Use a Letter, Self-Mailer or Postcard?

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In his book, "Secrets of Successful Direct Mail" (Bottom Line Books), the late mail-order consultant Dick Benson says: "Self-mailers almost never work."


"Testing has consistently proven a one-page letter with a compelling offer outperforms a glossy mailer [in business-to-business lead generation] by 100 percent," says Liz Taylor of Liz Taylor Marketing.


And in a recent issue of his e-newsletter, copywriter Alan Sharpe says, "In business-to-business direct mail lead generation, letters invariably outpull self-mailers, including postcards."


As a copywriter, I've always been prejudiced in favor of the sales letter, because it's my favorite form to write.


But obviously, a sales letter is not always better than a postcard or other self-mailer. And in recent years, I've come to love postcards for the results they can produce for marketers on a budget.


Consider subscription promotion for magazines, where double postcards and vouchers routinely outperform traditional letter packages on an ROI basis.


For more than a decade, Medical Economics tested all sorts of letter packages against a snap-pack control for Physician's Desk Reference. None of them could beat the self-mailer.


And look at the outrageous success of the magalog, a long-copy self-mailer format, in selling nutritional supplements and consumer newsletters.


The copywriters I talked with were split. A few, like Ivan Levison and Herschell Gordon Lewis, praised self-mailers and said they can work well. Others, such as Sharpe and Jeffrey Dobkin, are fans of sales letters.


"On a dollar-for-dollar basis, self-mailers can outperform a closed-face envelope in B-to-B mailings," says Lewis. "No, you can't get mailed credit card information. But more and more, when the pitch is for a phone call or online response, a quick look gets read where a classic mailing seems ponderous."


"The great advantage of the self-mailer is that it's cheap," says Levison, a copywriter specializing in software. "It's also easy for the prospect to unfold a self-mailer. There's no envelope to tear open, so you know that you stand a good chance of getting the reader into your message.


"The self-mailer is a good choice for making noisy announcements, which is why retailers use them at sales time. If you have a simple, clear story to tell, a self-mailer can make a great deal of sense."


Many copywriters, ad agencies and marketing consultants like packages better than self-mailers because they can charge the client more, and because they find writing and designing letter packages more fun and rewarding creatively. These are not good reasons to use them, of course, as Dobkin admits.


"When clients ask me what is the most effective piece we can send, I always say a letter," says Dobkin. "And it's not just because letters are my specialty or that I charge so much for them. I do think letters are the most effective you can be, with the understanding that this is in most instances. There are exceptions.


"A personal-looking letter is almost always opened. I like the teaser 'Gift Certificate Enclosed' on anything that looks commercial: The open rate is exceptional."


"In certain situations, letters may outperform self-mailers," says copywriter Joan Damico. "In business-to-business direct mail, getting through the corporate mailroom may be better served with a No. 10 letter package. It also depends on what stage in the buying cycle the prospect is receiving the mailing. A prospect in the awareness phase may respond better to a colorful self-mailer, while a customer in the loyalty phase may respond better to a No. 10 letter package."


Here are a few rules of thumb to help you select the right format - traditional letter package, self-mailer or postcard - for your next mailing:


* Postcards can work well when the main response you seek is a visit to a Web URL or a call to your toll-free number.


* When your story is detailed and complex, a traditional letter package likely will work best.


* Study your market. See what formats are being used in your competitors' controls. Use the same formats for your mailings, at least to start.


* When you are generating leads with a free bait piece offer - such as a white paper, catalog or brochure - use a one-page letter in an envelope with a business reply card.


Of course, the ultimate strategy for format selection is to split test, and let consumers vote with their responses.
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