In Praise of the Direct Mail Letter

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About the Author

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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.

“Letter schmetter,” said the marketer who wanted to cut the cost of her direct mail package. “Let’s mail an oversized postcard.”

Maybe your first thought is, “Sure, we could do that.” But then another thought chases that one away and you say to yourself, “Self, wait just a minute. The letter is the most important part of a direct mail package.”

And you realize it makes sense to invest more up front to get a better ROI, certainly better than a postcard would yield.

Why a Direct Mail Letter is Worth the Modest Premium to Produce

Our friend, Robert Bly, sums it up this way: “A package with a letter will nearly always outpull a postcard, a self-mailer, a brochure or an ad reprint without a letter.”

Why? There’s a reason the good ol’ #10 package (containing, at a minimum, a letter and some kind of reply device and/or online CTA) is a direct mail staple—a high-performing, cost-effective stalwart in pulling response. A direct mail letter is simply more personal; it creates the illusion of a one-to-one communication, that is to say “real” mail. Conversely, we (the audience) often see a postcard or other short-form communication, as advertising or promotional.

As evidence, Mr. Bly offers the example of a company that tested two packages. Package A included a letter and reply form offering the company’s mail-order tool catalog for $1. Package B contained the same offer in a double postcard format. Package A out-performed B by 3 to 1.

More Room to Sell

Why are direct mail packages containing letters such performance standard-setters? In addition to the reason cited above, they offer several advantages to the marketer, chief among them, extra room to state your case. This leads us into the roiling back and forth regarding whether people will read long versus short copy. My position is clear (as is also the case for industry experts smarter than I am): a letter is the ideal vessel for well-written and well-reasoned sales copy, and it typically stands a better chance of engaging your audience.

Letters and Long Copy Simply Sell Better

I’ve written about this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting here.

Michel Fortin neatly sums up: “Long copy always outperforms short copy.”

That thoroughly-tested truth comes with this additional disclaimer: “Don’t be long for the sake of being long. Be long for the sake of providing as much information as is needed to make the sale—and not one word more.”

Put another way, unlike shorter formats, direct mail letters give you the space and opportunity to be interesting, as well as informative, as you sell. Know your audience and what they want to hear so you can honor the “as much information as is needed” dictum. Is it features or benefits? (Engineers, for example, may care more about specs and performance than benefits.)

Targeting Plus Letter Packages Equal Direct Mail Gold

When you can reach the right audience with the right message in a format that:

a. lets you extol the virtues of what you’re selling, and

b. in as much detail as you know your audience wants

… that’s the direct marketing sweet spot. Per Dan Kennedy, “The person who says ‘I would never read all that copy’ makes the mistake of thinking they are the customer. They’re not. We are never our own customer. The truth about long copy is that there’s abundant, legitimate, statistical research—that is, split-testing research—to indicate that virtually without exception, long copy outperforms short copy.”

Plus, when your message is matched to a target market that has a high level of interest in it, not only does response go up, but readership goes up, too.

On the Fence? Test!

Trying to beat a current control package (although calling a postcard or self-mailer a direct mail “package” may be a stretch)? Before you get carried away with something fancy, roll out a basic #10 package. It should include, at a minimum, a letter and a reply “device”—which could be online only or a combination of online and reply card—and see how it performs. Once you gauge response and run the ROI numbers, you can decide whether a more elaborate direct mail package is warranted. You may be surprised at the response upgrade (and the value) that a #10 package with a direct mail letter produces.

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. Call us.

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