Direct Mail: It’s All in the Letter

Recently, direct mail letters have gotten a bad reputation, but a good letter can really generate sales. How do you know if you have a good letter or not? We will break it down for you here.

direct mail letter

Recently, direct mail letters have gotten a bad reputation, but a good letter can really generate sales. How do you know if you have a good letter or not? We will break it down for you here.

First of all, your letters need to be personalized. Gone are the generic letter days. You not only personalize with a name, but also personalize your offer to the needs of each person. You want your letter to look and feel personal, but let’s dig deeper into the letter structure.

7 Things to Make a Great Direct Mail Letter

1. First Sentence: Your first sentence can make or break your direct mail letter. This is where you generate interest or lose it. You need to hook them and pull them into reading more.

2. Offer: The offer for your product or service needs to be attractive. Any time you can offer something for free, you will get attention. If that is not an option, discounts work well, too.

3. Story: The best letters tell a story. People relate to and enjoy reading stories. How can you create a story for your product or service? You create a moment with your story so that it has a beginning, middle and end. You include emotions — not just facts. Create characters your customers and prospects will care about.

4. Flattery: Flattery will get you everything! Tell the reader how special they are. Include the use of the word “you” a lot to describe how smart and truly wonderful they are.

5. Questions: Use these with caution. You want to make sure that you are correct in your assumption of the answers before you decide to use the questions. The question should always qualify your prospect or customer.

6. Problem: Solve a problem with your product or service. This goes back to the story portion, too. When you are able to solve a problem, you will get the sale.

7. Benefits: Benefits are extremely important. What are your readers going to get? Why does it matter to them? Make sure these get incorporated into your story.

Make your next direct mail letter powerful to increase your results. Now, even the best written letter only works if your envelope gets opened. If you are going to use teaser copy on the envelope, make sure that it is VERY compelling. It should promise a reward of some kind for opening the envelope or make them so curious they have to open the envelope. If you are trying for the personal approach, use only your return address, no logo and a stamp. You can use the barcode clear zone to make it look as though the post office sprayed it and still get the automation discounts.

What really matters is what works for you. So test your copy, your offer and even your envelopes one at a time. What works best for you may be very different from what has worked for others. Tracking your results is the key to creating better direct mail results in the future. If you don’t test, you will not know how much better your results could have been. Don’t get complacent always reach for better results. Have you had a really successful letter? What did you do?

Tracking Your Mail Makes All the Difference

Direct mail marketing is very data centric. Marketers are great at leveraging data about their customers and prospects, but many have never thought of leveraging USPS delivery data. The USPS has made many technological advancements over the years to enhance the visibility of mail as it processes through its plants. This allows marketers access to not only delivery speeds, but also accurate delivery dates.


Direct mail marketing is very data centric. Marketers are great at leveraging data about their customers and prospects, but many have never thought of leveraging USPS delivery data. The USPS has made many technological advancements over the years to enhance the visibility of mail as it processes through its plants. This allows marketers access to not only delivery speeds, but also accurate delivery dates.

What information does the post office have available?

1. The USPS has first scan data — the piece is processed after being dropped at the post office.

2. The USPS has out for delivery scan data — the carriers have the mail on their trucks to deliver.

Why does this information matter?

1. Delivery Speeds

The delivery speed of your mail can vary greatly. Some areas of the U.S. process mail at faster speeds than others. When you have the information about which areas are slow, you can plan to mail to them sooner. This becomes really important when you have a hard deadline date on your mail piece. It needs to get to recipients before it expires.

2. Delivery Dates

When you know the dates your mail pieces are delivered, you’re able to coordinate follow-up campaigns. Because most marketers are using more than one channel, it becomes important to know when to send the next message. Accurate in-home dates provide you with a trigger point you can rely on. Knowing when your payments are coming by tracking your business reply envelopes can also be helpful for your accounting departments.

