The Johnson Box—What, Why, Where, and How

IWCO Direct Marketing Promo

About the Author

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.

Before we dive into the value and inner workings of the Johnson Box, a little family history.

The Johnson Box was invented by my great great great grandfather Eustice Aristotle Johnson, a pioneer in direct mail. This breakthrough in marketing occurred shortly after he created boxed cereal and sliced bread. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. But Eustice was a real Renaissance man.

Hold on. My team of editors and fact-checkers just handed me a bulletin. Seems that direct marketer Frank Johnson is credited with using the Johnson Box to improve response to his subscriber offers for American Heritage magazine. Ever the modest individual, Frank deflects credit for creating the feature, claiming only that he popularized it.

Looks like our family tree is in for some pruning.

What is the Johnson Box?

From Wikipedia: “A Johnson box is commonly found at the top of direct mail letters. It contains the key message (and/or, I’d add, offer) of the letter. Its purpose is to draw the reader’s attention to this key message first, and hopefully grab their attention, enticing them to read the rest of the letter.” Wait. Wikipedia? Yup, the Johnson Box has its own Wikipedia listing. Not bad for a relatively obscure feature that first appeared in a direct mail letter in the 1950s.

Getting a little more specific, the Johnson Box is most commonly found in the upper right corner of a letter. Its purpose is to feature/highlight the letter’s key message and/or offer and, critically, the call-to-action to increase response. I’ll let Mr. Johnson (who, according to himself, had been “denying [credit] vehemently and fruitlessly ever since I invented it”) explain: “All of us would, on occasion, put copy above the salutation, to say to the reader up above to, ‘Keep an eye on this special offer coming up.’ The point was “to get somebody to read the … thing, that’s all.”

In other words, like so much of what Frank Johnson pioneered in direct mail writing, the Johnson Box was created in service of selling better. Which is why it has endured through the decades and is still so frequently used to this day.

What are the rules for a Johnson Box?

There are some rules, although they tend to be fluid. Before we talk about breaking them, let’s lay out a general set of guidelines to follow whenever you’re writing a direct mail letter and want to use a Johnson Box:

  • The Johnson Box is your first impression space, so use it well. At a minimum, highlight the main offer (i.e. answer “What’s in it for me?”) and include a call-to-action.
  • Personalize, personalize, personalize. Whenever you can, add the recipient’s name to the copy in your Johnson Box. If people read nothing else, they’ll read whatever follows their name.
  • Keep it above the fold. See above regarding the upper right corner location. When you’re mailing an 8 ½” by 11” letter (folded twice to 3 ⅝”), you’ll get a better result if the Johnson Box and salutation (at a minimum) appear above the fold.
  • To rule or not to rule, that is the question. This is a good time to talk about how literal we want to be. When I say “box,” some of you may imagine an area surrounded by a thin rule or asterisks (commendable old-school method) or some other demarcating device. Yes, but. The Johnson Box area could also have “free-floating” copy. This is where the thing itself becomes less of a thing and more of an idea; where a Johnson Box simply denotes a way of setting aside or highlighting copy to signify its importance to the reader.
  • Include a picture. Sure. If you’re selling or giving something away as part of an offer to entice a response, show it. That’s very easy to do these days, and it will provide a lift, especially and always if you can use the all-powerful word “free.”

Now let’s break a few rules

The classic, real-world-tested location for a Johnson Box is the area in the upper right corner of the letter. But there’s nothing that says you can’t put it anywhere within the letter. The idea is that you’re highlighting something (offer, instruction, call-to-action) and that people see it as important and pay attention to it. So, where to now?

  • Middle of the letter. Make the Johnson Box your interrupter: a can’t-miss area that sticks out in the middle of the letter and communicates, reiterates, and/or reminds people what’s in it for them or what you want them to do.
  • Go wild, but with a purpose. If you see value in teasing an offer or event at the top of a letter, let it pop up again throughout the letter in the guise of a horizontal Johnson Box as defined by rules or some other graphic device to set it apart.
  • A couple of points to note about a sidebar. If it’s on the right side of a direct mail letter AND you have a Johnson Box in the upper right corner, a sidebar can serve as a sort of continuation of the Johnson Box. But there’s nothing that says a sidebar has to be on the right side. Without disrupting the direct mail space/time continuum too much, I’m suggesting that you could put a Johnson Box on the left side of your letter form, too.
  • Bottom of the letter. Because, why not? Here the Johnson Box serves as a final reminder of just how wonderful your offer is and what people can do to get whatever you’re offering.

Why use a Johnson Box?

You may wonder to yourself, “Self, why didn’t he put this paragraph higher up in this excellent piece about Johnson Boxes?” That’s a fair question. It’s here near the end of the letter because some of you may be indifferent about the efficacy of this classic direct mail device. Or remain unconvinced about how useful or effective the Johnson Box can be in giving your direct mail offers a lift in response.

In that case, what’s the answer? Test and test some more. That’s the beauty and unparalleled advantage of direct mail. You can know whether and where a Johnson Box works by designing a direct mail package and testing various locations for it within the letter. Lock in the good ones, kick out the bad, and keep testing and refining until your letter and your Johnson Box location are performing like rock stars.

There’s no better time to talk to the pros at IWCO Direct

Every marketing dollar counts these days, and direct mail has a median ROI of 29% (among other benefits which we’ll gladly explain). So, if you want to put some muscle into your marketing mix, come to the direct mail source. IWCO Direct can get you on the fast track to strategically planned, data-driven, performance-tested direct mail. Contact us to get started.

Share This Post

More To Explore

Woman grabbing mail from mailbox

Growing the Mail Channel

Using new USPS growth incentives to grow your mail channel  Fall typically means marketers are busy with budget and strategic

Talk With Our Expert Sales Team Now.

Our Offices

Corporate Headquarters

7951 Powers Boulevard
Chanhassen, MN 55317

Hamburg, PA Facility

100 Industrial Drive
Hamburg, PA 19526

Warminster, PA Facility

65 Steamboat Drive
Warminster, PA 18974

Contact Us

Contact Us
By submitting this form you confirm that you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website as outlined in the Privacy Policy.

Unmute for sound 🔊