P.S. Don’t forget the Most Important Words in The Mailer!!!

15 May

Leading copywriters share ideas about what the most important words in a direct mail package are—and how to write them

A lot goes into a direct mail package—marketing, list segmentation, design and production, not to mention much time and money. To get the max out of any mailer, the most crucial ingredient is excellent copywriting.

“Some people will just take a whole bunch of direct mail words and string them together. It’s like dealing with a high-pressured sales person who’s trying to get you to take an action,” warns Steven Tharler, chief guide of Wayland, Mass.–based THARLER DIRECTs. “What I’m trying to do, in effect, is put my arm around you and say ‘I’m here for you,’” he illustrates.

We asked Tharler and other leading copywriters to discuss the precise technique of writing elements of a package’s outer and letter. They describe how to execute the most important writing in a package and, in the process, reveal a three-letter word and a four-letter word that can make or break a mailing.

Writing Envelope Teasers
“The outer envelope is the headline for the package,” says Roy Beauchamp, copywriter and owner of Mill Valley, Calif.–based Beauchamp Studios. “When consumers think about opening a letter, they are going to make that decision within milliseconds,” he asserts. Unless you have a groundbreaking offer, don’t put it on the outer, or it may act as a barrier to the prospect opening the package. “If you’re going to put something out there on the outer, you don’t say everything. You sort of make it a promise for something else,” he adds.

Beauchamp recommends a teaser that taps into the emotional appeal of the product or service. He gives the example of Bill Jayme’s classic line for a Psychology Today outer, which read, “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?” “Jayme was really talking to the emotions of the reader, the psychology of the reader,” Beauchamp says.

“The teaser is really something that needs to be tested,” posits Tharler, who suggests testing no teaser at all, especially for business mail. Tharler wrote a B-to-B package for MIT’s Sloan Management Review that did well without a teaser. “It did have the complete return address, and it also had a meter imprint because I wanted to simulate real business mail,” he says. “Nonpromotional-looking outer envelopes seem to work best in many cases, so I’d say no extra copy on the outer is a great way to go,” agrees Todd Lerner, president and copywriter for Farmington Hills, Mich.–based Todd Lerner Advertising.

FREE Is a Four-Letter Word
Some direct mail packages are saturated with “free,” using the word half a dozen times alone on the OE, while other packages tout specific benefits and take a less sales-driven approach. If you do decide to use “free” in your copy, be sure that you get the most value out of the often-deflated word. “As people get smarter and get bombarded with more direct mail, and they hear the word ‘free’ over and over again, you better make sure that it’s believable. The word ‘free’ isn’t as powerful as believability and legitimacy; if you don’t believe that it’s free, than it really isn’t,” warns Steve Wexler, president of The Steve Wexler Creative Group in Farmingville, N.Y.

The free formula needs to be tested because it is different for every mailer and every premium or freemium add-on. Beauchamp cites the example of Sports Illustrated, which has been offering multiple premiums with a subscription for years. Beauchamp believes the company began by testing hard premiums on television ads before adopting a multiple premium offer. “It kept testing a free gift over and over again on TV, and finally realized over time that, the more premiums it put on, the more ‘free’ meant,” he says.

Sometimes less use of “free” means more to the prospect. “If it’s relevant and it’s part of the offer, then of course you promote the word ‘free’ because ‘free’ is a very powerful word,” Tharler says. “But while it’s important to promote the offer, if you give away too much, then it starts to lose its value,” he adds. Publishers, for example, fall into the trap of heavily discounting the cover price, with special rates of up to 90 percent off. “At some point, to me, it starts to work against itself in terms of promoting the value of the publication itself; free has to have some meaning to it,” he explains.

Headlines, Subheads and Copy Breaks
Today various forms of the Johnson box, including headlines, subheads and other brief text elements, are used to grab a reader’s attention in one glance. “A modern-day version of a Johnson box will always be effective. It’s just isolating a thought,” Wexler explains. Tharler, who prefers to write direct mail packages in the order that the recipient experiences the elements, sees the Johnson box as a continuation of the OE. “It somehow picks up that thinking from the OE and prepares you or even tells you in a very telegraphic way what the offer is going to be,” Tharler shares.