Since direct mail is an effective way to drive people to online content, it’s usually the first step in a multi-channel campaign. Knowing that, the USPS delivery information is the key to the steps that follow it. Since timing is everything in marketing, adding the USPS delivery information can give your ROI a boost.

Depending on the service provider of your tracking, there are many options for you to view the information. Some of the most common are:

  1. Scans by SCF
  2. Scans by NDC
  3. Scans by State
  4. Scans by Date
  5. Scans by DDU
  6. Scans by 5 Digit Zip
  7. Scans by 3 Digit Zip

There’s really a lot of valuable information in these reports. One of the best benefits of this information is being able to know when there’s a problem. If you have start of process scans but they have gone no further for several days, it’s time to reach out to a postal representative to find out what’s happening. If you’re able to catch a problem quickly, you can get a resolution quickly. In turn, your mail will get delivered in a reasonable amount of time.

Consider tracking your next direct mail campaign so you can see when recipients are getting your mail and then you can send out a follow up message. Remember, the more times and ways you touch your customers and prospects, the better response you are going to get.

Have you tried direct mail tracking? What did you like or dislike about it? One thing to keep in mind is that just because a mail piece was not scanned, it does not mean that it was not delivered. This is especially true for flats. Many times flat size mail is not run on the scanning equipment, so we see low scan tracking data on this type of mail. We recommend tracking letter size pieces for better scan results.

To Letter or Not to Letter, That Is the Question

There are many, many times when we get asked, “Is sending a letter better?” With the fast paced world now, many people are worried that a letter will go unread, so sending a postcard would be better. Here I will attempt to answer that question, beyond just, “Well … it depends.”

There are many, many times when we get asked, “Is sending a letter better?” With the fast paced world now, many people are worried that a letter will go unread, so sending a postcard would be better. Here I will attempt to answer that question, beyond just, “Well … it depends.” So let’s take the time to examine letters and self-mailers/postcards, keeping in mind that there really is the option that it may depend.

So let’s dig in. You may be tempted to say that postcards would be best as they are by far the cheapest and easier for the recipient to read. However, we need to look beyond the cost to produce. Yes, an envelope with a matching letter is going to cost you more money to send out. The funny thing about that is, it may not be a bad thing after all. We have found that recipients spend less time looking at the postcards and self-mailers. They are immediately identified as advertising. A well thought out and targeted personalized letter may provide you with more responses.

Benefits of a letter:

  • A letter is a little sneakier since it does not announce itself as an advertisement
  • Chance to provide more information about your product or service since you are not limited on space
  • Provide a reply device
  • Provide a brochure to keep or show others

Benefits of a Postcard/Self-mailer:

  • Catch the eye with images
  • Easy to understand with little effort on the part of the recipient
  • Cheaper, so more cost effective

In order to find out which is right for you, it is best to test your list. Split your list and send some people personalized postcards or self-mailers and the rest a personalized letter in an envelope. The key factor in what works for you is your audience. You need to find the best fit for them. What works well for your competitor may not indicate what works well for you. Track your responses to see what works best.

I have heard many people say that the younger generation is not going to read a letter so send them a postcard or a self-mailer. Well, while it may be true that the younger generation is not reading the whole letter, they are reading enough of it to get the point. Make sure that you have bold words, bullet points and a strong PS. This is what they are looking at as they skim the letter. Give a letter a try if you have not done so before, you may be surprised by your results.

In summary, postcards, self-mailers and letters are all good ways to market your company with direct mail. Each one has pros and cons. Test, test, test to see how your audience responds. Knowing who responds to what can help you provide direct mail your recipients want to receive. Assume nothing, test, track and test some more. See how creative you can get.

