How to write a complete direct mail package

October 18, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: How-to Guides 

direct mail package sample

Every copywriter should know how to write a direct mail package.

It’s true that you see fewer of these today because of growing online marketing and the down economy. However, the direct mail package remains the granddaddy of direct marketing.

The knowledge and skill required for the package can translate into every other medium.

So let’s go through what I call the standard or “classic” direct mail envelope package piece-by-piece.

The sample shown is a direct mail package I wrote many years ago for a piece of training software. It includes a 6″ x 9″ outer envelope, 4-page letter, brochure (actually a “broadside”), lift note, and reply or order form.

You can see the complete direct mail sample here.

Outer Envelope. This is the distinctive feature of the classic direct mail package: an envelope that carries all the other elements through the mail. It’s called the “outer envelope” or OE to distinguish it from the “reply envelope.”

The appearance of the OE can be anywhere on a scale from plain, with little or no copy or graphics, to bold, with lots of “teaser” copy and images.

Plain or bold is a strategic choice based on what you believe will get the most people to open the envelope and read the contents.

If you have a highly desirable product or service, and you’re sure the mailing list includes your ideal prospects, bold is a great way to go. Teaser copy and graphics can get people interested right away and helps set them up for the sales pitch inside.

But if you have any doubts about the product, the right thing to say or show, or your mailing list, it’s often a good idea to use a plain envelope. While it doesn’t help your sales pitch, it doesn’t hurt it either. And because it gives no clue about the contents, people have to open it to see what it’s about.

Envelopes come in a range of standard sizes and can be custom manufactured to nearly any size within United States Postal Service specifications. They can also be made from various types and colors of paper or other materials and can have one or more windows or be closed faced.

Letter. This is the heart of any direct mail package. My personal rule is that if you have an outer envelope, you MUST include a letter. The letter is your voice. This is where you speak directly to people, one-on-one, and present your offer.

As with any other element of a direct mail package, you can illustrate your letter and make it as colorful as you wish. However, in most cases, it’s better to make the letter look like a standard letter without too many bells and whistles.

Writing letters is something of an art form, so there is no set formula. Master copywriters often do their best work when they break the rules. But there is a certain structure that most letters follow:

  • Headline or “Johnson Box”
  • Salutation, such as Dear Friend, Dear Joe, or Dear Cat Lover
  • Short, attention-grabbing first sentence
  • Body copy that tells a story, presents a problem and solution, and/or presents your offer, along with benefits and details
  • Call to action or CTA, such as “Call 1-800-123-4567 to order now” or “Visit to download your free trial today”
  • Guarantee to back up your offer
  • Deadline (if appropriate) to prompt faster response
  • Sign off with a handwritten signature
  • P.S. (Post Script) that presents a prime benefit, restatement of the offer, deadline reminder, bonus offer, or whatever you want to highlight

Brochure. This is an optional component. I say it’s optional because, often, a direct mail package can work as well or better without it, depending on circumstances.

The most important thing to understand about the brochure is that it’s not just an illustrated version of the letter. It is specifically used to provide support information for the letter. It should illustrate features, list benefits, provide proofs, make comparisons, and list technical details to lend credibility to what your letter claims.

The format of a brochure is limited only by your imagination and the project budget, but usually it takes one of a few basic forms:

  • It is a flyer, one-sheet, or “broadside” with one primary selling surface and folded to fit in the envelope.
  • It is a standard “brochure” with multiple panels and folded to create 4 or more pages.
  • Or it is a “panel” piece with one of many types of folds, with copy and images divided between the various panels so that when it is opened, the reader sees each panel in a particular order.

Personally, I opt for the broadside whenever possible. I like having just one primary selling surface, much like a print ad, with secondary information on the back. The copy is not dictated by folds and, often, I design broadsides so that you have to open them completely to read headlines and see the images.

This isn’t elegant, but it’s effective at creating more involvement. I learned this trick from a Playboy mailing I received many years ago that used, shall we say, “strategic” folds to hide parts of a photograph.

Insert or Lift Note. This is sometimes called a “publisher’s note” because magazine subscription mail packages often contain them. The purpose of the “lift” note is just what it sounds like: to give the package a lift in response.

Usually, a lift note is signed by a different person than whoever signed the main letter. The lift note is small, generally printed on a slip that is folded, with a short headline or teaser on the outside. The note copy can present a last-minute thought or a special offer, deal with a specific objection, or highlight a benefit.

One little trick I have is to use a lift note for testing offers or presenting a special message to the list being mailed. So when I’m creating several versions, I can sometimes get away with changing nothing but the lift note, which makes production and proofing easier on everyone involved. Changing the package is as easy as swapping one note for another.

Reply Form. Many mailers today rely heavily on response via phone or website, so there’s pressure to eliminate mail-back reply forms. However, a physical reply is helpful for highlighting your call to action even if you don’t typically get response by mail. And of course if you do want mail response, the reply form is a must.

The reply can be as simple as a card that can be filled out and dropped in the mail or as complex as a multi-page order form. If you’re wanting to generate sales leads or if you’re offering a free trial, a simple reply is all you need.

For completing sales by mail, you’ll need a more complex form to capture product choices, billing information, shipping address, and so on.

Whenever you ask for personal information, such as a credit card number, you must also include a reply envelope, generally a BRE or business reply envelope.

And unless you have testing results to show that it’s more profitable to ask for a response by one medium only, such as reply mail, it’s usually a good idea to present additional reply options, including a phone number or web page.

That, in a nutshell, is how to create the classic direct mail package. There is much more to it, of course, and many copywriters have spent a lifetime learning how to make direct mail work. But this gives you a basic road map to get you started if you’ve never written a package.

Related posts:

  1. An open letter to direct mail designers
  2. Is your direct mail copy headed for the trash?
  3. 4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters
  4. Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck
  5. How to write a direct response TV commercial that sells

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Smart Comments

5 Comments on How to write a complete direct mail package

  1. lawton chiles on Oct 19th, 2010 2:49 pm
  2. Dean, this comes at just the right time.

    Thanks for taking the time to do this in pictures-great examples of how to do this DM stuff right.

    I love the lift note too. Cool touch. When was that first



  3. Dean Rieck on Oct 19th, 2010 3:24 pm
  4. Lawton,
    You mean when did lift letters begin? Good question. I think they started in publishing, but I don’t know when they were first used.

  5. Jane@Find All Answers on Oct 20th, 2010 2:50 pm
  6. Very well written article, with picture examples. Thanks for your effort Dean. I am bookmarking it, will need it a little later.

  7. Dean Rieck on Oct 20th, 2010 4:09 pm
  8. Jane,
    Thanks. Glad to be of help to you.

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