How to get your direct mail opened

Some interesting figures were released yesterday.

The revealed that 3.4 billion pieces of direct mail were sent in the UK last year - that’s approximately 57 for every man, woman and child.

They also revealed that 22% (a staggering 748,000,000 pieces) is binned without even being opened!

If people don’t open your envelope, they can’t read your letter and, if they don’t read your letter, they can’t respond.

So, I thought I’d take a little time to help you get your mail past this first hurdle.

Direct mail legend Gary Halbert has an interesting way of looking at this problem:

“Everybody divides their mail every day into two piles. An "A-Pile" and a "B-Pile". The "A" pile contains letters that appear to be personal. Like letters from friends, relatives, business associates, and so on.

On the other hand, the "B" pile contains those envelopes that contain a commercial message.

Now, here's the way it works: Everybody always opens all of their "A" pile mail.

And, for obvious reasons. After all, everybody wants to read their personal mail.

What happens to the "B" pile mail? Does it always get opened? No. It doesn't. Sometimes it is thrown away immediately without the envelope ever being opened. Sometimes, if it looks interesting, "B" pile envelopes will be set aside for later examination. And, of course, sometimes... IF the envelope looks interesting, or IF the person receiving it has some idle time, or IF the person is bored and has nothing else to do, than, MAYBE the "B" pile envelopes will be opened.”

Gary is, unsurprisingly, a huge fan of using plain (i.e. no commercial messages or logos) envelopes in his direct mail promotions.

However, other direct mail gurus take the opposite approach and recommend using “teaser copy” on the envelope to create interest.

Here’s my take on it.

If you send direct mail to someone you don’t already have a relationship with (this is an important distinction as things are different when you’re mailing existing customers), I think there are 4 different approaches to the envelope:

1. Plain envelope

2. Teaser Copy Envelope

3. Corporate Envelope - must be opened

4. Corporate Envelope - optional

The plain envelope is, in my opinion, usually the best format. This format treats the envelope as simply an obstacle that you have to overcome. So, it removes all unnecessary information from the outside of the letter.

The recipient receives a letter and has no idea what inside - it could be personal, it could be legal, it could be something that must be read - so it always gets opened.

The teaser copy envelope is harder to succeed with (I can’t remember the last time I received a piece of direct mail with teaser copy that actually helped). For a “normal looking letter”, I’d almost always be against using teaser copy. However, for a bulkier format - one that flags the piece as direct mail - well written teaser copy can help you get more letters opened. In my opinion, the two best formats for teaser copy are limited offers/deadlines and curiosity stirrers.

The “corporate envelope - must be opened” format is only available to certain industries. For example, if you are a legal company, it can help to make this clear on your envelopes. After all, if a lawyer writes to you, you better open it fast! Maybe you’re being sued (or, better still, some long lost uncle in Australia has just left you money in his will).

Finally, the “corporate envelope - optional” format should, in my opinion, NEVER be used.

This is the sort of envelope you receive that has the name/logo of the sender on an otherwise plain envelope. This format is ok if you are already a customer. However, if you’re not, it just says “boring corporate letter, feel free to bin me now!”

These envelopes typically have a very high “bin rate”, but most of the direct mail I receive uses this format. I guess it's a case of:

  1. Big companies using it because they're so obsessed with their "brand" that they put "getting their name out there" ahead of actually making sales (stupid, I know, but it happens).
  2. Smaller companies seeing what the big boys are doing and then assuming that it must be the best way to do things. 

If you’re using envelopes like this, do yourself a favour, try using plain envelopes instead and you’ll probably get an immediate increase in response.

Steve Gibson

Marketing Consultant, Edinburgh