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Avoid These Three Direct Mail Bad Habits in 2020

Marcus Johnson

I’ve built a shiny metaphorical bandwagon, and I’m inviting you all to jump on and help me improve the quality and effectiveness of creative direct mail writing in 2020. At the same time, we’re going to—once and for all, I hope, although I know better—say a final farewell to a few nagging direct mail bad habits.

You’ll be familiar with some of these because I’ve addressed them in previous blogs. But they continue to crop up with semi-alarming frequency. So I want to revisit them now and encourage all of us to keep them on our short list of things to avoid.

Direct Mail Bad Habit #1 (Hall of Fame Candidate)—The Dangling Participle

While I generally avoid resolutions, this year I’ve promised myself that I will cast aside any direct mail letter that begins something like this, “As a valued customer, we want you to know how much we appreciate …”

You’ve seen it. You may have even done it. Now, it must stop. I’ve written about this bad direct mail habit before because it’s a pet peeve. But it won’t go away. Here’s what it is and why you need to avoid using it.

The dangling participle (aka a misplaced modifier) is a phrase most often found at the beginning of a sentence, and it appears to modify some part of the sentence other than the one it was intended to modify.

Dictionary.com gives an example: “Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls.” Plunging appears to modify “we.” But, of course, “we” are not plunging into the gorge. The Falls is. It’s easy enough to rewrite this sentence to make the modifying phrase jibe with the intended noun.

However, our friends at Dictionary.com go on to say that dangling participles “have long been a feature of standard literary English and are today commonplace in speech and edited writing…”

Maybe so, but getting it right in direct mail is important for two reasons:

  1. Direct mail still struggles with an image as the poor redheaded stepchild of marketing campaigns. It’s also still saddled with the “junk mail” label. It’s our job to make it less junky and more compelling. There’s no excuse for lazy writing using tired clichés and even more trite letter openings.
  2. Direct mail lets you have a one-to-one conversation with your target audiences. A boring first sentence in the form of a lifeless dangling participle is a non-starter. It wastes your audience’s time and your opportunity to connect with your reader in a meaningful way to make the case for your product or service.

Going back to our example (As a valued customer, we want you to know …), how do we make it better? Read on.

If you must start with that old chestnut “As a valued customer …” continue in this vein:

“As a valued customer, you’re eligible for a status upgrade …” OR “As a valued customer, you could be the first one at our dealership to take advantage of …”

But, honestly, we can do better, don’t you think? Why not start your letter with some intrigue or attention-getting statement:

“Time’s running out and you have just three days left to get something you’ve always wanted.” OR, because so many direct mail letters bury the lede, start with the big news:

“You could earn up to $200 when you switch to Super Bank and open a new checking account.”

The simple fact is, if you’re observing direct mail best practices, you won’t have to work that hard to avoid falling into the trap of a dangling participle. And your clients will thank you for that.

Direct Mail Bad Habit #2 (Hall of Fame Runner-Up)—The Missing Offer

What’s your offer? If I can’t open your direct mail package and tell within five seconds what you’re offering or what’s in it for me, you’ve lost me. Seems obvious. Yet time and again I get direct mail that makes me work to find out what the offer is. Oh, sure, you want money or you want me to buy something. But if I don’t know what it is, why should I care?

Where does your offer go? You can tease it on the outer envelope. But don’t give it away or people won’t need to open the envelope unless it’s a credit card solicitation where you’re revealing all on the OE (a topic for another time). You can put it in the headline. And the Johnson Box area (typically, upper right corner). And on a card, if one is attached. And in the sidebar, if your letter has one. And, certainly, in the body copy.

Marcus, you say, why so many places? It doesn’t have to be in all those places—and probably shouldn’t be. But it does have to be up top so I can see at a glance if I’m interested and want to read on. And I’d say you need at least two other offer mentions to remind me what a good deal I’m getting.

Direct Mail Bad Habit #3—No Call to Action

So far, you’ve gotten me to open the envelope of your direct mail package, told me what your offer is, and written a letter that pulls me in to your sales pitch. Even if you skipped those important first two steps, and I still took the bait and read your letter, one Big Question remains: Did you tell me at least twice what you want me to do—buy, call, request, visit, etc.?

If not, fold up the tent. Because that’s ultimately what we must be about. If I don’t know what action to take to purchase or learn more about your product or service, you’ve wasted your efforts and my time.

Fix those. Find others. Make those better, too.

Of course, there are other shortcomings and bad habits arising out of a too-complacent or disinterested approach to creating direct mail packages. The buried offer comes to mind. Or the overly-busy letter design that tortures the eye and confuses the reader. And then there’s the mis-directed mailing (No, I don’t need products intended for new moms) that’s the result of old or “dirty” mailing lists. Clean your lists and update your data, people!

We’re still in the first quarter of 2020, and that offers an opportunity for you to take a fresh look at and apply a more rigorous approach to your direct mail. If you pull it together, you will almost certainly be rewarded with better results.

Still stuck? Consult the pros at IWCO Direct

If you want to make direct mail a bigger part of your marketing mix (and there are solid reasons why you should) … or if your direct mail isn’t delivering up to your expectations, come to the source. IWCO Direct can help you get on the fast track to smart, data-driven, performance-tested direct mail. Click here for help.

link https://www.iwco.com/blog/2020/03/04/direct-mail-bad-habits/
Marcus Johnson


Marcus Johnson

Marcus is a Senior Writer who blends creative writing and idea generation to bring copy to life for leading financial services organizations, professional sports teams, healthcare, and outdoor brands. The question this University of Minnesota graduate and 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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