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5 design tips for improving direct mail response

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Direct mail design is quite different from traditional “advertising” design. In fact, most design schools don’t even teach it! You can use this article to help you know what to ask for when you’re working with a designer on a direct mail package. You may even want to share these five design tips with him or her.

1. Focus on copy first. Design second. The purpose of direct marketing is to make a compelling argument to your readers – one that will encourage them to respond to your offer. It’s the copy that sells, so spend the majority of your time writing a clear, easy-to-read line of reasoning that makes it crystal clear to readers what action you want them to take and why they should take it right away.

After you’ve developed compelling copy, then work with a designer to highlight your key selling points and draw attention to your response instructions. The purpose of direct mail design is to do three things: ease readability, emphasize important points, and encourage responses.Adding design elements that “look good” but do not accomplish these three things will only detract from your message and decrease your response rates. (

2. Make your copy easy to scan. Before a reader decides to tackle an entire letter, she will usually scan it for key points. If your main ideas are easy to scan, and compelling enough, she will continue to read. You can use design elements to create a scan path that quickly and clearly declares your selling argument.

For instance, you may want to bold or highlight a logical series of selling points from the beginning to the end of your letter. This may be the first sentence of each paragraph, or it may be gripping sales sentences sprinkled throughout the letter. You may also want to consider a call-out or sidebar that summarizes vital information.

Finally, make your phone number, Web address, and other calls to action stand out. Don’t just bold these important pieces of information within a paragraph; make them part of the main design elements.

3. Avoid design elements that make your copy difficult to read. A lot of research has been done on design elements that make copy difficult to read. Here are some of the techniques that you, or your designer, should definitely avoid.

First, steer clear of “swanky” fonts, particularly within your body copy; they are distracting. Rather, use conventional typefaces so that your reader can pay more attention to your message.

Second, stay away from reverse body copy. Reverse body copy is white copy that shows through a color background. Research has shown that this approach makes your message extremely difficult to read.

Third, avoid using colors that are “all the rage.” Instead, use colors that have been proven to “sell.” Psychological studies have shown that the “selling colors” are the warmer colors such as shades of red, yellow, and orange. Blue and green, on the other hand, are relaxing colors.

4. Get ugly. Sometimes the “ugly” direct mail package will get more responses than the “pretty” direct mail package. Why? Most people are overloaded with heavily designed mail pieces with lots of unconventional fonts, colors, and/or photographs. Most designers use these strategies thinking that they will grab the attention of the target audience. Yes, that can be the case; however, most of the time, this kind of design grabs the wrong kind of attention. “Pretty” mail shouts, “Look at me! I want to sell something to you!” And your reader quickly responds with, “Hello, trash can!”

Sometimes, it pays to “get ugly.” Ugly or plain direct mail formats are not the norm in our message-saturated society. Hence, they may help you grab positive attention – the kind of attention that encourages your reader to open your envelope, keep on reading, and respond to your offer.

5. Leverage direct mail design ideas and resources available through the U.S. Postal Service. Most designers put design first and production last. With direct mail, you may want to insist that your designer determine the package format and production first and then design the creative elements around it. Doing so will help ensure that your direct mail pieces are USPS compliant. It may also help you save money on printing and postage!

For great direct mail tips, from constructing an effective list to creating a successful campaign, visit the USPS Web site:

More tips for improving your direct mail response rates.

Amy Kennel is a communications consultant who specializes in insurance, financial services, and retirement planning. She owns Insurance Marketing Concepts, LLC, based in Des Moines, Iowa. You can contact Kennel by calling 515-289-6413 or by sending her an email at [email protected]

Check out more of Amy Kennel’s Marketing Tips articles.


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