Write Direct Mail Copy That Persuades
By Paul Bobnak | July 18, 2019
Words carry power. In the right hands, they can broaden minds. Doing so strategically and with purpose will increase response.
Think about the Gettysburg Address, written by Abraham Lincoln to honor Civil War dead. In just 272 words on a piece of White House stationery, he crafted an eloquent statement that resonates today because he spoke eternal truths about the principles America was founded on.
Make (or Break) Your Direct Mail
But you don’t have to be a Lincoln to move prospects with your words.
Consider the “Two Young Men” letter written by Martin Conroy for a Wall Street Journal subscription campaign. It drove $2 billion in revenue over the 30 years it was mailed.
The key to its incredible success is that it begins with the story of two college friends with similar backgrounds and aspirations. Reuniting 25 years after graduating, they discover that they work for the same company. One is the manager of a small department. The other is its president.
Conroy’s letter then goes on to cite knowledge as the main factor that sets one individual’s fate apart from another’s. Coming in the next paragraph after the story, the letter implies that their different outcomes happened because one man used what he learned simply by reading that newspaper.
On that small, two-sided sheet of paper, Conroy built a strong case by focusing on the biggest benefit of subscribing, before then describing the other features of the subscription and revealing the offer.
For many marketers, writing direct mail copy starts with a formula called AIDA, which stands for:
- Get Attention
- Create Interest
- Build Desire
- Propel Action
Now, how do you put that into words?
AIDA gives you a framework for your sales content. But, persuading people to purchase a product or service or to buy into a cause is an art that takes skill and time to develop. You can follow many best practices and rules (and maybe even break them).
Covering them all is pretty much impossible to go through in this short article. But these fundamental tips will start you on the right track for writing direct mail copy.
- 1. Know Your Audience
- 2. Consider Your Direct Mail Format
- 3. Offer Something of High Value to The Customer
- 4. Make Things Easily Readable For Your Audience
- 5. Keep The Copy Brief and On The Point
- 6. Structure Your Copy for Easy Scanning
- 7. Personalize for Your Audience As Much As Possible
- 8. Leverage the Seven Main Emotional Copy Drivers
- 9. Write Compelling Headlines & Subheads
- 10. Enhance Credibility With Technical Details
- 11. Use Powerful Words
- 12. Highlight Benefits, Not Features
- 13. Use a Powerful CTA
- 14. Review Your Content Internally
- 15. Recycle What Works
1. Know Your Audience
Who are you writing for? This is the first question you need to ask and answer.
No, you’re not writing for “everybody,” not even if you have unlimited printing and postage in your budget. Figure out which group or groups are the targets for your campaign.
Remember that even though you’re targeting a specific group of people, 99 percent of the time only one person will be reading your direct mail piece.
So, no matter what you’re writing – body text, headlines, or a call to action – imagine you’re speaking directly to one person.
Talk to them about their wants. Keep your writing real and conversational, not flowery, overly formal, or long-winded. Know what level of vocabulary is most appropriate for them.
2. Consider Your Direct Mail Format
Writing direct mail copy also needs to take into account where that copy will appear. Each common format in direct mail – whether it’s a postcard, self-mailer, or letter package – has certain features that can either give your words additional support, or detract from them. After all, it’s one way for your mail to stand out in the mailbox.
Let’s look at one example: the mighty postcard. When it measures 4.25 inches x 6 inches, you have to choose your words carefully when deciding what headlines, subheads, and body copy to place on it. But if you move up to a 6 inch x 9 inch postcard, you have more room for copy as well as white space.This makes it easy to fo
3. Offer Something of High Value to The Customer
Who doesn’t like getting something for free? “Free” is the magic word – so think about how you can emphasize an item or service that a prospect may want.
- Free gift
- Free shipping
- 2-For-1 Membership
- Buy 5, Get 5 50% Off
4. Make Things Easily Readable For Your Audience
Trust me: your customer doesn’t want to read type that’s too small or not legible. So skip unusual fonts and be careful using white type reversed out against a dark background graphic or image.
Being “clever” or “creative” is fine, but simple body text should be all you need to keep people focused on your message.
5. Keep The Copy Brief and On The Point
There are times when lots of copy works to your advantage, such as selling a complex service or an expensive product. But generally, your direct mail can’t answer every objection – no matter how minor – in the prospect’s mind.
Hold their attention by using:
- Easy Words – watch those syllables!
- Bite-sized Sentences – let your reader breathe and keep them short
- Small Paragraphs – no more than 4 or 5 lines
6. Structure Your Copy for Easy Scanning
Big blocks of text or confusing layouts work against your mailing.
To maximize the effectiveness of your message, work with your designer or use a template to take advantage of hot spots on your postcard, self-mailer, or letter package.
These things capture and direct your prospect’s attention:
- Bullet points
- Underlined or highlighted words
- A postscript, or “P.S.”
