How to Convert a Direct Mail Package to Online Video

Today we demonstrate how to convert a successful direct mail package into an online video. You’ll see how copy style translates and morphs from print to the spoken word, and how to integrate aspects of the original print design features in this video. Our criteria for this instructional video included these three

Today we demonstrate how to convert a successful direct mail package into an online video. You’ll see how copy style translates and morphs from print to the spoken word, and how to integrate aspects of the original print design features in this video. Our criteria for this instructional video included these three elements: A package we had originally written and designed, multiple enclosures (letter, sales sheet, lift note and order form) and a proven response generator.

When it was first tested, this direct mail package lifted response 35 percent over the control. On that strength, it became the new control and was mailed every month for three years, ultimately sent to over 21 million consumers.

This instructional video explains our process to convert this direct mail package to a short, but fully produced promotional video (under three minutes), scripting, voice-over persona, design elements, along with commentary about specific choices and plans we made while developing the video.

So while we’re light on words for you to read, you can digest this post in this in-depth video.

(If the video isn’t just above this line, click here to view it.)

Worst. Letter. Ever.

The other day, I ran into a friend who asked me how he and his wife could market their small business better in our shaky times. That’s a topic for many days, of course, but he wanted to know specifically about the value of a letter. I could have said that there are some big pluses and minuses for mailing a letter package, depending on the industry and target audience. Entire books, seminars, and much more are devoted to the art of writing a great sales letter. At the time, though, all I could think of was what not to do.

The other day, I ran into a friend who asked me how he and his wife could market their small business better in our shaky times. That’s a topic for many days, of course, but he wanted to know specifically about the value of a letter. I could have said that there are some big pluses and minuses for mailing a letter package, depending on the industry and target audience. Entire books, seminars, and much more are devoted to the art of writing a great sales letter. At the time, though, all I could think of was what not to do.

I flashed back to what I regarded as the worst letter I had ever read when it first landed on my desk in 1999. It’s from American Appliance, a chain of retail stores in the Mid-Atlantic states that, not surprisingly, went bankrupt in 2001. You can see it in the mediaplayer at the right. From the top, literally, something bothered me: There was no salutation. How can you have a letter without one? It just got worse from there:

  • misspellings (“Veterans Day” is the official holiday name),
  • bad grammar (e.g., “there” and “Audio products”), and
  • dicey usage of a trademarked name (American Airlines owns “AAdvantage”).

Looking at it today, it hasn’t gotten better with age.

I’ll admit it — I’m a stickler, but when I see mistakes like this in direct mail and email, I’m not overly worried about it being the result of bad education. At least that can be remedied a little bit by taking a one-day workshop, or at least, reading Lynne Truss’ “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” What’s more bottom-line is that this letter should never have been dropped in the mail in the first place. Someone along the line — a marketing director or an administrative assistant — should have sent this clunker back to be fixed. But no one did. There is no excuse for not thoroughly reviewing all materials for basic rules of the English language before they are deployed in the mail, on the Internet, or wherever. Carelessness, and a less-than-professional look gets noticed, and loses business, deservedly so.

What’s the worst marketing letter you’ve ever read?

Inside the Recycling Tub: Catalogs & Direct Mail, Post-Consumer

The year was 1990. Earth Day turned 20 years old. The darling book that year was 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Its author’s top recommendation was “Stop Junk Mail.” The book was a “cultural phenomena,” as one reviewer recalled, selling more than 5 million copies in all.

The year was 1990. Earth Day turned 20 years old. The darling book that year was 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Its author’s top recommendation was “Stop Junk Mail.” The book was a “cultural phenomena,” as one reviewer recalled, selling more than 5 million copies in all.

During the early 1990s, millions of consumers wrote their request to the then-Mail Preference Service (MPS, now DMAchoice) to remove themselves from national mailing lists, partially as a result of the media hype around that publication and its recommendation to consumers to sign up for MPS. Even some cities and towns urged their citizens (with taxpayer money) to get off mailing lists. I don’t think the Direct Marketing Association released publicly its MPS consumer registration figures, but it swelled to the point where some saturation mailers nearly considered not using the file for fear it would disqualify them for the lowest postage within certain ZIP Codes where new MPS registrants were concentrated. (DMA developed a saturation mailer format at the time to preserve MPS utility.)

Removing names from a mailing list is what solid waste management professionals call “source reduction”—an act that prevents the production of mail (and later waste) in the first place.

