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28 Ways to Optimize Direct Mail Design
By Jeff Kostermans, CEO, LeadGenesys

Marketing via direct mail has a number of advantages over branding and other less targeted mediums.

With enhancement techniques applied to quality lists, direct mail can be very targeted. Responses can be tracked and testing can reveal the lists, creative, and offers that generate the best response rates. Mail that is timely and relevant can be a very key component in a well-sequenced multi-touch campaign.

Well designed direct mail can stand out much better than unsolicited emails sent to the cluttered inboxes of busy executives. To optimize direct mail response rates, pay close attention to the quality of your list, the timing of your direct mail waves, the offer, design and creative of your mail piece.

With over a decade of direct mail experience under our belt, we'd like to share a short list of tips that will improve the design of your direct mail. To keep this brief we'll just focus on tips for B2B mailings. Keep in mind this is just a sampling of tips that we've tested over the years. We are constantly revalidating our findings and enjoy sharing new ones with you in our periodic newsletter.

Let Form Follow Function

1. Start With a Few Key Questions

  • Is this mailing intended to stimulate response from new prospects, existing prospects or customers?
  • What are the characteristics of the typical mail recipient?
  • How is the mailing list segmented?
  • Are the recipients middle managers or high-level executive decision makers or both?
  • What are the hot-buttons or emotional benefits of each mail recipient?
  • What action do I want them to take? Make an instant purchase; call our sales team; pass the mailer along, visit our website?

Your answers to these questions will determine the most cost-effective format or combination of formats.

Generally speaking, the higher the cost per piece, the more you should know about your target audience. Consider conducting initial prospecting efforts with lower cost mail pieces. Invest more per piece with mailings to better-qualified prospects and in cross-sell efforts to customers. To mail more cost-effectively, test many direct source and compiled lists, invest more in data overlays, targeting, list refinement and personalization. Then roll-out subsequent mail drops to the best performing lists with the best performing offers and creative - while continuously testing new lists against your control group.

If you just want your prospect to visit to your website or call a 1-800 number, consider leading with just a few key points that will entice the recipient to take action to find out more. For initial prospecting, resist the temptation to explain all the details of your offer in the first communication.

2. Postcards and Self-mailers
Postcards are limited to 5 by 6 inches, but self-mailers can measure up to 6 and 1/8 by 11.5 inches. Self-mailers can be folded and tabbed in a number of ways and offer lots of flexibility to any B2B mailer interested in cost containment. Properly designed self mailers can very effectively convey just enough information to get a prospect to respond. Designed correctly, a self-mailer will quite often outperform other more expensive B2B direct mail formats.

3. Enveloped Mailings
Mailings in envelopes also have advantages. Envelopes can conceal the promotional nature of your message. Consider testing unique envelopes that can boost response rates and overall campaign ROI. Oversized, bubbled and see-through envelopes are just a few formats that make the mail piece stand out. Your vendor should be able to consult you on the various types of envelopes that perform well. But remember; getting the envelope opened is key, but getting a response is even more important.

In some instances a windowed envelope can have advantages over a closed-face envelope, especially when it comes to cost containment.

Teaser copy on the outside of envelopes may work well for B2C mailings, but we recommend against this when sending mail to businesses. Teaser copy is a big tip-off to a promotional mailing and if the teaser misses the mark, the envelope will get tossed before it gets opened. Plus printing teaser copy on envelopes can add more cost to your mailing.

Letters within envelopes are more expensive to send than postcards and quite often more than self-mailers. However, this may still be a more effective medium when your prospects are already aware of your company or if providing more detailed information (than will fit on a self-mailer) has proven to be more effective at soliciting a response. Your vendor should work closely with you to determine when to use a personalized letter and how to test it so you know you are getting the best bang for your mailing buck.

4. Oversized Letters and Packages
Many companies balk at the high cost per piece associated with oversized letters and packages, but remember, campaign ROI is the key metric - not the cost per piece. Expensive mailings limit your reach and can quickly drain your marketing budget, so be very cautious and adequately test before rolling out any high volume campaigns.

Design Elements

5. Get it Delivered
Many costs go into the creation of an effective mail piece including the expense of creative design, paper, print, and postage. So it makes sense to ensure your direct mail designer is well versed in postal regulations that impact design and mailing costs. Your designer should anticipate the placement of a postnet barcode on certain mail pieces. Having this affixed label cover your key call to action could be devastating.

You designer should also consult on many other details: 1) how the piece will be folded and tabbed, 2) how much white space should be allocated for addressing, 3) how to ensure the mailing indicia is readable, and 4) the thickness of paper for compliance with automated mail processing machines.

6. Don't Over-design
Be careful when it comes to creative talent. Find out if your creatives work exclusively on direct mail or also on other graphic design projects. Many creatives seek to build their portfolio with artwork that highlights their creativity and diversity. The focus on effective direct mail is on the call to action - not on glitzy images and beautiful design. Make sure your creatives don't over-design your piece and understand the nuances of direct mail design that gets a response.

7. Identify Yourself
When conducting B2B mailings, make sure your logo and return address is visible on the mail piece. Mailers that don't obviously identify the sender may work in some instances to consumers, but we don't recommend it for mailings to businesses. Even if it's very small, include a phone number on each mail piece.

8. Use Readable Fonts
Use fonts that are easy to read. Arial, Eurostyle and Verdana are just a few. Don't use many different font styles. Once you decide on a font, try to use only three sizes. Avoid inverted text and italics in small copy -- its hard to read. Resist the temptation to place text over images. Readability is more important than a "cool" design.

