direct mail creative

So you’ve been given the job of writing a new sales letter or direct mail postcard.

You gather all the information, outline your message and then you write … and rewrite … and rewrite … and then you polish.

Your mailer is ready.  You’re happy with the way it reads and looks. You think it’s clear, concise and persuasive. But you can’t help but wonder …

What did you forget? What should you have done differently?  What have you overlooked that could impact response?

I am hoping this article will give you peace of mind in developing your direct mail creative.

Here are 9 questions to ask yourself:

1-Do you have the right offer?

I can’t overstate the importance of the offer. If you want people to respond to your mailer, you need an offer. You need an offer that is appealing to your audience and directly related to what you are selling.

If your mailer is intended to sell a product or bring people into your store, your offer will be related to an actual purchase (a discount or a free gift with purchase).

But if your mailer is intended to generate a lead (for a future purchase), your offer needs to be informational and free (a white paper, guide or tip sheet).

Discount and free gift offers need to be carefully considered. Obviously, the more the generous your offer, the more response you will get. But you don’t want to give away too much.

For lead generation offers, the topic of your white paper, guide or tip sheet needs to have some connection to what you are selling. But what will really impact your response is the title of the document. Create multiple titles and test a few to see which works best.


2-Is the offer highlighted?

Once you have your offer in place, it would a shame if no one saw it.   You want to make sure it gets highlighted.

On a postcard, place the offer on both sides. In a letter, put the offer at the top and the bottom (and maybe even in the middle).

Highlight it with a headline and a visual. Put it in a box. Emphasize with color.  Do whatever you can call attention to it.

For maximum response, make the offer the centerpiece of your mailer. Spend more time talking about your offer and it will benefit the reader.  Spend less time talking about yourself.

Remember, the mailer will be judged not by its creative energy but by the number of responses you get.


3-Have you provided a simple path for getting the offer?

This is your call to action. If you have an offer that is appealing, your readers will want to take action to respond.

Have you made the response process simple? Are there any roadblocks or speed bumps that might inhibit response?

Have you provided multiple methods of response (reply mail, phone, fax, landing page)?

We all want to get phone call responses because they provide a higher level of engagement. But the truth is not every prospect is willing to pick up the phone – especially when they are in the early stages of exploration. The more options you provide, the higher your response.


4-Does your headline say something important?

I know there’s a temptation to write headlines that are clever or funny … that may include a pun or some other play on words. It’s only natural to want to do something creative here.

But try to resist it because your readers don’t care about your cleverness.

Your readers only care about themselves and what’s good for them.

Make sure your headline focuses on something that is important and relevant to your target audience. You’re not going to be able to tell the whole story in your headline, but you can use the headline to get your readers’ attention – and then explain more in a subhead or in the text.


5-Does your message focus on a single topic?

We all have products or services that can do a lot of things for our customers – and we want to tell it all.

The thinking is we don’t know what is on the mind with each and every reader so we throw everything out there hoping to catch them with one or two relevant selling points.

The problem is the more stuff we throw, the less likely any of it will stick.

Most readers aren’t going to spend the time reading through your mailer to find the relevant points. They are going to quickly glance at the mailer and maybe (maybe!) scan through the heads/subheads and look at the visuals – but that’s about it.

It takes some discipline but try to find one selling point (benefit plus the supporting feature) – and then build your message around that. I know you’ll be under pressure to include other points as well … so as a compromise, you may want to create a bullet point list of secondary points.

(If your mailer is intended to sell a product – not generate a lead – a bullet point list won’t be enough.  You will likely need to expand on all the other selling points which, of course, will require a longer copy format.)


6-Is the copy clear and visually easy on the eye?

Many people are intimidated by writing. They think good writing is about long-winded sentences with big words.

But the truth is the best writing is simple, clear and direct.

This is especially important in promotional writing where readers are only glancing at your message.

Aside from the writing itself, it is also important to make the copy inviting to read – with short sentences, short paragraphs, readable text size, good line spacing, frequent subheads and a generous use of visuals and other highlighting devices.


7-Have you addressed possible credibility issues?

This isn’t always a high priority for your mailer. If you’re a local retailer, your audience knows who you are and where you’re located. And they probably trust you.

If your business is unknown to your audience and you’re offering a free white paper on topic related to the product or service you sell, the prospect isn’t too concerned about your credibility because you are not asking them to make much of a commitment by downloading the white paper.

Credibility is more important when you are selling a product through the mail – when you are asking people to open their wallets and give you their credit card number. In this case, you need people to believe you and trust you. And you need people to trust that your product or service can deliver as promised.

Credibility is built in several ways – (1) by the overall look and feel of your mailer, (2) by a list of clients, (3) by real testimonials with real names and photos, (4) by endorsements from third parties, (5) by membership in reputable organizations, and (6) by specific, fact-based results.


8-Could a visual help make the case?

Everyone likes visuals – meaning photos, illustrations, charts and other artwork.

Some visuals are descriptive in that they help to illustrate and/or demonstrate a specific product or service.   Others are purely decorative meaning they only provide some visual relief to the text.

Both are useful, but descriptive visuals are far more effective.

If you are trying make the case that your product is small and compact, a photo of the product being used will demonstrate that. If your product comes in multiple colors, showing the colors is more effective than simply describing them.

Would a specific photo help to explain your product or service?  If so, have you used it?


9-Have you considered all personalization options?

Personalization will improve your response. That’s been proven time and again. The only question is how much personalization and in what form?

On a postcard, you need to personalize one side just to get your piece delivered.

But what about putting the prospect’s name in the headline on the other side of the postcard. Or putting the prospect’s name inside an image on the postcard?

These are examples of VDP (Variable Data Printing) which can get the reader’s attention and increase response – but all of this comes with a cost.

If you want to personalize a sales letter, what other components in the package will also be personalized – the outer envelope, the reply card? When you personalize two or more components, your mail house will need to set up a “matching” process to ensure that those pieces stay together.

Once again, more personalization is good, but be aware of the costs.


There are no guarantees in direct mail creative.  We have no way to be sure a particular mailer is going to generate a good response, a poor response or no response at all.

But you can improve your odds by following the proven strategies and techniques.

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."