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How to Create a Winning Direct Mail Package

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by Jeffrey Dobkin, author, How to Market a Product for Under $500!

The secret of not losing your shirt in a direct mail campaign is to run a test. This is the beauty of direct mail–you never, ever need to lose big money. You can test the response to any package you mail by simply mailing your initial package in small numbers. That way, unsuccessful packages won’t turn into costly mistakes. Before you mail any big numbers–with their associated big costs–you’ll know if your package is going to draw a response, approximately to what extent, and if it will be successful–all BEFORE you spend big money to roll it out to every name on your list. Nice.

In traditional direct mail packages, there are four printed elements to consider: (1) the letter, which contributes the personal soft sell of the benefits and the hard sell of the response; (2) the brochure or data sheet, to show the features, photos, and reemphasize the benefits; (3) the reply vehicle, such as the order form via post card, envelope, or telephone call; an d (4) the envelope, written with teaser copy to get the package opened.

In a direct mail campaign, the product is generally not what you sell. What you sell are the benefits derived from the product. The hard sell is not of the product either. The hard sell is to generate the response: to prompt the reader to make the call, or send in the order form. In a direct mail package, soft sell the product, and sell the call hard. That is the secret of successful direct mail.

There are many non-printed elements you should consider. The most important are the offer, the price, the creative format, and the list (to be
covered in a future column). This article is just about the printed material. Let’s look at a traditional DM package.

The Letter

If you are sending any mail without a letter, you’re probably losing about 30 to 40% of your orders. It could be more. Of all the mistakes I see my clients make, this is the easiest to remedy, with the biggest immediate gain in revenues. A letter is the most important and the most powerful part of a direct mail package. Its pulling power is so strong there are times a letter can work just by itself.

Have you ever noticed that when you receive a mailing from any of the giant direct marketers there’s a letter in it? That’s because they know the value of the letter and how it increases their response.

But is it really a letter? No, it isn’t. A letter is a personal correspondence you write to one or two people. When you send it to ten, ten thousand, or ten million people, and it’s designed to sell your product, it’s really an ad. It’s a highly stylized ad designed to look like a letter. Any arguments?

But to simplify things, we’ll call it a letter. The letter is the part of your mailing package your potential customers read. They may look at your brochure, but they read the letter. After all, if it’s good, it’s perceived as a personal note from you to them. Only in direct mail can you write a personal note to 10,000 of your closest friends!

So make your letter a great one. Don’t try to write it in half an hour. It’s not like the letter you send to your Great Aunt May every Thanksgiving, so she’ll remember you at Christmas. It takes me five to eight hours to write a tight, crisp one-page letter. Sometimes it takes more time. Even then my work is usually not finished; it’s merely abandoned for reasons of practicality and time. If you can do it in less, let’s exchange notes.

The letter is the place to sell the benefits of owning and using your product. This is where our powerful benefits generate the response, which is the objective of the letter. You do this by flaunting the benefits, then asking the reader for a response in the letter copy several times. “Send for this new .””Call now to reserve your own .””Just fill out the order form.””Use the handy post-paid envelope.” You get the idea.

If the reader doesn’t respond in some fashion, your package didn’t work. The proof of this follows shortly afterwards: you lose money. While I don’t usually recommend repeating yourself when writing advertising copy, asking for the response you are seeking is the exception. Throughout the story line weave explicit directions leading readers directly down the path to response. If your readers don’t respond, your package goes from the good side of your spreadsheet to the bad side, and changes color along the way.

For maximum effectiveness and believability, your letter must look like a letter. The more it looks like a piece of personal business correspondence, the better your response will be. While people generally recognize it’s not the personal letter from grandma, they’ll overlook that fact if it’s done well.

Begin with a letterhead on the top of the page. Add a few lines after that, set flush right, to give the reader an enticing glance of your offer.

The salutation should be warm and friendly, and as tightly focused to your audience as you can be without alienating readers on the rim. Don’t take chances here, and don’t get too cute. For example, to Veterinarians, Dear Doctor or Dear Animal Lover. To Pharmacists, Dear Pharmacist. Not too exciting, but it’s safe. Don’t overlook the obvious correct choice.