The Mailboxes of My Memory

In my life, I’ve had a lot of mailboxes. My current box (New York, N.Y.) is part of an apartment building cluster box—and one that proudly holds about four to five days’ worth of mail, including magazines and catalogs. I can run off for a day or two and the incoming mail safely, securely collects there without my having to fill out a “hold mail” card at the local Murray Hill post office

It’s the height of summer in New York City—seems like we shrugged off the chills—and my mind has turned to lemonade, fresh berries, the beach at Fire Island and my upcoming class reunion in Ogallala, Nebraska.

Getting nostalgic is something I think I have a knack for … Funny, even as I experience present moments presently, I sometimes find myself wondering how I will think about each memory years down the road. Pretty convoluted—experiencing “now,” and thinking ahead about thinking back, all at the same time. The weekend of my class reunion, I literally will be reliving a time a few decades ago, except this go-around on my terms.

In my life, I’ve had a lot of mailboxes. My current box (New York, NY) is part of an apartment building cluster box—and one that proudly holds about four to five days’ worth of mail, including magazines and catalogs. I can run off for a day or two and the incoming mail safely, securely collects there without my having to fill out a “hold mail” card at the local Murray Hill post office. Before we remodeled our building’s lobby, I had a tinier cluster box—installed in the 1960s—that could barely hold a day’s mail. The mail carrier sometimes would just come up the elevator and leave my mail on the mat by my door. He was probably not following protocol, but I bet he was just as happy as I was when we installed the larger boxes.

Before New York City, and a few prior addresses ago, I lived in Newtown, CT, with my family during my college years. There we first had a standard USPS mailbox with an up-and-down flag, the kind you still find at Sears. Mom was an avid direct shopper. Her L.L. Bean and Lands End deliveries were stuffed in the mailbox and sometimes dangled out over the open lid. (The QVC purchases came by UPS and were left by the garage door.)

After a series of snowfalls, when the town plow took out the mailbox for a second or third time, we had had it. A friend of my Mom’s engineered a piece of genius: a super-jumbo mailbox that set on a sliding rail that in wintertime could ride forward over the snowbank to easily meet the reach of the mail truck. We could slide the mailbox back from the road during snowstorms to keep it from getting whacked. It also held a lot of mail order packages.

That was my favorite mailbox—but it also was a favorite of yellow jackets during springs and summers. Each year I had to spray it with insect killer to eradicate a growing hive. (Aside, we always hear about letter carriers and dog bites—but how many bee stings do letter carriers endure?) I also remember the hearty hostas perennials that would grow so fervently around the base of the mailbox—and to this day, hostas are my go-to ground cover in any area beset by sand and road salt leftovers from the winter.

In Ogallala, NE, we actually had a “city style” single-residence black mailbox with a top lid and two parallel curling hooks underneath for flyers and my Boys Life magazine (my first piece of regular mail, that I can recall), attached to the house by the front door. I had my first pen pal then, too—a school principal I corresponded with from Melfort, Saskatchewan. Nothing unusual in this mailbox setup—until my big sister (well, allegedly, one of her friends) was found to be hiding a stash of 70’s illicit paraphernalia inside a corner of it. Talk about special delivery! I wonder if she shared any of it with the postman.

Then I go back to childhood—in Williamstown, MA. There we had a roadside mailbox, where one of my daily chores was to check for mail (we didn’t always get mail) and to put outgoing letters in the box with the flag up. It was the 1960s. I remember Mr. ZIP ads on television, his likeness on the sides of the mail truck, and the occasional special letters written to me from Grandma and Grandpa that always were addressed (until age 12) as “Master Chester Goodale Dalzell II”—no mistaking that for a note sent to my Dad (also named Chet).

As a kid, I hated firecrackers, and one day Stewy, a guy next door, lit a cherry bomb that exploded inside the mailbox when I was just a few feet from it. The mailbox endured, but my fear of fireworks only grew exponentially. (I love fireworks today, after therapy.)