Subheads and other quick text items also appeal to consumers who are accustomed to skimming internet shorthand, making them good places to test an offer. “The shorthand of the internet … has influenced the way that traditional direct mail is constructed, so you’re seeing quicker, faster, less complex copy on the outer envelopes and the letters,” says Beauchamp, who’s seen a rise in requests for illustrated letters, punctuated by photographs, captions and headlines traditionally placed in a brochure.
Wexler has seen financial, B-to-B and wealth-building mailers that use sidebars to tell two stories simultaneously without breaking the letter’s flow. “Anything that will facilitate reading, that’s not going to stop the sale or the reader … is one step away from the garbage bin,” Wexler says.

How Do You Start a Letter?
“The opening lines are what’s going to get them to read. They’re never going to get to the subheads, layout and P.S. unless they’re compelled to go through the doorway,” Wexler urges. However, when sitting down to write the first few lines of a direct mail letter, you might as well be sitting down to write the next New York Times best-seller. “Put it this way: I go through quite a few pages of legal paper,” Beauchamp jokes.

“It takes a while to decide, ‘Am I going to have short words or long words, long sentences or incomplete sentences, or maybe paragraphs that are only one or two lines?’” Tharler asks. While you can always go back and, as both Tharler and Lerner suggest, tweak the copywriting to make the type look better and more legible, the content of those first few lines requires much forethought, research and creativity.

“For me, what drives the whole letter, and the opening of the letter especially, is the strategic marketing questions and issues that are at hand. That really drives what you want to start with in a letter,” Beauchamp states. Wexler says he first checks his swipe file of mail to see if there’s anything that’s worked well in the past. He also interviews the client and client’s customers. “You’ll find that there’s some startling facts when you go into that kind of depth. I try to get as much research done and really know and understand the problem and the product and actually become the customer before I sit down and write,” he says.

‘You’ Is the Most Important Word

The best way to avoid your effort being screened as junk mail is to make a personal, relevant appeal. “The most important words in the mailer have to be ‘what’s in it for me?’ If you can answer, ‘What’s in it for the prospect or client?’ and you can convince them that it’s something that they need—those are the most important words in the piece,” Wexler says.

Tharler agrees, “The most important word is ‘you.’ It’s not just using the word ‘you,’ but giving all of your copy a ‘you’ orientation.” He reworks a sample statement from an “us” statement to a “you” statement: “It gives us great pleasure to announce” becomes “You may be excited to know that this new product has just been introduced,” a statement that avoids corporate speak and clearly benefits the prospect. Tharler also suggests avoiding third-person-oriented phrasing, such as, “Customers who use this product.” “That makes it sound very abstract, and you want the copy to be as personal and as much about ‘you’ as possible,” he says.

When writing from a ‘you’ perspective, be wary of the intricacies of personalization. “You better make sure that you have your list information correct before you personalize [a letter],” Wexler advises. “When someone addresses you by a different [incorrect] name, right from that point, you stop reading,” he says. He also warns against overusing personalization that will counteract the one-to-one message. “A lot of writers will use your name 15 times on the first page, and people just don’t speak like that. Make it believable and legitimate; everything needs to be used so that the prospect believes you’re reaching out to them—and not just a mass appeal,” he says.

P.S. One More Idea!
You could do an entire study on direct mail postscripts, how many pages the letter is, what page the P.S. falls on, what information is included and how the P.S. changes over several tests. “The P.S. might be some additional information that may have been included in the letter but you’ve decided that you want to really highlight it in that way physically,” Tharler says.

“We know from research that people do tend to read the P.S. first. If I’m not mistaken, I think they look at the logo at the top and then immediately go down to the P.S.,” Tharler suggests. He adds that a P.S. may be more effective on a one- or two-page letter than on a four-page letter, where prospects really have to dig to see it.

“That P.S. really has to reveal what’s in it for the customer, what they’re going to get by responding right now,” Wexler says. He believes that the tone in the P.S. can be more aggressive than the rest of the letter copy. “It’s that final burst—that final reminder of making them take the action that you’ve been pushing for that entire letter,” he describes.

Lerner suggests highlighting the call to action in the letter’s subheads, body and driving the point home using the same mention in the P.S. Tharler suggests using the P.S. to reveal more or new information. “I prefer not to use the P.S. to remind people of something they’ve already read, such as, ‘Don’t forget the deadline is Dec. 1.’ I’d rather say that it’s a time-limited offer in the letter itself and be specific about it in the P.S.,” he describes. Finally, Tharler suggests mentioning a new reinforcement of the key selling point in the P.S., such as an added benefit, a related award or honor, or even an endorsement.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, September 2008)


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