Sound Tips for Anthrax Fears or Beyond

By the time you read this, you've already received a postcard from postmaster general John E. Potter about how to identify and handle suspicious mail.

According to the U.S. Postal Service's Web site, the postcard was mailed to “every household in America, every rental Post Office box and all military APO and FPO addresses.” This comes on the heels of a warning for all Americans to “wash their hands” after opening mail.

Because of this and the massive press coverage over the recent anthrax scares, people are looking at their mail more carefully than ever. How long it remains an issue is too early to tell, but it seems prudent that marketers should continue to adjust their approaches to direct mail design to ease the fears and doubts of their customers.

Last month, the Direct Marketing Association issued several guidelines to help companies offset public concern, including: avoiding plain envelopes, identifying yourself clearly in the return address and using a toll-free phone number of URL address on the outside of envelopes.

Here are a few other ideas to consider even if the anthrax scare ends anytime soon:

· Avoid odd shapes and bulges. If you are sending samples or bulky enclosures, be sure to identify your contents on the outside of your envelope. You may even use polybags or window envelopes to let people see inside.

· Avoid restrictive markings. Words such as “personal” or “confidential” could backfire. Again, it would be wise to specifically identify the contents of an envelope and avoid anything that smacks of the unknown.

· Avoid excessive postage. Lots of stamps or unusual postal designs are a red flag now. Even a single stamp or metered postage could raise doubts. I suggest using a simple printed indicia whenever possible.

· Avoid a foreign look. No, this is not politically correct. But let's be realistic. If your envelope looks like it is from another country, it is likely to be trashed. In these times, “foreign” no longer automatically translates into “exotic.” Signs and symbols of America, on the other hand, will be received well as long as the mood of patriotism is strong.

· Keep the design clean. In normal times, a messy look — faux coffee stains, doodles, ink stampings, etc. — can work well. But it may be better to keep it simple and avoid the unusual.

· Use handwriting cautiously. The personal look of a hand-addressed envelope or handwritten copy may work against you now. I would even avoid a typewriter font, since the idea of someone personally typing an envelope could raise doubts. To be safe, stick to clean typefaces.

· Try postcards and self-mailers. They are open and, therefore, inspire more confidence than closed envelopes. They are particularly good for generating leads or pulling people to a Web site or online kiosk. Some businesses are using postcards to announce an upcoming package.

· Check your security procedures. You say you do not have any? You'd better. And you had better make sure all your providers have them, especially lettershops. Just one incident involving a consumer mailing could sink your business and hurt the rest of us.

· What is the big message here? Be simple and direct. Avoid the unusual. And make your advertising look like advertising. This is a good time to focus less on tricky techniques and more on good products and strong offers.

No one has experience with what we are going through now. So these suggestions are speculative and subject to change. A single event could instantly negate any or all of these ideas. And no one can predict the long-term effects on particular techniques or on mail advertising as a whole. Only testing will show what will work and what won't now and in the days to come.

But don't panic. Despite current uncertainty, I assure you that mail is more than a medium. It is part of the American way of life. So if your response has dropped off recently, hang on. Americans are amazingly resilient, brave people. And they love to buy through the mail. So be patient and persistent in your testing.

We will adjust. We will endure.

Related Posts