I’ll never forget that noise—but I also will always love another noise, actually a sequence of noises, that I fear is going away soon … the sound of the mail truck driving up to the box, the squeak open of the hinge of the mailbox lid, the flag being dropped when an outgoing letter is picked up, and the squeak shut of the lid just as the truck drove off. No matter where in house I was standing, and no matter what I was doing, I could hear it. Those noises triggered in me a sliver of daily excitement—”what’s inside today’s mail?” and I would run out to check the mailbox, sometimes fast enough to wave at the postman as he continued with his appointed rounds.

Do you have a mailbox memory you want to share? How about “posting” one here?

Email to Repair Broken Customer Relationships—What J.C. Penney Got Wrong

Email is one of the more personal forms of electronic communication. Notes from friends and family are co-mingled with marketing messages. This makes it an excellent vehicle for repairing broken relationships. When done well, email apology letters drive sales in addition to mending relationships, but can they save a company from a death spiral? The management team at J.C. Penney is hoping that the recent note from CEO Ron Johnson will reverse (or at least slow down) the sales free fall for the last two quarters.

Email is one of the more personal forms of electronic communication. Notes from friends and family are co-mingled with marketing messages. This makes it an excellent vehicle for repairing broken relationships.

When done well, an email apology letter drives sales in addition to mending relationships. A few years ago, a client had a system failure that resulted in delayed shipments of holiday orders. An email was sent to every customer who had placed an order that season (even the ones who had already received their orders.) The message explained what caused the problem, apologized for any inconvenience, promised to expedite shipments of remaining orders, and offered a gift certificate for future orders.

The immediate response was so positive, the President quipped, “We should plan a problem once a quarter so we can apologize!” The revenue from the apology letter more than covered the expedited shipping. Furthermore, the relationship between customer and company became stronger. The people who received the letter consistently outperformed their counterparts who didn’t get one in both sales and lifespan.

Personal letters help salvage relationships but can they save a company from a death spiral? The management team at J.C. Penney is hoping that the recent note from CEO Ron Johnson will reverse (or at least slow down) the sales free fall for the last two quarters. In May, the first quarter results revealed a 20.1 percent drop in revenue because shoppers didn’t like the new pricing and marketing strategy. Second quarter was worse with another revenue drop of almost 23 percent. Traffic was down 12 percent.

When things are going south at this rate, quick action is required. Johnson admitted to pricing and marketing mistakes when speaking with investors, but his letter to customers is more like an introduction than an “Oops! We goofed.” The letter reads:

Dear valued customer,

You’ve probably heard about recent changes at jcpenney. I’m honored to
say that I’m one of them.

I’m Ron Johnson, and I came here because I have a lifelong passion for
retailing—and jcpenney has been one of America’s favorite stores for
over a hundred years. My goal is to make jcpenney your favorite place
to shop.

I’ve asked our team to innovate in many ways—to help you look and live
better—and to make shopping more enjoyable.

While you will see many changes, you can rest assured that we’ll never
lose sight of our founder’s values. When James Cash Penney built his
first retail stores over a century ago, he called them “The Golden
Rule,” because treating customers with respect was his highest
priority.

One of Mr. Penney’s guiding principles was offering low prices every
day—instead of running a series of “special sales.” We’re honoring Mr.
Penney by returning to his pricing policy, so you’ll find great prices
every time you visit.

We’ve also made it easier to return items, we’re bringing in more
great brands, adding excitement to our presentation, offering free
back-to-school haircuts for kids, and much more.

Basically, we’re putting you and your family first, trying to give you
new reasons to smile every time you visit a jcpenney store.

You’ll see many innovations in the coming months, and I’ll keep you
informed in a series of letters like this. I hope you’ll let me know
how we’re doing, and share any ideas that could help us do better.
Just click the link below to send me a note.

On behalf of the jcpenney team, thank you for shopping with us.

Ron

I’d like to hear from you.
View email with images.

*Please be advised that any information disclosed or submitted will
become jcp property and may be used in public communications.”