One of the reasons “junk mail” met with some consumer hostility then was simply because once you were done with a catalog or mail piece, wanted or not, there was no place to put it except in the trash. It seemed to many, “All this waste!” (that actually amounted to about 2.3 percent of the municipal solid waste stream back then).

Thankfully, there were other marketplace and public policy dynamics tied to support of the green movement, circa 1990. In a word, “recycling” (like source reduction) was seen as a part of responsible solid waste management. At the time, North American paper mills were scrambling to get recovered fiber to manufacture paper products and packaging with recycled content. Some states (and the federal government) set minimum recycled-content and “post-consumer” recycled-content percentage requirements for the paper they procured, while California mandated diversion goals for solid waste from its landfills. Increasingly, foreign trading partners were clamoring for America’s discarded paper to meet their ravenous demands for fiber. The cumulative results were an aggressive increase in the amount of paper collected for recycling and the number of collection points across the United States.

All this boded well for catalogs and direct mail, as far as their collection rates. Catalogs and magazines are considered equivalent when it comes to their fiber makeup. They do tend to have more hardwood (short, thinner fibers) versus softwood (long, strong fibers) since the hardwood gives a nice, smooth printing surface. When they are collected for recycling, recovered catalogs and magazines are suitable for lower quality paper/packaging grades, as well as for tissue. Some of the fiber does wind up getting used as post-consumer waste in new magazines and catalogs, but producers of such papers much prefer having recovered office paper (ideally not mixed with other lower-quality post-consumer papers) as their source of post-consumer content, as the quality is better for making higher quality magazine/catalog papers. (See link below from Verso Paper.)

Most direct mail when recovered is classified as mixed papers, and is suitable for tissue, packaging and other recovered-fiber products. (Today, a lot of paper recovery mixes it all together, and with positive reuse.) By 2007, DMA had received permission from the Federal Trade Commission to begin allowing mailers to place “recyclable” messages and seals on catalogs and mail pieces (roughly 60 percent of U.S. households must have access to local recycling options before “recyclable” labels can be used). Upon this FTC opinion, DMA promptly launched its “Recycle Please” logo program. By 2010, in addition, thousands of U.S. post offices were placing “Read-Respond-Recycle” collection bins for mixed paper in their lobbies.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began tracking “Standard Mail” in its biennial Municipal Solid Waste Characterization Report in 1990, the recovery rate (through recycling collection) was near 5 percent. By 2009 (the most current year reported), the recovery rate had increased more than 10-fold to 63 percent—but I cite this figure with a big asterisk. There will be a discussion in a future post on why the EPA MSW recycling data may not be as accurate (and as optimistic) as these findings seem to present. In fact, the EPA itself has asked for public comment on how its current MSW study methodology can be improved—again, more on that in another post.

While I’m not an expert on solid waste reporting, I certainly can see the positive direction underway here, no matter what the actual recovery rate may be. The more catalogs and direct mail that are recovered for their fiber, chances are that there will be more efficient use of that fiber in the supply chain, rather than ending up in a landfill. That helps relieve pressure on paper and packaging pricing, which is good for our bottom lines.

It might also, just a little bit, make a consumer think to herself “I love my junk mail”—as she takes the no-longer-needed mail at week’s or season’s end and places it into a recycling tub. Recycling makes us feel good. It is simple to do. Recycling may not truly save the Earth, but it certainly does extend the life of an importantly renewable natural resource, wood fiber.

Helpful links:

A USPS Development that Is Truly Progressive: Carbon Calculations for Your Mail

While the nation’s postal-related headlines are dominated by USPS plans to optimize (consolidate) its mail processing network and to slash costs during the next three years as it fights for financial sustainability, a less known development is a new USPS service on behalf of postal customers that is truly insightful—and free of charge—and about to launch early next year, subject to some final testing.

While the nation’s postal-related headlines are dominated by USPS plans to optimize (consolidate) its mail processing network and to slash costs during the next three years as it fights for financial sustainability, a less known development is a new USPS service on behalf of postal customers that is truly insightful—and free of charge—and about to launch early next year, subject to some final testing.

Beginning 2012, mailers will be able to secure from the USPS a “carbon impact calculation” for their mail across various USPS products and classes, with the potential to purchase carbon offsets, too. Essentially, the calculation is the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere as a result of an organization’s mail being in the domain of the USPS delivery infrastructure. The program was piloted earlier this year with business customers enrolled with the Postal Service’s Electronic Verification System (eVS) for Domestic Competitive categories and is set to be extended to PostalOne! participants and all postal products shortly.

Why is this noteworthy?