9. Graphically Treat Important Points
High level decision makers don't get paid to read mail. Make copy easy to scan. Chop up long copy with subheads. Bold, bullet and underline key text - but don't over do it. Use ALL CAPS sparingly - they are harder to read unless limited to just the important points.

10. White Space
Improve readability by using plenty of white space. Use white space to guide the eye to copy that is important.

11. Graphs and Matrixes
When you can say it better and in less space with a graph or matrix - do it. But again, be careful not to detract too much from the call to action.

12. Use Supporting Images that Convey Benefits
Images should support your copy and ideally reinforce your call to action. Try to use images that invoke emotional benefits. For instance, if you are offering a trip to Hawaii as an incentive to respond, presenting a tropical image will be far more effective than simply listing the give-away in text.

Content / Strategy

13. Be Relevant
Increase relevancy and you'll increase response. The more you know about your prospects, the more you can customize the mailer. There are many creative ways to do this so work with a direct marketing firm that can take personalization to the next level. First impressions really do count. You have a limited budget to make the most out of each impression so customize both the content and copy for each mail recipient.

Every mail piece should be customized to your prospect. Depending on how you segment your mail file, consider dynamically printing unique copy and images for various prospect segments. This fosters a more intelligent dialogue aimed at making your prospects receptive to sharing more information with you.

14. Be Personal
Anticipate boosts in response when your mailings are highly personalized. This doesn't mean using the recipient's first name 10 times in the piece. Instead of sounding overly familiar, use the first name sparingly and inject other personalized data like the company name and other relevant profile data you've collected.

To really boost response rates, display a personalized URL or website link that includes the person's name. Encourage the prospect to check out their very own customized website landing page. In our experience, this more than doubles response rates. Just be sure to also apply a high level personalization to each landing page - otherwise the experience will be a letdown.

15. Be Timely
The most effective sales people make multiple attempts to close the sale. Likewise, mailing a couple of times to the same prospect (while testing list performance) is a prudent B2B mailing strategy. However keep track of mailing history so you don't keep mailing to the same non-responders time after time. Strike a balance between reaching new prospects and making multiple impressions.

16. Add a Sense of Urgency
Make your deadline standout. Having a deadline or "limited incentives for the first X responders" can boost response rates. When you drive people back to a landing page, acknowledge their timeliness and deliver on the incentive.

17. Offer Relevant Incentives
Incentives are very effective at generating response. However, we recommend you offer very relevant incentives like information. When you offer valuable information, instead of a free Palm Pilot or other typical give-aways, your captured leads are inherently better qualified. Consider having phone follow-up efforts identify whether the information was valuable. Talking about specific points in the information will further indicate whether the prospect is actively engaged.

18. Keep Your Promise
This pertains to your teaser copy and the incentive you are offering. If your mail piece does have teaser copy to encourage further reading, make sure you deliver on the teaser copy. When you drive prospects back to a landing page for more information, make sure that information is valuable and ideally exceeds the responder's expectations. Keep any promise to follow up with a phone call.

19. Appeal to Wants and Needs
Understand and speak to the needs and motivations of your target audience. Convert unique product and service features into benefits and ideally benefits that the recipient can emotionally connect with. You are solving a problem for them - not touting how great your product is.


20. Be User-centered
Make your prospect the star - not your product. Speak the language of your target audience, but don't get caught up in the buzzwords. If you have to use buzzwords, translate any that are not obvious. A misinterpreted buzzword can have the wrong effect.

21. Get to the Point
The very first sentence should be a real attention grabber and encourage the reader to read further. Very quickly make the call to action obvious. List the call to action more than once.

22. Be Concise
Forget what your 7th grade English teacher taught you. Try to limit sentences to no more than 20 words. Avoid run on sentences and keep paragraphs short. Root out the fluff and ditch unnecessary adjectives and prepositional phrases. Use the active voice and plenty of action words. Once you've done all this - cut your copy in half.

23. Limit the Main Choices
You can list many benefits, but have just one main call-to-action.

24. Give Directions
If you want your mail recipients to do something, give them obvious instructions. If the action involves multiple steps, tell them how easy it is. (i.e. 3 easy steps)

25. Convey Exclusivity
Be careful here. It's obvious when an offer is clearly not exclusive, but good copy can overcome this.

26. Get Personal
Help the recipient identify with a person more than a corporation by using "I" more than "we". Especially in letters, identify a person that can answer any questions. Be professional and enthusiastic but don't exaggerate. Use conversational writing, personal pronouns, contractions, incomplete sentences loose grammar and just plain talk.

27. Johnson Box
With letters, the Johnson Box is a tried and true design element proven to lift response rates. The Johnson Box typically appears near the top of the page and contains the call to action. We recommend highlighting key copy in the Johnson Box with color for some added "pop."

28. Don't Forget the PS Line
The postscript message should be used to drive home key points or benefits. It's more likely to be read than most of your body copy so include a link in it when driving traffic to a personalized landing page. Also consider adding color to your PS line.

Jeff Kostermans is CEO of LeadGenesys ( ) a B2B direct marketing and lead generation firm, he can be reached directly at He is a direct marketing veteran with over 12 years of experience managing lead generation and relationship marketing programs for companies ranging from technology and service start-ups to Fortune 100 firms. He is author of the Email Marketing Imperatives and has written numerous other best practices papers. A UC Berkeley graduate, Mr. Kostermans also serves as an Army Reserve Psychological Operations Major, consulting allied governments and militaries in target audience analysis and influence methods.

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