How to Write an Effective Direct Mail Letter

Reading a letter

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In direct response advertising, a great direct mail pack can work wonders for both the brand and the bottom line. Truly successful direct mail is targeted, says something in a way that's both powerful and memorable, and talks directly to the customer. And there's no better way to engage in conversation than with a letter. Yes, a letter.

If you're thinking that no one reads letters anymore, think again. The great Howard Gossage famously said "People read what interests them. Sometimes, it's an ad." He could also have said, "sometimes it's a letter."

But, the humble direct mail pack does face tough competition from the myriad advertising messages people receive every single day. They are bombarded with emails, texts, telemarketers, banners, guerrilla ads, TV spots, radio ads, and so much more. Does anyone really have time to open a piece of direct mail, let alone read the letter?

It's easy to think that in this day and age of smartphones, instant gratification, and multi-media everything, a humble direct mail letter is not glamorous, or fun. Better to send a jazzy brochure and some lame freebie. But to ignore the direct mail letter is to turn your back on one of the most tried and tested ways to engage a consumer and get a result. It's vital, and incredibly effect when written well. You just have to ensure that you give it a fighting chance by creating a direct mail pack that screams to be opened, and investigated. Do that, and the letter is the key to sales conversion.

The Direct Mail Letter—Where Do You Begin?

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, if you create a good direct mail pack, you will have already started the conversation on the envelope.

The letter needs to pick up on that conversation and elaborate, in a way that's both engaging and persuasive. It's the salesman of the pack. Everything else is elaborate window dressing.

Think of it this way. If Mad Men's Don Draper were part of a direct mail pack, he would not be the brochure or the box it came in. He wouldn't be the sample of the product, and he would not be a tacky freebie. Don Draper would be the letter. He'd sell the hell out of the product or service, using powerful words and a tone of voice that's aligned with the brand. He'd intrigue you, from the opening sentence to the final sign off or P.S. He'd engage you in a way that had you nodding your head, and thinking about ways to pay for this great new product or service. He'd seduce you.

Then again, it's easy to say all that. But in practice, when you are staring at a blank sheet of paper, it can be a scary task to fill it with the kind of language that will get the phone ringing or the website flooded with orders. 

But the blank sheet of paper represents infinite possibilities. This is your chance to speak openly, and persuasively, to the consumer. The fact is, people read the letter first. It's a hard habit to break when someone sends you mail you want to know why, and the letter is the first place to look. So this blank sheet of paper is also the first point of contact with the brand. This is no time to show off, be clever, or pull a fast one. It's a conversation that can make or break the sale, and it needs respect.

Don't be Tempted to Open With Crass Humor, Puns or Pushy Statements

And don't write above or below your audience, either. You don't want to show your vast vocabulary, and you don't want to sound dumb. Speak as people speak, and never be afraid to break the rules of grammar. You are not writing a letter to win an English scholarship, you are writing to communicate. Want to use one-word sentences?


Use the Golden Word—YOU

People love hearing about themselves. The letter is the most intimate part of the conversation, so get up close and personal and tell them why this is important to them. Start talking about yourself too much and they'll switch off. Use YOU, and they are all ears. Tell them how this product or service directly improves the prospects life. "You will mow the lawn in half the time, and without any stalls." "You will make at least $100 by opening this account." "You will see instant results, and you will have the best skin you've ever had."

It's also important to open strongly. This differs depending on the audience and the product or service. If you are doing a piece of cold acquisition )meaning you have no former contact with the potential customer) you need to get them to quickly associate with a problem or situation.

If it's retention, or they have bought from you in the past, then build upon your relationship. But don't spend too long waxing lyrical about old times, get to the crux of the matter quickly.

Don't Be Afraid to Write More Than One Page

Someone recently said that good copy should be the same length as a skirt—long enough to cover it all, but short enough to be interesting.

Well, that's good for print ads, but for direct mail you want it to be long enough to be persuasive. If you can't make your argument in one page, don't truncate it and hope the brochure picks up the slack. The letter always does the heavy lifting, the brochure is simply the showroom. Get them interested in the brochure, but get them to call (or visit the website) with the letter.

Your Letter Should Build to a Call to Action

From your opening gambit, build a case for the product or service that is watertight. Do it in steps, and slowly but surely create a flowing letter that guides the prospect to the CTA. Take inspiration from the infamous speech by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross—AIDA. Get their attention in the opening line or two, build interest, get them to make a decision, and then make it easy for them to act on that decision. 

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Decision
  • Action

Make the Letter Pass the Quick-Scan Test

It has been said that no matter what is written, consumers will scan it quickly, from top to tail, to pick out the pertinent information and see if it is worth their time. You do it yourself, and no doubt you scanned this article and skipped over certain parts.

Your subheads, a P.S., and the main headline will do this for you. If you can't grab them on a scan, they will likely not bother with the full letter. But make those relevant sections sing, and the prospect will read them all, or enough of them to get the idea and make the decision. 

Tell Them What You Want Them to Do

Ask for the sale, as bluntly as is necessary. This is not a billboard, and direct mail is not in the business of brand awareness. The pack and the letter have a job to do. The direct mail pack is about ROI. Get them to sign on the dotted line. If you have a phone number, ask them to call it. If there's a website, tell them to visit it. And feel free to use a sense of urgency, including limited-time offers. They work.

This is a brief insight into crafting a direct mail letter. For more advice on the subject, read the work of Steve Harrison. He is one of the best direct mail copywriters in the business. Examples of his work can be found in the latest edition of the D&AD Copy Book, and in his excellent book How To Do Better Creative Work. If you can get hold of a copy, whatever the price, do so. It's one of the best books an advertising creative can own. Steve has also written a superb book solely on the art of writing copy, called How to Write Better Copy. Covering themes from blogs to billboards, and everything in between, it is highly affordable and well worth your time.