Several favorites of mine: to people in your area, Dear Neighbor. To customers, Dear Valued Customer. Better yet, place “and Friend” after the salutation for a warmer reception: Dear Neighbor and Friend. Dear Valued Customer and Friend. To someone in your business or industry: Dear Colleague and Friend. Dear Reader can always be used, but it is always my last choice. The tighter you can focus your salutation, the more personal your letter will look, the more it will be read, and the more response you’ll get. Direct mail is, after all, a game of numbers.

Write a letter filled with benefits. State your most powerful benefits early and describe what’s in it for the reader. The product has certain features that give the benefits to the reader. Stating that a feature of a stereo speaker is that it is made with a stereophonic amalgam rubber won’t do much for the reader (or your order box). But the fact that “You can’t blow out these speakers. No matter how loud you like your music, these speakers always sound crisp and clear–and they’re guaranteed for life!” will have meaning to your readers (and your bank account).

Start out with your best stuff–your strongest benefit first, then immediately expound on it. Don’t wait till later in your package! You’ll lose readers soon enough without hiding your biggest benefits in the middle of a few pages of copy. If you have a lot of benefits, list the benefits that are too numerous to mention in bullet-ed form. Everyone likes to read a short list. Write all copy in terms of “you,” so “I am going to send” becomes “You will receive.”

Exciting graphics can be incorporated in a well-designed letter too. The opening paragraph should be one line, two at the most. Short paragraphs and lots of white space around the typed copy will help get the reader interested. Make it look easy to read, even if it isn’t. Indent all paragraphs four or five spaces. Flush left, rag right; never justify the body of the letter. Use typewriter style type such as Courier or American Typewriter. No paragraph should run over six lines. Vary paragraph length. Make the top line of each paragraph shorter on the right hand side than the rest of the paragraph.

Select a particular paragraph in the center and shorten its appearance with wide 2″ margins, and reduce the type size in this paragraph one or two
points. Use short action-packed words. Include your signature legibly written. Then add a P.S. that reemphasizes your best offer and asks again for
the response. Everyone reads the P.S., make it an order clincher. Allow five to ten hours for writing, editing and layout.


Your brochure or data sheet shows the features. But most people won’t read our brochure anyhow, unless they’re already pretty much ready to buy. Would you read a brochure about a Ford station wagon if you weren’t going to buy one? Heck, no. But people who are ready to buy will read almost everything: (1) for reassurance that they made the right choice, and (2) to feel good about their purchase. Of course lots of photos and four color printing keep the initially uninterested in the brochure longer.

Your brochure becomes important in three separate ways. People who are serious about your product want more information and will read it. So here it becomes the clincher in the sale–the last frontier to make that extra one person in 100 step over the line and call to place an order. Next, your brochure gives you added credibility. You can tell them in your letter that the hotel they will be staying at is beautiful but how much more convincing when you show them the pictures of the pool and the verandah in the brochure. Finally, with this additional and less personal selling space, you can show all the features of your product you didn’t have the space for in your letter, which is reserved for benefits and a more personal plea for orders.

If your product has a lot of great features, it’s best to list them in bullet-ed fashion. This is faster to read, and most readers will stop to read a bullet-ed list. I usually follow each feature with smaller type that shows the benefit of that particular feature. For example:

  • The blade is made of Rockwell Hardness 440 Steel. This knife will hold a keen edge longer, and you won’t have to sharpen it frequently like cheaper knives.

Don’t forget to have your company name, phone, address, and complete ordering information on your brochure in case it gets separated from the rest
of the package. It probably will.

Data Sheet

If you have no money for an expensive brochure, create a DATA SHEET. This sales tool looks just fine in black and white. Some industries, such as the electronics business, use a data sheet for all new products. Label it DATA SHEET or NEW PRODUCT BULLETIN at the top. Include a line drawing or photo, and information about the features, but sneak in as many benefits as you can. Use a typeface other than the one you used in your letter, so it looks typeset. Don’t forget to say “Order from” before your name and address, to encourage orders.

Direct mail is like professional wrestling: you can do anything you want to your opponent, but only for five seconds. In those five seconds, you must get your envelope opened and create interest in your material. An electrifying data sheet will spark interest from those on the edge of tossing everything out. Black and white is still OK, but make sure it’s electric. Really electric.

The longer readers stay in your package, the better your chances of having them order your product. Shrewd retailers have known this principle for years. The longer customers are in their store, the more likely they are to make a purchase. You can prove this by following my brother Dean. After seven minutes in any store, his wallet and credit cards come out.

