“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” As Mark Twain might have said if he were a direct mail sales letter.
As every direct response copywriter will tell you, and there are plenty, direct mail is not dead. It is alive and kicking and making a lot of people a lot of money.
Direct mail is now often integrated with digital channels – to make ordering easier, for example.
But that old-fashioned concept of writing to people to sell them things is STILL going strong.
If you’re old school, like me, this won’t come as surprising news.
If you’re a digital native and graduated from college or university post-2000, this may sound ridiculous.
Here’s the thing. How is your performance measured? Is your annual review based on how much you’ve created? Or on how much you’ve sold?
Does your finance director want to know which colour buttons lead to more clickthroughs? Or which products are making their numbers?
That’s where learning your direct mail copywriting chops can help you.
Here are my top ten tricks for crafting a powerfully effective direct mail sales letter.
1 Forget about a headline
OK, why not start with the most counter-intuitive copywriting tip of all?
Your headline screams, “I’m selling to you!” so leave it out. You’ll also save yourself hours of brow-scrunching, trying to come up with something original.
Remember, though, that this is direct mail. So your letter comes in an envelope. With a headline on it. Sorry.
Now your prospect dives straight into the body copy and becomes engaged by tip two.
2 Use a one-word opening sentence
See what I did there? If you pick the right word, a one-word opening sentence or paragraph (even better) does a number of clever things simultaneously.
It arrests your reader’s attention because there’s nothing else to focus on.
It engages their emotions – crucial to making a sale.
And it forces them to read on, since they need to know what it means.
3 Use Courier
I was the subject of a curiously spiteful Twitter campaign last year. From a copywriter who flatly refused to believe that Courier was a more profitable typeface than any other for direct mail.
Fine. I can take it. But here’s the thing.
Given how many published case studies, books and articles there are all saying the same thing about this innocuous font (to me, anyway), why not run an A/B test of your own and find out.
People always want to know why Courier works so well.
It has never bothered me.
Perhaps because my early training in direct mail copywriting was about counting order forms not trying to understand consumer psychology.
However, here goes.
One, Courier is a simple, highly readable, monospaced typeface with pronounced serifs.
That makes it easy to decode the meaning behind the copy.
Two, it harks back to an earlier, less sophisticated age, when people would write to each other using typewriters. It is authentic.
4 Tell a story
I once wrote a direct mail sales letter that got a 100% conversion rate.
It was to Richard Branson.
The total cost was about 69 pence. The revenue was £3,000.
I did it by telling him a story about his own company.
People find stories irresistible. They’re much more interesting than lists of benefits, for example.
Remember, stories have heroes. Heroes are individual human beings.
Your brand or product can never be a hero. That is just wishful thinking.
The hero must face, and overcome, a challenge.
5 Have one response option
Complexity confuses consumers. Just remember that.
Asking people to choose between multiple response channels, payment methods, order packages and delivery options may seem like a good idea.
After all, you’re offering choice, which is good, right.
In tests, the more options you add to your response device, the lower your response rate.
So keep it simple. If you’ve done your work selling the benefits, your prospect will be prepared to do what you ask them to get their hands on your product.
6 Include practical advice
A long time before the term content marketing was coined, direct mail copywriters were offering useful information in sales letters.
In fact, one of the oldest and most successful headline formulas, “How to…” plays directly on people’s innate desire for help and advice.
I wrote a sales letter for a computing magazine that included three practical tips:
A simple but effective method of creating a safe password you can remember.
How to insert a screengrab into a document with just four keystrokes.
The simple way to recover deleted files you thought you’d lost for ever.
Notice how the tips lend themselves naturally to pretty great headlines.
7 Include a testimonial with facts
Yes, yes, we know. Testimonials are great.
(Though it still amazes me how many people don’t bother to collect them.)
What we’re looking for, though, is a very particular kind of testimonial.
One that includes numbers.
A testimonial that says, “Your product is great. I love it!” is better than nothing.
But it’s not nearly so powerful as one that says, “Since I started using your product, my energy bills have gone down by 33%. I can’t believe it, but it’s true!”
8 Use sensory language
Humans have five senses (at least).
But often, copywriters, even experienced direct mail copywriters, forget this fact.
Their copy lacks any sensory dimension at all.
It is full of abstract words, like “savings”, “attractive” and “envy”.
If you are marketing a product that saves people money, here’s how to dramatise that fact.
“Imagine, every week, every day, your EnergySavR is literally adding ten pound notes to a big pile in your bank account.”
If you are selling a natural beauty product, why not suggest that,
“As you run your fingertips over your skin you will notice a smoothness, a silkiness you thought you’d lost for ever.”
And for a food processor,
“Take our challenge. Make a chocolate cake in the Mazimixer using our free recipe and offer some to your friends. If you don’t hear their compliments, see the smiles on their faces, and taste for yourself the wonderful lightness of that rich dark chocolately sponge, we’ll give you your money back.”
9 Be chatty
Who said letters had to be formal? Not me!
A conversational, even chatty, tone of voice is perfect for engaging your reader’s emotions.
Whether you’re in consumer or business marketing, you’re still writing to a human being.
And guess what?
Human beings like other human beings. Especially the ones who act like it.
So use contractions. Be free with colloquialisms. Use everyday language, especially in b2b copywriting.
10 Start by promising not promoting
Follow these ten tips and watch your response rates rocket.
That’s a promise.
I mean, it is, and it is, if you see what I mean.
Your direct mail letter is there to offer a solution to a problem facing your prospect. So a great way to start is by promising them it will go away.
If only they’re prepared to go along with your suggestion.
“Be a star direct mail copywriter” is a promise.
“Book your course place before the end of March and save 50%” is an offer.
Which one looks more powerful to you?
There you are.
Ten top copywriting tips to inject a little sparkle into your direct mail letters.
And if squirting or pressing a sludge made from dead dinosaurs onto a dried sheet of pulp made from dead trees seems a little old fashioned, remember that response rates (ie conversion rates) for direct mail letters are still regularly hitting one percent.
One we wrote recently hit 5.6%. Yes, that’s right: 56 people out of a thousand placed an order.
How does that digital-only strategy look now?