Designing Strong Direct Mail Letters

Direct mail is one of the world’s venerable advertising systems, a spin-off from the text-heavy ads that used to appear in magazines. Reduced to almost a pure science through obsessive list management and refined copywriting techniques, it remains an amazingly effective means of branding, acquisition and retention. (Look no further than Citibank, who distributes tens of billions of acquisition pieces every year.)

Advertising agencies know what works and what doesn’t. Those who deal in producing direct mail often specialize in direct mail, and they have teams of writers, creative directors and designers working in tandem to produce exhaustive campaigns.
Design Tips for Non-Agency Types

For the lonely freelancer who may not have agency experience, there are some guides to get your design off the ground and help your client see strong results.

1. Color — Use It, But Use It Well.

A consumer opening an envelope to find a sheet of white paper with blocks of small black text is an invitation to the circular file. Consider using colored type in the headlines. Try borders, gradients, even pictures if the design is full-color. It will make the piece look decidedly more “direct mail,” but 99.99% of the time, the consumer knew that opening the letter anyway.

2. Explore Beyond Letter Size.

To make the piece a bit more interesting, and if you can squeeze a few more dollars out of the budget, try going beyond 8.5″x11″. Maybe smaller is better — 7″x10″? Or push larger — go legal size and spread things out a bit more.

3. Smart Typography.

This point is really split. First, make headline copy interesting and second, make the body copy ultra-readable. Readability is absolutely imperative — people need to pick up the paper and quickly understand the material just by scanning. Making the reader squint, turn the paper sideways, or generally forcing them to think about the words will put them off quickly. Serif fonts are best for readability in the body. Keep the point size decent, around 11 or 12, with generous leading to help scanning without interference.

4. Bullet the Points. Break up paragraphs with short, bulleted points highlighting the features and benefits. Readers will absorb this material better than paragraphs.

5. Break It. If the document goes front and back, break the copy in the middle of a sentence. This helps iterate that there’s more to read, and makes them more inclined to keep reading.

6. Vary the text. Use italics and bolds to highlight key terms. Don’t go too crazy with this one — maybe three or four bolds at most.

7. Make the ending PostScript copy large and readable.
Try a handwriting font to give it more credence.

8. Lose the Clipart. Unless a picture directly reinforces a major point in the copy, avoid it. Don’t use random shinies or tacky clipart. It detracts from what matters (the copy) and can confuse the masses. Save the stock photography for your next PowerPoint presentation.

9. Be careful in the placement of logos. If it works with the headline, or if it is for a household company (Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson), it may be appropriate on the front. However, the logo or letterhead cannot compete with the headline, since the headline — and not the logo — will lead the reader into the body copy.

The Copy

For projects like this, content is king. This is important to understand. Even the best design can’t save bad copy, and the best copy can’t save a bad headline.

There are also many, many important points about copywriting for direct mail letters that designers should be aware of. Short sentences, short words, crisp and clear language, a clear call to action (very important) and copy that shows the benefits to the consumer, not tells them about the company, are all very important. If you’re freelancing, you may often find yourself asked to proofread or edit copy, and raising concerns to the client before the piece is launched will benefit them far more than having the project fail in the real world.

As a designer, your job is not copywriting. But remaining aware of what constitutes successful sales copy will only enhance your delivered product.

The Final Tip: The Three Most Read Items (in order):

1. Headline

2. First Sentence

3. Postscript

Ninja Design

Crafting effective letters needs something I like to call “ninja design.” The design should enhance the writing but submit to clarity; the design should make the reader notice the content, not the avant-garde color palette and complicated headline font. It should be invisible when present but conspicuously absent when removed. It should be used to sell, but not glorify.

Direct Mail Marketing Pieces for Mobile Oil Change Business

Is direct mail marketing a smart play for on-site mobile automotive services businesses? Should a small business with one, two or many mobile units advertise through direct mail marketing? In fact this is a very good question, which over the last 27-years I have experimented with and found much success.

You see I founded a few mobile on-site service companies and set up franchises in 23-states and learned quite a bit about how to make direct marketing work for our teams. One successful mobile oil change entrepreneur asks me; “I tried a direct marketing piece that alerted to the fact that we would be on site on a day in the upcoming week. It had pricing and other contact info and worked fairly well.”

Those are good if you can target zip codes and there are some money mailer types, which will deliver only too Business Districts those kick butt. Try a chamber of commerce flyer insert. Those are amazing. Also Rotary Club and donate $3.00 for each oil change back the group, that works killer too. Also Churches, Retired Folks Promotion; Free Oil Change Day; they buy the filter. That works killer too.

Fifth caller on the radio talk show gets 3-free oil changes at their office, via Lube on Demand, announced during 10 Am listen while you work. Hell, you would not believe all the types of creative marketing we do. We go in a rock, no prisoners. In other words direct mail works in this venue and auto services sector, but do not limit your marketing to only one methodology. Consider this in 2006.

Effective Business Letter Writing

Everyone that owns a small business needs proficiency in writing business letters, whether the owner of the company writes the letters or an employee writes the letters.

It does not require a course at a business school to learn to write effective business letters. It does however require a basic knowledge of correct grammar and punctuation.

When sending a letter promoting your business, you want to make sure that you print it on company letterhead. You can do this yourself with the help of Microsoft Word or you can have letterhead printed for you by a printing company. I even use a copy of my letter head when writing business emails.

Initially, you need to draft a test run of what you want to say to prospective customers. Once your thoughts and words are completed, get it in print!

You want to start your letter with terms such as “Dear Customer” or “Greetings” or “To whom It May Concern”.

Your first paragraph should introduce yourself and your company. You should also include what your company does in the first paragraph.

Your second paragraph should give your prospective customer a detailed explanation of the service or product you are offering. You want to be descriptive but also a little illusive so they will need to contact you back for more information.

Your third paragraph should describe any time restraints on the offer you proposed in paragraph number two or even your starting price for your services or products. I feel it it is better to state a starting price for fees so that the prospective customer will have to contact you back for more information.

Your final paragraph should be a thank you for the prospective customer taking time out to read your information and a contact name and number for them to respond to if they are interested in more information.

Finally, end your letter with “Sincerely”, “Yours Truly”, “Respectfully Yours” or “Cordially”.

Finish with your name, your title, your company name, your phone, your fax, your email and your web address if you have one.

You only have this opportunity to give every bit of information to your prospective customer so state every means of communication you have.

Michele Graham, CEO and Owner of Professional Healthcare Management, has been in the healthcare industry for 41 years and has been in various businesses for over 25 years.