Is your direct mail copy headed for the trash?

January 6, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

direct mail trashDirect mail is always a plum assignment for any copywriter. It’s the supreme test of your skills, but not for the reason you think.

Sure, you get to write envelope teaser copy, a letter, order form, brochure, and maybe a lift letter and other inserts. Lots of copy. Lots of space to strut your stuff.

But the real challenge is just keeping your work from landing in the trash can.

Despite all the time and effort you put in to crafting and polishing your copy to perfection, people don’t sit down and lovingly take in every word of your masterpiece. In fact, the way people “read” your direct mail copy is downright brutal.

Beware. If you’re squeamish, don’t read this. It’s not pretty.

First, only about 20% of the people who receive your work of art even consider reading it. No matter what you offer, no matter how you offer it, about eight out of ten prospects simply chuck it mail into the trash with barely a glance.

Ouch. Feeling a little queasy? Take a swig of Pepto-Bismol. It gets worse.

Those who remain are willing to grant you around 15 or 20 seconds of their attention. They glance at headlines, subheads, pictures, captions, offer statements, and other hot spots. But they’re not reading. They’re just scanning to see if your mail is interesting or relevant or valuable. And about half quickly conclude that it’s not.

Into the trash.

Of all those on the mailing list, about 10% remain. These people start skimming to get some details. They pay particular attention to bullet lists, charts, diagrams, tables, illustrations, and bits of copy here and there.

They’re interested. They want to say yes. So you’re home free, right? Wrong. Because soon, about half of these skimmers run across some detail that brings everything to a dead stop. Or they don’t find something they’re looking for.

So it’s into the trash you go.

You’re now down to about 5% of those mailed. These people are firmly in a yes mode but are not yet convinced. They look for confirmation that saying yes is a good decision. These are the few, the proud, and the brave who start reading your carefully crafted body copy. And how many of these actually respond? Maybe half, if you’re really, really persuasive.

More likely, a quarter or less. So out of every 100 people who receive your mailing, perhaps 1% or 2% buy the widget you’re selling.

And all this assumes you’ve done most things right. If not, what we see isn’t pretty at all. The numbers plummet. Sales fade away to nothing.

It’s okay to cry. Let it out.

But after you dry your eyes, think about what you’ve learned from this depressing spectacle. When people sort your mail, they’re quick. They’re brutal. And if you don’t instantly capture their attention, your copy is landfill.

So what’s the point?

The point is, copywriting isn’t art. It’s selling. So don’t waste your time rewording the seventh paragraph on the back panel of your brochure. If you want your copy to succeed, spend most of your time where readers spend the least. Get down to basics. Consider the big issues.

Focus on the offer. When people glance at your mailing, they’re looking for what you’re selling and the deal you’re making to sell it. So make it good. Make it fast. And make it clear. Doubt fills trashcans.

And for goodness’ sake, make your offer more than just the price. Offer a free trial. Throw in a premium. Beef up your guarantee. If you don’t give people an outstanding reason to accept your offer, they won’t.

Spend LOTS of time writing your headlines and subheads and less time tinkering with body copy. Include plenty of information, enough to answer every question and ease every doubt. Point out the benefits. List all the features. Make every word clear. Make every picture relevant. Present a clear call to action. Make response easy.

In direct mail, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Focus on the big stuff. Remember, you’re writing for a reader who is standing over a trash can.

Related posts:

  1. How to write a complete direct mail package
  2. An open letter to direct mail designers
  3. Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck
  4. 4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters

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Smart Comments

15 Comments on Is your direct mail copy headed for the trash?

  1. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Jan 7th, 2010 9:17 am
  2. I’ve read reports that say online conversion is generally considered good at 2.5% – I think this post demonstrates easily why it’s not the 50%, 60% or 80% many people believe conversion to be.

    Speaking of online, know any stats about what percentages of people actually read blog posts?

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James C, Webkoenigin. Webkoenigin said: Werbebriefe: Gebt Euch Mühe mit dem Angebot und den Heads. Nur jeder 5. Empfänger liest! [...]

