Why Boring Direct Mail Works

Howard J. Sewell, President, Connect Direct.

Late in 2001, in the throes of the anthrax scare, our agency produced a direct mail campaign for a software client that tested two 6 x 9 packages - one, a plain white envelope with nothing but the client's logo and return address, the second a 4-color design with teaser copy and a photo of the offer.

At the time, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) was promoting a series of guidelines designed to promote security in the direct mail business and to ensure consumers of the safety of direct mail campaigns. Included among the guidelines were recommendations to "avoid using plain envelopes". Yet in our test, the plain envelope outperformed its more colorful counterpart by a margin of 57 percent.

This example reinforced our experience over the last decade testing a wide variety of direct mail formats from traditional letter packages to self-mailers, oversized mailers, postcards, and more. In all cases, and particularly for B2B clients, the less the package looked like junk mail, the better it performed. Letter packages outperform self-mailers consistently, by factors ranging from 25 to 300 percent. Teaser copy (and any other attempt to have the envelope "break through the clutter") routinely depresses response.

Yes, boring works. And our best hypothesis for why this is so involves the route that most business mail takes to the recipient's desk. For B2B direct mail, the challenge is *not* getting your package noticed or even getting it opened, but rather simply getting it delivered. Particularly if you're targeting management-level prospects in large corporations, the more colorful your package, the more promotional your teaser copy, the less chance that mailer will make it through the mail room, the executive secretary, and whatever other "screens" exist to filter incoming mail.

A final note about envelope copy: you only have to scan the credit card solicitations that arrive at your home every day to know that in some cases, teaser copy works. But financial services companies have the luxury of multi-million piece campaigns that involve dozens of different creative cells. If you test 40 different versions of envelope copy, chances are at least one will increase response. But if your campaign is more modest (as most B2B campaigns are), the chances are better that a plain, boring envelope will win every time.

Howard Sewell is president of Connect Direct, a full-service agency that specializes in direct marketing for high-technology companies.



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