Many of the world’s leading brands and global enterprises—among them U.S. companies and household names—participate in a global transparency effort called the Carbon Disclosure Project. Many more seek to establish their carbon footprint as they participate in global carbon-trading schemes, designed to lessen greenhouse gases thought to be associated with global warming.

While the United States has yet to adopt formal national goals for carbon reduction for its part in the global economy, many brands that are either (1) global players or (2) environmentally sensitive or (3) both are already doing so in their own operations. These enterprises are acknowledging that managing carbon is a business-smart way to reduce waste and pollution and to optimize efficiency, while no doubt burnishing their own brand credentials. Sustainability isn’t a feel-good pursuit, it’s about the bottom line and intelligent materials management.

[Note: California—the U.S.’s largest state economy—has adopted carbon reduction goals as a matter of policy and practice.]

The USPS needs to be lauded here. Already, the USPS has conducted a lifecycle inventory regarding the delivery of the nation’s mail, and has adopted aggressive waste reduction and recycling goals in its own operations—all in a bid to increase efficiency and revenue. It knows, more or less, the carbon footprint of each class of mail and is ready to share such information with its customers in a true “value-add” function that is specific to each customer’s own use of the mail. Carbon calculations can be retrieved by month, by quarter and by year, or on an ad hoc reporting basis as requested by a customer.

To take advantage of the carbon calculation offer, mailers might look for an official announcement from the USPS at some point early next year, once final testing is completed on eVS and PostalOne!

By knowing the carbon footprint of their mailings, brands and companies that participate in carbon markets can derive more accurate readings of the direct mail portion of their marketing and operations activity.

Maybe then they can start tackling an even harder subject for direct marketers—how to reduce the carbon impact of their data centers and digital marketing.

Helpful Links
USPS 2010 Sustainability Report (see page 37)

Environmental Leader: Most Climate-Responsible Companies Revealed for 2011

Huffington Post: California’s Drastic Carbon Reduction Goals are Achievable, Study Says

Direct Marketing Association: USPS Releases Report on Life Cycle Inventory of the Mail

USPS Sustainability Efforts

USPS Carbon Accounting Pilot

Carbon Disclosure Project

The Bowels of the Mail Beast

While my duties have shifted (radically) over the past few months, I still review our giant mailbag (over 1,000 pieces a month) in order to uncover the trends in direct mail, along with finding intriguing new pieces or others that have stood the test of time. Recently, I took a look inside many of these increasingly colorful mailers to see what trends were popping up.

While my duties have shifted (radically) over the past few months, I still review our giant mailbag (over 1,000 pieces a month) in order to uncover the trends in direct mail, along with finding intriguing new pieces or others that have stood the test of time. Recently, I took a look inside many of these increasingly colorful mailers to see what trends were popping up.

First, just like the outside, the slimmed-down approach is also visible inside, with more 2-page letters instead of 4-page letters, for example. More reply cards are perfed to the letter, which usually means that the letter is only one page.

I’m also seeing fewer copy tactics like the Johnson box, bolded copy, subheads, margin copy, multiple P.S., etc. It’s almost as if the marketer no longer believes that prospects 1) have much time and 2) even remember what a letter looks like anymore! Apparently, prospects don’t want to read much, yet with the scarcity of long letters in the mailbox, perhaps the chances for long copy succeeding are actually better than ever today?

Funny enough, the letters — long or short — with shorter paragraphs and readable font (that’s large enough, even up to 14 pt.) still strike me as the most effective. The small, cramped copy in long paragraphs on a single page are a turn-off, in my opinion, compared to the letters that still take their time, lead with a great story, etc.

Of course, many mailers these days don’t bother too much with story and simply get right to the punch, with their offers, their missions, etc. They often start with the reply card as the first thing the prospect sees when cracking open the envelope. This seems ludicrous to me, but it happens more and more.

Component-wise, there are fewer of them. Buckslips are an endangered species, while brochures are holding steady, largely because they sometimes replace letter copy entirely, or at least in part. Freemiums are also disappearing, but when they do appear, they’re less bulky and likely to be simple things like a bookmark, decal, a certificate of appreciation, etc. Even address labels have decreased, while calendars have become rare.

Timing Really Is Everything

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.” In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer.

The recent flaps over mailings sent out by Republican fundraisers reminded me of a rule put forth years ago by the late Dick Benson: “Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.”