Break up long copy with headlines and subheads, as we did in this post. This makes it easy for your reader to scan your mailer and discover quickly what you’re selling and how it benefits them. They don’t have to read entire paragraphs, short as they might (and should) be.
Also, make white space your friend. It gives your reader’s eyes a break as they follow the flow of the text, images, and graphics across a panel, a fold, or down a page.
7. Personalize for Your Audience As Much As Possible
In many cases, the product or service that you are marketing may have special relevance to your audience based on who they are individually or as a member of a particular group. So if your budget and timeline allow it, develop versions for audience segments.
For example, you can segment your audience by:
Or, you can get even more granular, using Variable Data Printing (VDP). When personal data is flowed into a template, it sets up a 1-to-1 customer relationship. You don’t want to sound intrusive or creepy, but you can carefully let your prospect know that their insurance quote is “personal”, or that their car maintenance plan is “customized just for you”. Everyone wants to feel special.
8. Leverage the Seven Main Emotional Copy Drivers
People aren’t robots. We might not want to admit it, but we really do make decisions based on emotions and use facts or reason to back them up. Seven main emotions, originally defined by Swedish marketing expert Axel Andersson and Seattle ad agency founder Bob Hacker, can trigger action:
When you use single words, phrases, sentences, headlines, or stories to bring forth these feelings, you connect with the reader on a deeper, human-to-human level.
9. Write Compelling Headlines & Subheads
Writing effective headlines is a tough job. Basically, a headline is the ad for the ad. You have a very few words to communicate the essence of your offer to your reader.
Your headline, more than anything else, should appeal to your prospect’s self-interest. It should lead into copy that explains how they will be helped by your product or service, with a detail or tease coming from a subhead.
Here are a few tips for good headlines:
- Be readable at a single glance – keep them short and punchy
- Break up a page with lots of copy – introduce the next section
- Evoke an emotion – set the right tone with your type or use of punctuation
- Work with images or graphics – work hand-in-hand to build reader interest
10. Enhance Credibility With Technical Details
Details about an offer, or a product or service that you’re selling can be a part of your pitch. You can use them to build yourself up as an expert – but only as long as you’re careful. If you cite too many details, you risk confusing or overwhelming the prospect.
Instead, display details in a chart, footnote, or insert in your direct mail package. Or you can refer them to your website where space is not an issue as it is with a printed piece.
11. Use Powerful Words
Some words resonate better than others when writing direct mail copy. To sell a prospect on the product or service, here are time-proven ones that work:
If you’re writing direct mail copy in an industry or niche, some specialized terms stand out more with prospects. For example, 2 words that work for dental postcards: “smile” and “gentle.”
But overall, what’s the most powerful word? “You.”
It’s not so much about liberally using the actual word as it is focusing your copy on the wants and needs of your prospect, customer, or donor, and not what you, the marketer, want to sell them.
12. Highlight Benefits, Not Features
Your prospect wants to know “What’s in it for me?” So, as simple as it sounds, put yourself in their shoes, and then, tell them.
Describe how the product or service you’re selling helps them satisfy a want or an emotional need. Let them know how it softens or even eliminates a pain point. Focus them on the endgame: a better life thanks to your help.
Facts and features – anything that you use in or on your mailer – should be aligned with and support that benefit.
13. Use a Powerful CTA
Your copy’s main job is to persuade a prospect or customer to take an action. If you’ve followed the tips and best practices I’ve already described, you’ve brought them to a point where they have to make that decision.
You need a powerful call-to-action to close the deal:
- “Scan this QR Code to get a Free Quote”
- “Call for an appointment today and SAVE 25%”
- “Become a member by September 30 and get a FREE Calendar!”
To make an impact, your CTA should be unmissable. Make it stand out with:
- Larger and/or bold type
- A box or other graphic element
- White space
14. Review Your Content Internally
If you don’t already have a review process or require signoffs from other stakeholders, you should share your copy. People read at different levels, after all. You want to be sure that your copy is as understandable and persuasive to others as you believe it to be.
15. Recycle What Works
Good copy can be revealed by testing variations and comparing results. To keep your tests clean, use exactly the same offer and format for your creative efforts so that you have a true reading on which creative won. Some copy is so specialized that it can’t be adapted. Headlines – especially on the outside of a mailer – can easily be tweaked to fit different products or services. The key to success is to understand what works best for each audience, and keep testing.
Wrapping it up
“The purpose of a sentence is to get the next sentence read,” says marketer Malcolm Auld.
However you choose your words, read them aloud every few paragraphs or so. Eliminate or simplify words that you pause or stumble over. When your words flow easily, you’re doing your reader a favor.
Remember: Your direct mail piece has only five seconds to get your prospect’s attention, to persuade them to continue reading and then to prompt them to act. Make the most of your words!
Here at mailing.com, we’re a partner with years of expertise helping their clients develop and sustain successful direct mail. Contact our team to find out how we can help with your campaigns.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness as of May 2022.