In direct response advertising, a great direct mail pack can work wonders for both the brand, and the bottom line. Truly successful direct mail is targeted, says something powerfully (and memorably) and talks directly to the customer. And there’s no better way to engage in conversation than with a letter.
If you’re thinking that no one reads letters any more, think again. The great Howard Gossage famously said “People read what interests them. Sometimes, it’s an ad.” He could also have said “sometimes it’s a letter.”
You see, it’s not a case of people not reading letters; it’s more realistic to say that copywriters are not writing interesting letters any more, if art all.
In this day and age of smart phones, instant gratification and multi-media everything, a humble direct mail letter is not glamorous, or fun. Better to send a jazzy brochure and some lame freebie. But to ignore the direct mail letter is to turn your back on one of the most tried and tested ways to engage a consumer and get a result. It’s vital, and incredibly effect when written well.
The Direct Mail Letter – Where Do You Begin?
Well, if you created a good direct mail pack, you will have already started the conversation on the envelope. The letter needs to pick up on that conversation and elaborate, in a way that’s both engaging and persuasive. It’s the salesman of the pack. Everything else is elaborate window dressing.
If Mad Men’s Don Draper were any part of a direct mail pack, he’d be the letter. He’d sell the hell out of the product or service, using powerful words and a tone of voice that’s aligned with the brand.
Having said all of that, you are staring at a blank sheet of paper. It represents infinite possibilities. This is your chance to speak openly, and elegantly, to the consumer. Whatever you’ve been told, people read the letter first. It’s a hard habit to break, when someone sends you mail you want to know why, and the letter is the first place to look. So this blank sheet of paper is also the first point of contact with the brand. This is no time to show off, be clever, or pull a fast one. It’s a conversation that can make or break the sale, and it needs that kind of respect.
Don’t be Tempted to Open With Crass Humor, Puns or Pushy Statements.
And don’t write above or below your audience, either. You don’t want to show your vast vocabulary, and you don’t want to sound dumb. Speak like people speak, and never be afraid to break the rules of grammar. You are not writing a letter to win an English scholarship, you are writing to communicate. Want to use one-word sentences? Fine.
Use the Golden Word – YOU.
It’s been said before that people love hearing about themselves, and it’s true. The letter is the most intimate part of the conversations, so get up close and personal and tell them why this is important to them. Start talking about yourself too much and they’ll switch off. Use YOU.
It’s also important to open strongly. This differs depending on the audience and the product or service. If you are doing a piece of cold acquisition )meaning you have no former contact with the potential customer) you need to get them to quickly associate with a problem or situation.
If it’s retention, or they have bought from you in the past, then build upon your relationship. But don’t spend too long waxing lyrical about old times, get to the crux of the matter quickly.
Don’t Be Afraid to Write More Than One Page.
Someone recently said that good copy should be the same length as a skirt – long enough to cover it all, but short enough to be interesting.
Well, that’s good for print ads, but for direct mail you want it to be long enough to be persuasive. If you can’t make your argument in one page, don’t truncate it and hope the brochure picks up the slack. The letter always does the heavy lifting, the brochure is simply the showroom. Get them interested with the brochure, but get them to call (or visit the website) with the letter.
Your Letter Should Build to a Call to Action.
From your opening gambit, you are trying to build a case for your product or service that is watertight. Do it in steps, and slowly but surely create a flowing letter that guides the prospect to the CTA. Remember the infamous speech by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross – AIDA.
Make the Letter Pass the Quick-Scan Test
You read a letter like anyone else does, so bear that in mind. When you first see it, you will scan it over, looking for reasons to invest the time in the full text. Your subheads, a PS and the main headline will do this for you. If you can’t grab them on a scan, they will likely not bother with the full letter.
Finally, Tell Them What You Want Them to Do
Don’t be afraid to ask for the sale, bluntly. This is not a billboard, we’re not in the business of an umbrella branding campaign. The direct mail pack is about ROI. Get them to sign on the dotted line. If you have a phone number, ask them to call it. If there’s a website, tell them to visit it. And feel free to use a sense of urgency, including limited-time offers. They work.
This is a brief insight into crafting a direct mail letter. For more advice on the subject, read the work of Steve Harrison. He is one of the best direct mail copywriters in the business. Examples of his work can be found in the latest edition of the D&AD Copy Book, and in his excellent book How To Do Better Creative Work. If you can get hold of a copy, whatever the price, do so. It’s one the best books an advertising creative can own.