In case you don’t know, here’s the skinny. First, the use of the word “Census” on mailings by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee led to Congressional passage of a bill last month that required new, clarifying language on the outer. Apparently, there had been some concern that people would mistake these efforts for the big Census Bureau mailing that was due to drop. Then, someone who actually had that complaint called the number on the RNC’s donation form, only to discover that it was for a phone sex line. Coming on the heels of news about lavish RNC spending, it’s been a tough few weeks for the party.

It’s easy to dismiss the second problem as merely a vendor mistake, one that appeared on only some of the mailings. It’s also easy to brush aside criticism of using “Census” on the outer. After all, it’s legal — it had passed muster with the USPS. And, it doesn’t really look like the Census mailer. It’s pretty obvious when opened that it’s just another issues poll, with leading questions, and a request for money. There’s nothing wrong with that, both parties have been mailing surveys for many years.

But it illustrates a bigger problem. A great national political party shouldn’t rely on a gimmick, like putting “Census”, or the IRS form — like “(2009) Return Enclosed” on the outer envelope to get someone to open it. Seriously, no one at the RNC thought this through, and saw this bad publicity coming? And, given how some of the Republican base feels about the Census, and especially, the IRS, it’s an especially puzzling choice of a teaser.

Twenty-five years ago, in the newsletter Who’s Mailing What!, Roger Craver wrote that to have a successful direct mail appeal, the “donors of principle,” the heart of any political organization, must be motivated by writing that conveys mission, selectivity, urgent need and effectiveness. The GOP was way ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard for decades, but as shown in the 2008 presidential race, not anymore. It’s going to be very interesting to see how both parties will energize the faithful in this election year.

Postal service in Finland tries an experiment that direct marketers will despise

Did you see this story about Finland’s postal service? They’re conducting an experiment with a small group of customers, in order to cut down on pollution and overall costs, in which all household mail is opened by postal employees in a “secured” location and then scanned and sent by email to the customer. I suppose, in the age of Facebook, that people don’t mind having other people eyeing their personal mail.

Did you see this story about Finland’s postal service? They’re conducting an experiment with a small group of customers, in order to cut down on pollution and overall costs, in which all household mail is opened by postal employees in a “secured” location and then scanned and sent by email to the customer.

I suppose, in the age of Facebook, that people don’t mind having other people eyeing their personal mail … and that it’s hard as hell to open an envelope by ourself. The UK Telegraph writer begins the story smartly, sounding the alarm bells: “Not even the most intimate love letters, payslips, overdue bills and other personal messages will be spared under the controversial scheme.”

Of course, few of us get love letters anymore, but that doesn’t mean we relish the idea of others checking out our credit card bills. One commentator on a forum called the experiment straight from the KGB play book. (KGB seems a little extreme; I’ll go with Orwellian, instead.) We like our privacy, and it’s why the U.S. Postal Service continues to get such high marks from Americans: Our mail arrives where it’s supposed to, and nobody opens it. Likewise, we receive mail that’s retained its seal. When that seal is broken, so is our trust.

For the volunteer Finns, they can actually get their mail pieces delivered to them, but after it’s been resealed … by a stranger. Creepy, methinks.

The direct marketing community, meanwhile, must frown on such an experiment. Reducing a well designed mail piece to a measly email? Now that’s a lousy deal.

For now, some private companies are offering such services to consumers, such as Earth Class Mail, which originally brought the idea to Swiss Post, and Zumbox, which also scans your mail and then puts it into your Zumbox email box.

But since marketers will be charged anywhere from 2 cents to 5 cents per mail piece on Zumbox, I don’t see that many companies wanting to foot that bill for essentially an upgraded email. Again, it simply robs direct mail of its true “landing” and “feeling” power. They’re acting like the recipient is the beneficiary, but we all know that it’s Zumbox … while customer and mailer alike have their relationship digitally reduced.

And like my colleague Hallie Mummert said to me, “Who’s going to sign up for yet one more inbox via which to receive non-targeted junk mail?” People still like mail, maybe even more so now because there are many ways to control the flow, but people are getting rather sick of email. So in some ways Zumbox, and certainly Finland, may even be behind the curve.

Why Direct Mail? My Story

I’m not sure exactly when it all started … my near-obsession with direct mail, that is. The signs were all there when I was growing up. There was the excitement I felt whenever the Edmund Scientifics catalog arrived at our family’s house. Despite its spare 2-color graphics and tiny type, I was still inspired to order microscope slides and other awesome things for my room. And as a bonus, it saved my dad a trip to the “hobby” shop at the Bazaar of All Nations (an indoor shopping complex) a few miles down the road.