Reply Vehicle

Face it, the easiest response to generate is a phone call. It’s instant gratification for the reader, and with a charge card, it’s money in the bank for you. So throughout the copy I ask for a phone call several times to place an order; you should too. This is always my first choice of the type of response I solicit.

To encourage the call reluctant, I recommend you also enclose a reply envelope, with an order form that slips into it. The reply envelope can be a postage-paid BRE, or you can allow the customer to place a stamp on it. If your mailing envelope has a window, the mailing label should be affixed to the order form and show through the window. This makes it even easier for the recipient to order by mail, which helps overcome the law of reader inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless everything is laid out to make it ultimately easy to order.

Our firm mails about 25,000 pounds of mail each year. Do we send out reply envelopes? Yep! In every package. And every day we see our cute little purple envelopes come back to us crammed with money. Reply envelopes are generally worth their expense.

If your initial test mailing is small, you can place a live stamp on the order envelope. This will insure that even if they don’t order your product, your envelope will stick around on their desk for several days while they try to figure out how to get the live stamp off an envelope addressed to you.

I recommend a reply envelope and order from instead of a reply card so you can get paid up front. With a reply card, no one sends you a check, sure as heck not cash, and only a fool would send a credit card number on a post card. On your order form, make sure you say on the top what it is: “Rush Order Form.”

Somewhere on the reply form, make sure you give your regular phone number preceded by “To place your order immediately by phone, call _____ .” Also include your fax number. Include a recap of what you are selling, what they are getting, and if the benefits fit, throw in the most important ones one last time. Again, include your name, address, and phone. If the card gets separated from the rest of the literature, this piece should stand alone. Make sure they know what they are ordering, and where to order from. Additionally, this is a great place to flaunt your guarantee.


The function of the envelope is similar to a storefront: excite the reluctant potential customer enough to come inside. Tempt them. Lure them. Tease them. The envelope is designed in every way to make the prospect open it. This is the only objective of the envelope. Ideally, if you can get the prospect to start salivating early about what’s inside, that’s nice too.

If the mailing packet is your ad, the envelope is your headline. Teaser copy–the few lines written on the envelope–is your one chance to get it opened. Keeping within the guidelines of legality and good taste is the only requirement. After that, whatever works, use. Because if it didn’t work, your great offer just got trashed without being opened.

If your envelope isn’t opened as soon as it’s seen, there’s a good chance it’ll wind up in the pile to be opened sometimes between later and never, and most likely will just be thrown out. Make your envelope copy crisp, strong, and sharp, to force the reader to open it first–before any other piece of mail.

Writing envelope copy is tough. It’s got to be short, yet the strongest copy you can output. Lots of people sort their mail over a trash can, and if your envelope copy is less than fantastic… you don’t want to read the rest of this sentence!

Teaser copy should be focused, but not narrowly enough to turn anyone away. The envelope copy needs to be more precisely targeted than your letter because at that instant your whole package is at the crossroads of being opened, and it’s in the greatest danger of falling into the trash. You need a great hook for your teaser copy. An unbelievably great hook. If you spend 100 hours writing your direct mail package, spend ten of them on the two or three lines that go on your envelope. I do. They’re that important. Then carry that theme inside, and start your letter with it.

For example: “Free Gift Enclosed!” is probably my all-time generic favorite. “New Prices Enclosed” appeals to price-sensitive products and markets.Other variations include “Free Gift Offer” and “Wholesale Prices Enclosed–Please Open Immediately!” If your mail piece arrives with a first class stamp, a favorite trick of mine (with less commercial type mailings) is to put your name (NOT your company name) and address in plain type in the right hand corner. People will think it’s a personal letter, and open it.

You can also ask a perplexing question, a question so great that everyone will need to know the answer. Promise to give them the answer, if oh, they’ll only open the envelope. Or make an incredible statement. Intrigue them. Drive them crazy with the need to open your mailing package right now! Why do you think they call it teaser copy? If it works, you’ll find out when you get orders. If it doesn’t, well, you’ll know that too.

The above is an excerpt from Jeffrey Dobkin’s new book, HOW TO MARKET A PRODUCT FOR UNDER $500! (ISBN: 09642879-2-7; $29.95 in bookstores; add $4 shipping when ordered directly from the publisher; expanded edition $38.50 + $4). There’s a step-by-step action plan for marketing a product nationally without phone calls and almost 400, 8 1/2″ x 11″ pages of lean, practical, how-to direct-marketing information.

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