Don’t Underestimate the Power of “Old School” Direct Mail

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Don’t Underestimate the Power of “Old School” Direct Mail

Social media and web marketing have pushed direct mail to the back burner for some marketers, but a classic direct mail package, using all the tactics and techniques that have been tested for generations, can still be a powerful marketing tool.

Here’s why “old school” direct marketing still packs a punch – and some tips for using it in your smart marketing strategy.

Elements of a Classic Direct Mail Package

I began my marketing career as a copywriter at a marketing agency in Washington, DC that specialized in direct mail. I learned from a master (the great Dorothy Kerr) how to craft a classic direct mail package. Here’s what a package typically contains:

  • A carrier envelope carefully designed to stand out in the mailbox and engage the reader with teaser copy or design;
  • A letter that uses techniques like handwritten notes in the margin or underscored text to help the reader grasp the key points at a glance;
  • A second, shorter letter with a second call to action, called a “lift letter” because it can lift response;
  • A descriptive brochure or insert, usually not personalized;
  • A personalized response form;
  • A business reply envelope.

Classic direct mail has a great offer, a deal so good the reader can’t resist saying yes, like a free trial, bonus gift, special discount, or a volume deal on the product (such as two for one or 15 months for the price of twelve). And classic direct mail is packed with benefits copy—all the ways the reader will benefit by saying yes to the offer.

A Case in Point: Mayo Clinic Health Letter

Smart direct marketers know there are many proven ways to engage the recipient in a direct mail package and generate a response.

Mayo-Clinic-Carrier_webA recent newsletter subscription package from the Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an ideal example of “old school” direct mail tactics that still work.

The offer is a trial issue plus a free report on arthritis. Here are some of the techniques the Mayo Clinic deployed in this mailing:

  • A huge carrier envelope, 9.5” x 14,” using uncoated stock printed brown to look like a business mailing, a white area with rounded corners to look like an adhesive address label, and an indicia designed to look like metered postage (it even has the zigzag edge of old metered paper postage);
  • A envelope teaser in handwriting font: “Please favor us with a reply within 10 days;”
  • An eight-page letter (yes, eight pages) on white, lined notebook paper with a personalized Johnson Box (a message above the salutation), text in typewriter font, “over, please” copy at the bottom of each page to keep the reader going, and a double P.S. with a final, personalized call to action;
  • An insert that touts the credibility of the Mayo Clinic, economically produced in two colors;
  • A lift letter with testimonials from readers;
  • A reply form with an engagement device (peel-off stickers for the bonus offer), certificate-style framing to look official, a prominent money-back guarantee boxed in a certificate-style graphic with the word “guarantee” in all caps and half-inch-high letters, and tried-and-true trial offer text: “Send no money now. This is a trial offer!”
  • A bright yellow BRE with a personalized corner card from the mail recipient and a classic message to the mail room about the enclosed response: “MAIL ROOM: SEND FREE GIFT RIGHT AWAY.”

Mayo-Clinic-Reply-Front_webThe package repeats the offer no less than eight times. The letter copy piles on the benefits of subscribing. It’s all about the reader – and it works like dynamite.

Why Old School Techniques – and Direct Mail – Still Work

The Mayo Clinic Health Letter package doesn’t just make me nostalgic for my early days in marketing. It also serves as a reminder that the proven principles of direct mail are still true today:

  • Copy focused on the interests of the reader and the benefits of the product is still the most effective message to produce sales;
  • A great offer, well-stated and prominently, repeatedly promoted, can still make people say yes;
  • Creative approaches and engagement techniques that have stood the test of time still work.

Granted, the target market for the Mayo Clinic mailing is an older demographic perhaps less accustomed to email and social media marketing. But even industries targeting very young audiences – such as colleges and universities recruiting students – rely heavily on direct marketing and use many of the same tactics seen in the Mayo Clinic campaign.

So the next time a marketing consultant advises you on how to reach your prospects, don’t overlook direct mail marketing. Even in a world of electronic media, direct mail can be a high-impact way to deliver a compelling message to an individual customer or prospect and a powerful tool in a smart marketing strategy.

  • Brian Fey


    Thanks for that trip down memory lane!

    When I first got started in the Direct Agency business, I had the opportunity to work for the agency that “owned” the “control package” for one of the nation’s biggest auto clubs.

    . . . we mailed 10’s of millions of that white 6″ X 9″ envelope “control” piece — which used many of the “old school” techniques that you discuss in your blog post. The client kept testing against it, but it remained the “control” for a couple of years. The piece wasn’t much to look at, but it sure did deliver an incredible ROI!

    While I still consider direct mail a powerful marketing communication tactic — for me, its role has changed dramatically. While the 8-page letter (with Johnson boxes) may still be effective with some demographic groups, largely, these packages don’t pay off (based on my experience).

    Clients should definitely consider using other forms of direct mail:

    1) **Driving traffic to your website using direct mail “Billboards” — you’ve probably seen these BIG, visual & colorful postcard executions. “Modern Postcard” has a “double sumo” size that folds down to 6″ X 10.5″ — and it really makes an impression. Combine this “high impact” format with some great design & graphics, a powerful call to action and technology like personalized URL’s (PURL’s), or QR codes — and you may have a real winner on your hands. Used in combination with a great list, I’ve seen them drive traffic to campaign landing pages and produce very compelling cost per conversion.

    2) Customer relationship management — I still don’t think that there is a substitute for a personal letter to customers. Phone calls are fine — but are often viewed as overly intrusive to customers. eMail can be automated to be very timely — but my eMail inbox is already overflowing . . . a personal letter welcoming a new customers on-board; thanking an active customers for their continued business; asking for a referral; thanking customers for their loyalty; etc. are all powerful relationship building tools — proven to deliver solid ROI.

    What a great way to distinguish yourself from your competitors and gain a competitive advantage.

    **NOTE: it’s imperative that, if you’re going to use direct mail for lead generation, that you’ve got an incredibly good mailing list available — whether we’re talking about a customer list, or a prospect list that has been tightly selected (i.e. criteria may include demographics, behavioral, related purchases, organization/affiliation, etc.) — I don’t recommend direct mail unless the list is really compelling (and the call to action as well).

    Thanks again for your great post!


    Brian Fey
    Managed Marketing, LLC

    January 3, 2013 at 11:29 am
  • Bonnie Fraser

    Jean, that’s a great example and I still get similar offers today. But what kind of offer would you recommend for a B to B service business?

    January 4, 2013 at 9:43 pm
  • Steve Klinghoffer

    Direct mailers still work as long as you have a strategy. It’s important to understand the target audience and what kind of information they will find valuable.

    January 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm
  • Craig


    January 19, 2013 at 7:17 am
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