I’m not sure exactly when it all started … my near-obsession with direct mail, that is. The signs were all there when I was growing up. There was the excitement I felt whenever the Edmund Scientifics catalog arrived at our family’s house. Despite its spare 2-color graphics and tiny type, I was still inspired to order microscope slides and other awesome things for my room. And as a bonus, it saved my dad a trip to the “hobby” shop at the Bazaar of All Nations (an indoor shopping complex) a few miles down the road.

It could have been that postage stamp collection I started when I was 8, one that I still have sitting in big red albums on my shelves. Sure, it helped me sharpen my geography and history knowledge, but I also learned about the wide world of mail — first-class, business, air mail, and much more.

Or, maybe it was my first direct mail campaign. For a fifth-grade school project, I asked for a bumper sticker or game program from every major league sports team in North America. My response rate was over 60 percent, I think. Sorry, I didn’t do any testing! I’m pretty sure everyone got the same letter — a simple, straight-up appeal to flattery, with a little pity thrown in.

So call it Destiny, if you want. All I know is that I’ve always liked mail — getting it, sending it, thinking about it, and responding to it. It’s often been a source of amusement for family and friends. But instead of going to work for the U.S. Postal Service, my first career was in database publishing. That’s how I started saving my mail for Denny and Peggy Hatch’s archive and newsletter, Who’s Mailing What!, back in 1989.

I had no idea of the complex education that was ahead of me when I was tapped to run that very same archive 9 years later. It was kind of like my first skydive, a leap into a cool universe where a thousand different details rush past and around you all at once.

Since then, because I’ve looked at pretty much every piece of mail that’s landed on my desk (and read most of them), I’ve developed a pretty sharp sense of what’s been going on in direct mail, and more importantly, what offers, copy, designs and formats work. I’ve used that expertise to help out marketers big and small, through the Archive and my writing. I’m hoping that by offering my perspective here, and continuing a dialogue with you, my friends, we’ll all be more successful.

Anyway, that’s my story. What’s yours?

What’s In the Mail???

This is my first blog, ever. But it comes now, with a distinct purpose to posit my views about the exploding direct marketing landscape, including direct mail. The maxim “Change or Die” has never been more relevant, and being relevant has never been more alive.

This is my first blog, ever. But it comes now, with a distinct purpose to posit my views about the exploding direct marketing landscape, including direct mail. The maxim “Change or Die” has never been more relevant, and being relevant has never been more alive.

Over the past few years, I’ve limited my written opinions to my monthly column in Inside Direct Mail. Now that IDM is now online in an enewsletter format and DirectMarketingIQ has been launched, this blog is the place where I will more frequently opine, offer the occasional whine and try to entertainly cover the topics of the day. If anything, I hope to start a dialogue with some of you and give you something useful each time I write. I’m certainly not into wasting my time or yours.

My first entry is, logically, about the mail and what I’ve observed over the past year. Even though overall mail volume in down, I still review close to 1,000 mail pieces a month that spill into our Who’s Mailing What! Archive. It can be an exhausting but fun exercise to see what mailers are doing to stand out in the pack.

With squeezed budgets, I’ve definitely seen fewer oversize formats and, instead, many more slimmed-down mailers. The big Kraft envelopes are hardly seen anymore (a fact that makes them a good candidate to resurrect, of course!), magalogs have slipped in number, and the lumpy packages that nonprofits loved to mail have similarly dwindled.

In their place are more economical efforts that are using more 4-color, more with VDP, more attention-getting one-color outer envelopes in orange or yellow (or even black), strikingly more that utilize both sides of the outer, and certainly more self-mailers, especially postcards. Also, more windows are being employed, including full-size windows that showcase the copy inside, including even the back of envelopes. And along with more VDP, more personalized imagery is being employed to connect with the prospect. On the rare side, I’d place blind outers, shape mailers, formats that use obviously recycled material (such as bioplastic), reuseable envelopes and even the brown-bag mailer.

Staying with a discussion about the outer, copy hasn’t changed too much. Teasers are not employed as often, seemingly, with color and imagery getting more play. Mostly, when they do appear, they appear in the expected places — above the address on the front of the outer. Offers, of course, still shout from the many outers, giving prospects no choice but to open the envelope. A few efforts do push the envelope, pun intended, with more outrageous copy than in the past and sometimes using the back of envelope for part of the provocative message to get the envelope opened.

What will the rest of 2010 hold? More mail with personalized URLs, even more color, more variable imagery, shorter copy (alas), etc. I’m hoping to see more inventive efforts, using great DM tactics, and taking advantage of the fact that less mail crowds each mailbox. We shall see …