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Reading vs. Scanning: Sidebars Can Engage Any Kind of Mail Recipient

Marcus Johnson

Are you a reader or a scanner?

The world is full of both. That matters to those of us who include direct mail and direct response advertising as part of our marketing mix. If we don’t create direct mail designs that account for both of those information intake preferences, we risk losing a big chunk of our audience and their potential to respond.

The Good News About Reading vs. Scanning Direct Mail

According to the USPS, 75% of households usually read, scan, or read only some of their direct mail. So what are we doing to help them—to make it easier for them to quickly grasp the product benefits or understand what we want them to do? Of course, direct mail best practices come into play, as they should every time.

For now, however, we’ll focus on one that can pay big dividends to direct marketers and their clients: sidebars.

I Read. You Scan. Everyone Gets the Message.

We all know successful direct mail is built on that personal one-to-one connection that comes from a well-written letter. In the hands of an experienced wordsmith and a designer who knows how to lay out a page, that letter can cast a spell. The next thing you know, the prospect is hooked and the orders roll in (or at least there’s a lift in response).

But not everyone is so entranced by a long letter. Yes, I know longer copy typically sells better (a discussion for another time). But not everyone wants to or can engage on that level. Enter the sidebar—the utility player of a direct mail package (along with the P.S.) and the flypaper of direct mail; it captures people before they toss your letter aside, at least long enough to read your offer and call to action (CTA).

Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em, Sidebars Get Read

Sidebars can serve a number of purposes—20 is the number Clayton Makepeace of the Early To Rise website identifies.

Makepeace defines a great sidebar as one that drives home the point you’re trying to make “in the most powerful manner possible.” Among some of his sidebar types are ones formatted for:

  • Readership—designed to sell the prospect on reading your text
  • Benefit—accomplishing the obvious, extolling product benefits
  • Credibility—establishing product bona fides via expert testimony

Advocates for the Two-Track Approach

At IWCO Direct, we’re big fans of the two-track approach—i.e., using a letter/sidebar combo. The reason is simple: it works. You catch more readers (or scanners) and potential responders that way. There are exceptions when we wouldn’t include a sidebar in a direct mail package. They may involve strategy or certain format limitations or client direction, depending on the package we’re creating. But, in general, encouraging readability, whatever your preference, is high on our list. And sidebars get the job done.

Sidebars Always Go on the Right. Or Do They?

Without wandering too far off topic, let’s stipulate that studies have been done about how people comprehend and process information. There’s evidence suggesting people tend to trust information positioned on the right side of a design. Which is why we most often place our sidebars in that position. But things can get crazy.

We may position it on the left side of the letter. Or turn it into a flap that folds over the letter and conceals yet another sidebar on the left side. Or interrupt the middle of the letter with a sidebar turned on its side. (I’ll leave it to deep philosophical thinkers to decide whether we can still call that a sidebar or if we have to call it a “midbar” or a “tipped-on-its-side” bar).

Here’s where the beauty of testing comes into play. Start with a right-positioned sidebar and see how it performs. Does that pull better than sidebar information “packaged” in a different place on the direct mail letter form? Does it effectively engage the readers and scanners in your audience? Test and you’ll know soon enough.

Still wondering whether a sidebar has the power to pull? Let’s talk. We’re happy to provide case studies and other data to show how effective sidebars can be. And we’re also available anytime to discuss how your direct mail can work harder, as well as suggest ways to incorporate best practices into your current underperforming control packages.

link https://www.iwco.com/blog/2019/08/20/reading-vs-scanning-sidebars/
Marcus Johnson

Author

Marcus Johnson

Senior Writer and University of Minnesota graduate. Creative writer and idea generator who has brought copy to life for leading financial services organizations, professional sports teams, healthcare, and outdoor brands. The question this former winner of the Best in Show from the National AgriMarketing Association loves to ask is, “How can I help?” When he’s not pounding out copy, he loves doing yard work, especially leaf blowing. In sports, Marcus cheers for the Humboldt Broncos, the Canadian hockey team that lost 10 players in a 2017 bus crash.

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