3 Great Ways to Pose a Question in Direct Mail (and 1 Note of Caution)

Sometimes you realize that something’s escaped your attention. Take the direct mail that I read. I’ve made lists, but not for mail that asks questions.

Sometimes, even when you think you’re a very detail-oriented person, you realize that there’s something else that’s escaped your attention. Take the direct mail that I read every day. I’ve made lists of all kinds of features that our Who’s Mailing What! database doesn’t capture, but I never started one for direct mail that asks questions effectively.

I could think of a few examples off the top of my head, almost all of them in teasers. But I had to do some serious digging through my file folders to begin to get a handle on what works well in creating reader involvement, and eventually, inspiring action. And although I’m not close to being done, here are some early observations on what I’ve found.

1. Appeal To Emotion

This is a no-brainer. It’s pretty common across all verticals to leverage one of the seven main copy drivers (guilt, flattery, anger, exclusivity, fear, greed and salvation).

Volvo mail

Here’s a postcard from Volvo that taps into fear of hitting a runner moving across the front of your vehicle. “Are your brakes ready?” it asks.  The promotion is for a multi-point brake inspection, so that your car is “ready for whatever comes your way.”

I have to mention this. A membership renewal effort from the Republican National Committee begins with a question that’s good at inspiring some guilt: “I don’t want to believe you’ve abandoned the Republican Party, but I have to ask … Have you given up?” This letter is a long-lived Grand Control, in the mail for over 15 years.

2. Make the Reader Curious

You have some information to provide about your product, your service, or your nonprofit. To attract the attention of the prospect, you can make them want to know more.

CROH_01This teaser question from Consumer Reports on Health, “Do you make these 10 common mistakes about your health?”, is a variation on one originally written by Max Sackheim for a mail order course more than 80 years ago: “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?” It’s been copied by lots of others, mostly unsuccessfully, over the decades.

Other examples:

“Why does my cat do that?”  —CatWatch
“Honey (and Vinegar) Can Do WHAT?” —FC&A Publishing
“Can these students save America’s national parks?” —Student Conservation Association

3. Make ‘Yes’ Easy

Good yes and no questions are a lot harder to formulate than you might think .You should avoid wording your question so that a weak “yes” or a flat-out “no” stops the prospect from reading further.

You want your question to be focused. You want it to be so cut-and-dried, so  rhetorical, so obvious that the reader buys in enthusiastically with a “yes,” and continues reading, and agreeing with your pitch.

WomensHealth_02This is a good example from a mailer for Women’s Health: “Want to look better naked?” Considering the audience, this is a leading question that works.

The bottom line is that questions should always be geared toward one goal: getting the prospective customer, member, or donor to seek the answers (or at least begin to) from the direct mail piece in front of them.

Are there good questions in direct mail that you like? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

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.