Let Me Tell You a Thing Or Two About Direct Mail

I'm all the time getting these helpful pointers on strengthening my direct mail writing skills. It's not my strong suit, I guess - my last boss even sent me to Cleveland for a two-day seminar, hosted by an acknowledged expert in the field. It didn't help much.

(For those of you who aren't familiar with the term 'direct mail,' it's what you probably think of as 'junk mail.' The term 'direct' was chosen because the recipient responds to the advertising message directly - by mailing in a form or calling a number or whatever - as opposed to nebulously changing his or her mind somewhat after reading a magazine ad or seeing a TV commercial. Well, that, and because it doesn't have the word 'junk' in it.)

So let me share with you some of the tips that have come to me recently from well-meaning folks who are honestly trying to help:

* Spelling out numbers adds dignity, formality and importance, but it also adds distance between the reader and the writer, so this should be used with caution.

* Pay attention to and test the nuances, because they really do make a difference. For example, Lewis' tests have shown that "reply" outpulls "response" because it implies less commitment and "free shipping" outpulls "we'll pay the shipping costs."

* First person is more effective at establishing rapport with the reader, while third person is better for being official.

* Present tense is more effective than future tense because the present is now and today's customer wants immediate satisfaction.

* Always keep in mind the three basics of success in direct response copywriting: verisimilitude, clarity and benefit.

Now, I don't think I'll ever be particularly good at this. It's just not my thing.

I understand the concept, and I can speak the language somewhat - for example, 'outpull' means to draw a greater response (more products sold) from a test audience than another version of the same mailing. For reference, a 3 percent response to a mailing is generally considered fantastic. 1 or 2 percent is more common, and companies that send direct mail almost always test versions of their mailings against one another in small samplings before sending out the umpteen thousands that eventually arrive in your mailbox.

If the test shows that the version with the word FREE capitalized pulled a 2.95% response, and the one with 'free' in lowercase pulled a 2.93%, you get the all caps version. Which makes sense.

My problem with - and I guess the beauty of - this kind of writing is that it has such a precisely defined objective. It's never complicated by matters of artfulness or grammar or ethics - the idea is to take people's money. Good versus bad is very clear-cut: 'good' direct mail is good because it outpulls 'bad' direct mail.

I'll agree wholeheartedly with the points about avoiding generic words and cliches and overly formal language, but not because those lessen your chances of a response (sorry - 'reply'). It's just bad writing. And call me a hypocrite, since I do make a living as a copywriter, but I still think every writer, of any kind, owes it to himself - and the reader - to write well just for the sake of writing well. To say what your client wants said in the most interesting, memorable way possible. And to let the reader decide for him or herself how to react.

Verisimilitude means the quality of resembling the truth, reminding me of the old showbusiness maxim about sincerity - how if you can fake that you've got it made. Why not just tell the truth? If you have a message worth listening to, say it well and people will listen. And if you don't, stay out of my mailbox.

In my observation, most direct mail copywriting experts are little more than frustrated muggers, too squeamish for physical confrontation.

So I guess I have some learning yet to do.

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