Writing for direct mail - some tips

In the first of five articles, Victoria Forrest helps demystify direct mail and gives you some tips to make your direct mail writing highly effective.

Before you start reading Part 1 of my five-part series ’Direct Mail Writing’ remember this:

Of all the components used in direct mail, none has more power to generate action than the letter.

Consider what you the direct mail copywriter needs to be – as the following extract from ‘The Copywriter’s Guide’ by Robert D Chase explains . . .

The direct mail copywriter must learn to like people – all kinds of people . . . must learn to understand them, to be amazed by them, to sympathise with them . . . must know what motivates them, what they want to be, do and own . . . must learn to think like the common man, to talk like him, and to write the way he talks . . . must have an instinct for selling . . . must know the buyer, what he needs and wants.”

You might think that’s a pretty tall order, but we agree that the above extract says in a nutshell how you need to approach any written communication with your customers and prospects, not just direct mail letters.

Direct mail letter writing has been described as both an art and a science – as easy as writing to your favourite aunt – and as tricky as trying to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We’ve said it all the time when it comes to direct marketing ‘there is no rule” but there are time-tested ‘techniques’ which work more often than not.

In any event, we don’t claim that the techniques we’ll be discussing are exhaustive or they’re necessarily right for you.  Experiment and create your own style – one that is a winner for you.  

So, what are we going to tell you about direct mail copywriting?

Following is an outline of the four articles in this series.

PART 1 – Hints, clues and snippets – information and ideas we’ve gathered from our combined experiences

PART 2 – ‘Techniques’ 1

  • Write the way you talk
  • KISS
  • Long vs short
  • Be professional
  • Benefits vs features
  • Highlight the positive

PART 3 – ‘Techniques’ 2

  • Don’t exaggerate
  • Creating ‘openers’ that work
  • Avoid tentative words and thoughts
  • Making an offer
  • Call to action
  • Don’t rest on your laurels

Part 4 – Checklists for writing business to consumer letters, business to business letters, fundraising letters.

So, here goes . . .

PART 1 – Hints, clues and snippets

If you want your direct mail communications to work you must ‘get around’ your reader’s natural scepticism.  Twenty years ago, you may have been able to appeal to your customers and prospects by firing bland statements about ‘the requirements of life’ at them.

What does that mean?  Well, people used to buy items they needed just by being told about food, clothing, houses.  Now you must add qualifies to your ‘motivators’ – like gourmet food, designer clothing, executive housing.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, one of direct marketing’s best-known copywriter talks about ‘The Four (Five?) Motivators’.

They are:

# 1          Fear

# 2          Exclusivity

# 3          Guilt

# 4          Greed

He says, “If you write clearly within the reader’s ‘experience’ background and present benefits on an appeal to one of these motivators, you can’t miss!”

And, you ask, what is #5?  Well, it could probably be best described as a melting pot of the four above – call it Ego gratification.

Think honestly about yourself for a minute.  It’s likely that you:

  • Like to receive praise from others
  • Like to be in ‘style’
  • Sometimes emulate others and like to be recognised by those you admire
  • Like to attract admirers of your own
  • Like having a lifestyle you recognise as ‘superior’.

Well, don’t you?  So, do the vast majority of your customers and prospects.  Most people are similar – and to illustrate that point try the following ‘test’.

You may have done this test before – if you have you’ll know the ‘answers’.  If you haven’t followed the instructions below, allowing a maximum of 5 seconds for each answer.

  • Write down any number between 1 and 10
  • Write down any colour
  • Write down the name of a flower
  • Write down the name of a piece of furniture
  • Write down the name of a wild animal

Here are the answers that most people give:

  • 7
  • Red
  • Rose
  • Chair
  • Tiger, lion or another from the cat family.

Now, here some examples of draft copy which has been rewritten to make it more effective – not good or bad, just better.

ORIGINAL DRAFT – “Your subscription has officially expired.  Here is one last opportunity to renew your subscription.

Please send us your renewal immediately, otherwise not further issues can be sent to you”.

Wouldn’t it sound better like this?

RE-WRITE – “We know our subscribers get more mail than most people.  So, it’s possible that you missed the renewal notice we sent you a few weeks ago.

Not to worry.  I’ve enclosed a duplicate.  Please send it back right away, because technically your subscription has run out”.

Here’s one using percentages and numbers.  Which one it the most effective?

“Save a big 1%

OR, better

“You’ll save a full percent”

OR, better still

“You’ll save thousands of dollars on your 20-year loan if you . . .”

And the last example for this section, a comparison on exclusivity.

“Only 1,500 individuals in all the world can own this splendid leather-bound book”.

What’s wrong with that?  Nothing, but you could make the statement even more exclusive by saying something like ...

“You . . . and only 1,499 others in all the world can own this splendid leather-bound book”.

No other form of writing has spurred people to develop formulae quite like direct mail letter writing.  Formulae act as memory joggers so that key things in the structure of direct mail copy don’t get overlooked.

Everyone, it seems, claims their own favourite formula.  But when it comes to actually writing copy, the much thought out formula is often forgotten in the heat and urgency of the moment.

Probably the best know formula is AIDA:

A             -              Attract reader’s attention

I               -              arouse Interest in the proposition

D             -              stimulate Desire to take action

A             -              ask for Action

Victor O Schwab developed the following formula – AAPPA:

A             -              get Attention

A             -              show people an Advantage

P             -              Prove it

P             -              Persuade people to grasp the advantage

A             -              ask for Action

World famous copywriter, Edward N Mayer, suggested this checklist of what a direct mail letter should ‘look’ like or ‘do’:

  1. Make every letter sell
  2. Know your subject thoroughly
  3. Make your letter clear
  4. Make your letter concise, but tell the whole story
  5. Know what you want and ask for it
  6. Use simple language and short words to tell the story
  7. Make your letters friendly
  8. Make your copy sincere
  9. Make your copy tactful
  10. Always put a ‘hook’ in your copy

Nearly forty years ago Henry Hoke gave us the 4 Ps (and it still works today):

P             -              have the prospect Picture your offer

P             -              Promise this picture will become a reality

P             -              Prove, tell what others say about your product

P             -              hurry, Push the prospect to order

There is probably one more and that’s People – customer service is a channel too.  More on that another time.

In Part 2 of Direct Mail Writing, we will get into the nitty-gritty, time-proven techniques of direct mail copywriting, with plenty of examples for you to follow.


  • Direct marketing

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Victoria Forrest's picture

I am a marketer/storyteller with over 33 years experience across most industries.  I have worked both client side as well as agencies and mail houses.  I really enjoy sharing ideas and information with others so that's why I joined Biz Bizz.  Looking forward to sharing with you all.