The timing of this letter is off. It should have been sent prior to the pricing changes. Now is the time for J.C. Penney to be open about the issues and invite people to share thoughts without the threat that they “may be used in public communications.”

Email messages designed to repair relationships are different from marketing emails. They have to be simple and personal. The J.C. Penney email is designed to look like a letter from the CEO, as you can see in the first picture in the media player at right.

Unfortunately, it looks like the second picture in the media player when it lands in the inbox. The letter is an image instead of text. It isn’t very inviting to a loyal customer much less an unhappy one.

Do’s and don’ts for creating personal relationship mending messages:

  • Do personalize the name. “Dear valued customer” says “I don’t know who you are.” The individual who shared this email with me has been a loyal catalog shopper and had a J. C. Penney credit card. They should be on a first name basis.
  • Don’t use a ho-hum subject. You have to catch people’s attention in a flash. “A letter from our CEO” doesn’t do it. Wouldn’t “Our CEO wants your advice” be better?
  • Do identify the problem and take responsibility for it. “Oops! We goofed!” followed with an explanation and sincere apology is the first step to mending the relationship. If the recipient doesn’t feel your sincerity, additional damage is done.
  • Don’t limit responses by qualifying. Mr. Johnson asks for feedback and then states that the information shared may be used in public communications. Some apology emails offer a discount based on a specific order size. Relationship mending emails have to do two things: Take responsibility and offer some form of restitution. A discount is a promotion. Basing it on a dollar amount is adding insult to injury.
  • Do use text-only emails. A picture paints a thousand words and most of them send marketing signals and awaken spaminators. The purpose of relationship building emails is to restore the relationship. This won’t happen if the email goes to spam or looks like a bunch of boxes with red X’s.
  • Don’t ever forget that relationships with customers are a privilege not a right. When you are truly grateful for the opportunity to serve your customers, it resonates in your messages. Make sure that your marketing team (including the copywriter) has the right perspective when creating messages.

6 Energizing Principles From Video Sales Letters

Video sales letters are being used more and more by traditional direct marketers. The videos are simple. No fancy graphics—just words on screen, flowing in sync with a voice-over. This format works well when you have a product or service that doesn’t demand dynamic visuals as much as it demands a compelling message, well told, to an audience who rabidly follows you. Here are six videos sales letters principles that can energize

Video sales letters are being used more and more by traditional direct marketers. The videos are simple. No fancy graphics—just words on screen, flowing in sync with a voice-over. This format works well when you have a product or service that doesn’t demand dynamic visuals as much as it demands a compelling message, well told, to an audience who rabidly follows you. Here are six videos sales letters principles that can energize what you do for your own online video marketing initiatives.

Direct marketers in the publishing niche (for example, investment newsletters, health newsletters and nutritional supplements) use video sales letters extensively. The marketers get viewers by way of their opt-in customer list; sending an email that directs the prospect to a landing page containing the long-form video sales letter. These are often long-form copy letters (on video) and can last 10 to 15 minutes—even longer.

Video sales letters are often educational. Viewers are conditioned that they will learn something if they invest the time to absorb the message. Rewarded by discovering something new, they don’t find them annoying. And they’ll buy when the message is convincing.

Direct marketers who successfully use video sales letters know their market, their audience and how to generate sales.

Certainly not everyone will watch a 10-to-15 minute video. You may be among those who say you never would. But clearly there are people who stick through video sales letters—just as many people read through long-form printed letters that are relevant and engaging—and they convert to sales. Even if your product or service doesn’t lend itself to this format, here are six principles to consider that can energize your own online video marketing programs.

  1. Classic copywriting formulas are your foundation
  2. You, the marketer, control the pace
  3. Flow and pace are nuanced
  4. Energize your message with a persona
  5. Give viewers mental redirects
  6. Strategically delay the appearance of call-to-action buttons

I elaborate on each of these six principles—the deep dive—in this 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?

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.