  3. Roberta Rosenberg on Jan 7th, 2010 10:01 am
  4. Dean, only someone who’s been down and dirty in the DM trenches (like you and me) could have written this post. Brilliant!
    .-= Roberta Rosenberg’s last blog … MavenTweets for 2009-12-25 =-.

  5. Tina Louise on Jan 7th, 2010 11:27 am
  6. Excellent article, thank you. Informative, very well written and an easy, pleasurable read.
    .-= Tina Louise’s last blog … One & Other – the summer of 2009 =-.

  7. Dean Rieck on Jan 7th, 2010 11:44 am
  8. James: What do you mean … the percentage of blog visitors who read a post, the percentage of online users who read posts, or what? If you mean on-blog readers, you could divide page visitors by total visitors to arrive at the percentage of your audience who read a particular post.

    Roberta: And I’m sure you appreciate the brilliance of that mailbox / garbage can. Wonder where you can get one of those?

  9. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Jan 7th, 2010 1:14 pm
  10. @ Dean – For sure. But I mean, an in-general percentage of people who actually click to read headlines, who actually finish articles, who actually leave comments… Wonder if it’d be the same general percentage of ‘conversion’ rates as you quote here for those who read direct mailings.

    I’d assume yes, of course.
    .-= James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog … How Do You Know When You’ve Reached Success? =-.

  11. Roberta Rosenberg on Jan 7th, 2010 1:14 pm
  12. Dean, I don’t know, but if you find out – I want one, too!
    .-= Roberta Rosenberg’s last blog … MavenTweets for 2009-12-25 =-.

  13. Dean Rieck on Jan 7th, 2010 1:29 pm
  14. James,
    I just don’t know the answer to that. But I wouldn’t assume that it’s the same for direct mail and blogs. The “stats” I mentioned for direct mail are just educated guesses. There is no way to measure open rates and similar data in the field.

  15. Bob Bois on Jan 20th, 2010 6:48 pm
  16. Hi Dean,
    I’m really enjoying your blog. I’m a self-employed medical writer and learning about copywriting.
    I wanted to ask you and James if this might not be true, concerning your discussion above:
    Would the ‘conversion’ percentage for the group of readers of blog headlines who ultimately finish reading the related article likely be higher since the denominator (number of readers of headlines) represents a group that is already at least mildly interested in the subject matter at hand, while the recipient of a DM package might be random?
    Thanks, Bob

  17. Dean Rieck on Jan 20th, 2010 7:21 pm
  18. Bob:
    If direct mail is done right, it’s never random. Mailers look for lists of people with a demonstrated interest in similar products and services.

    Maybe the answer James is looking for can be found in the “length of visit” stats in Google Analytics. It shows in seconds how long visitors stay on a site. Those who stay 0-10 seconds obviously aren’t finishing an article. Those who stay 61-180 seconds probably are. I suppose you could calculate a rough “article finish rate” by making a few assumptions about read time and seeing how many visitors stick around long enough vs. those who don’t.

    At a glance, I’d say about 24% of Pro Copy Tips readers stay long enough to finish a post.

  19. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Jan 20th, 2010 7:30 pm
  20. Okay, this is math. MATH! On a copywriter blog! And I’m a writer! And this means… well. If I could do math, then I wouldn’t have been a writer, hm? ;)

  21. Dean Rieck on Jan 20th, 2010 9:34 pm
  22. James:
    Yeah, but I’m in direct marketing. So I live and die by numbers. But it’s mostly binary stuff. Either / or. My stuff works or it doesn’t. I’m a genius or an idiot.

  23. Bob Bois on Jan 21st, 2010 10:21 am
  24. James:
    Didn’t mean to freak you out with the math question. Copywriters don’t do math?? By the way – thanks – I really enjoy your blog also.

    Is it really binary, the copywriter’s fate? Are there not any DM packages that bring, say, a 1.5% conversion. It’s not the new control, but it’s not a total flop, right? Just trying to get the lay of the land in all of this.
    Thanks for your input.

    [...] Most of them. Maybe 98 to 99 percent. In fact, I wrote an article about this where I show why and how direct mail gets trashed. But the same thing happens with ANY kind of advertising. How many radio commercials do you respond [...]

    [...] In case you missed it, here’s a refresher on the brutal reality of direct mail. [...]