is important in getting a message to prospects clearly and effectively. It's wise to:

  • keep the layout simple.
  • use photographs, diagrams, or illustrations if they help to clarify a point or create impact—if you decide to use screenshots from your Web site, make sure they are a high enough resolution for the reader to see key points;
  • use legible type faces and sizes;
  • use bold headings or a larger type size for emphasis.
Choose Enclosures That Add Impact

Your mailing package can be enhanced with enclosures such as:

  • catalogs
  • sales leaflets or brochures
  • price lists
  • management reports or surveys that document the benefits of your product or service
  • information on special offers
  • samples, free gifts, or incentives to make a purchase.

Here are three rules for enclosures. They should be:

  • relevant to the prospect's needs
  • of a reasonable size and cost for mailing
  • tested to determine if they improve response, size of order, or frequency of order—if they do not, they are an unnecessary cost.
Consider Three-dimensional Enclosures

Three-dimensional enclosures can add impact and novelty value to a mailing, and they can increase the chances that your mailing will be opened. You can enclose a promotional item or even a sample of your product. Because three-dimensional enclosures will likely add significant cost to the mailing, consider testing them with smaller audiences to determine if they are worth the cost. Remember that any enclosure must conform to mailing regulations.

Include a Response Mechanism

If your mailing is designed to stimulate action, it should include an easy-to-use response mechanism, such as a business reply card or envelope, or contact details, such as a toll-free telephone number, e-mail address, or Web site address.

Treat Envelopes Creatively

Postal authorities specify a number of preferred envelope sizes, because standard sizes are more efficient to handle. You can use the preferred sizes of envelope or you can consider using non-standard envelope sizes, which will stand out from other mailings and may attract more attention from recipients. Non-standard sizes will cost more, however, so test non-standard sizes with small lists to determine if they are worth the extra cost.

Envelopes can be designed in a number of ways to achieve greater impact:

  • they can include advertising messages;
  • addresses can be handwritten to add a personal touch;
  • envelopes can feature corporate design elements such as logos or company colors.

Be aware that a poorly designed envelope can depress response if it has the appearance of a routine statement or other undesirable piece of mail.

Consider Using Professional Creative and Production Services

Quality and impact are essential to the success of a direct mail campaign. Although many of the direct mail processes are straightforward, your company may not have the skills or resources to achieve the best possible results. Consider outsourcing your package to professionals experienced in copywriting and design, creating and producing enclosures and envelopes, etc.

Specialists include:

  • direct mail agencies
  • advertising agencies
  • marketing communication consulting firms
  • design consulting firms
  • creative consulting firms
  • printers

There may be occasions when you decide to create simple direct mail items yourself, but always consider that investing in professional services may yield much better results.

What to AvoidYou Only Mail to Your "Friends"

When customers already know your company and do business with you, it can be off-putting for them to be treated as "prospects." Make sure that your regular customers receive individual mail only that is specifically tailored to their needs, and are not on any list that will receive a direct mail package.

You Don't Plan Your Mailing Or Your Response to the Mailing Results

All mailing activity must be planned carefully and allocated sufficient time and resources. Rushing a mailing can lead to embarrassing and costly mistakes. Failing to anticipate orders or inquiries can lead to disappointed customers.

You Don't Measure Results

Direct mail campaigns are measured on their results: they should deliver inquiries or sales. If they do not deliver results, even the most creative campaigns should be considered failures. Make sure to test different approaches with your prospects, measure the results, and go with the approaches that yield the best returns.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Bird, Drayton. Commonsense Direct Marketing. 4th ed. Kogan Page, 2000.

Web Sites:

The Direct Marketing Association:

Direct Mail News: