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The Art of a Direct Mail Letter
The Art of a Direct Mail Letter

    A letter is a self-portrait of the sender. Here’s how to design one that makes you look like Paris Hilton... but sober.

    A letter is the most effective you can be in marketing for under half a dollar. Come to think of it, a letter is the most effective you can be in marketing at any price. In direct mail, your success may be just 46¢ away.

    But is it really a letter?

     In truth, a letter is really a personal communication you write to one or two people. When you send it to a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million people, it’s an advertisement.

     Specifically, a letter in direct mail is a one-page, highly stylized ad designed to look like a letter. Any arguments?  

It’s the hardest-working part of the package you mail. People look at the brochure, but they read the letter. The letter is far more important than a brochure, and can be effective if used just by itself.

    Unless you are exceptionally long-winded like me, most commercial direct mail letters should be typed on a single side of a standard 8-1/2” x 11” sheet of paper, then folded copy-side out so the recipient sees the copy as soon as he opens the envelope.

     If your letter requires more than one page, it’s least expensive to use the back of the sheet. Although this never looks as good as two pages printed on the face only, its lower cost may justify this format. It should still be folded with the first side facing out.

    If you find your letter is slightly too long for one page, let the right and left margins out a total of perhaps 5 to 10 spaces. This will allow your typing to go a little farther out to the side edges of the paper. Additionally, extend your letter almost to the paper’s bottom edge. The longer line lengths and more lines per page will allow more copy to fit on a single page.

   Then, before printing the final copy, reduce the letter art by 5% or 10%.
   
    You can also ask a printer to shoot it down. This 5% to 10% reduction will give your letter slightly smaller type, as well as the big added bonus of additional white space (breathing room) around the top and sides.

     I sometimes reduce the size of letter copy just to make it appear shorter and easier to read.

    If the copy is still slightly too long to fit comfortably on one page, use a smaller font, and past that use a narrow type style like Times Roman.  This condensed type face can squeeze a lot of copy in a small space.  I'll discuss this in a minute.

    If the package requires even longer copy, my first choice is to use an 11” x 17” sheet folded in half for a four-page letter. This is also the most effective format for a two page or a three-page letter—leave the back of the first page blank, so page two copy starts on the right hand page as you open the letter. This allows for plenty of selling copy and plenty of white space around it.

    Above all, the letter must look attractive. It should have lots of white space, making it look easy to read, even if it isn’t.

     Frame your copy with a broad white border—this “breathing area” makes it look more inviting. If your letter looks like it’s going to take a long time to read, it’s just tossed in the pile to be read sometime between later and never, and it eventually winds up getting thrown out. So Rule Number 1: Your letter must look good so people will read it.

    Use typewriter-style type to make your letter look like it was just typed on a typewriter. The size of the type in your letter is determined by the amount of copy you have and the amount of space it needs to fit. If you have less copy, use type in a larger point size.

    Courier is my favorite typeface for letters and is used 12/12 (12 point type on 12 point leading) because it looks great in a slightly larger size. It can be used 11/12, 11/11, and 10/11 if the copy is long.  Smaller than that the believability of “this just came off my typewriter” falls off fast if the type used is too small. American Typewriter typestyle from ITC Corporation works OK for very commercial letters.

    If you really have a lot of copy, you can use a smaller serif-style type like Times Roman., and this can be a real lifesaver.  And as we travel the universe and get further away from typewriters (whoa - remember them?) letters today are written in various styles and can still be effective.  

     I'm just old-school and still like Courier typeface for letters - it's a tradition among us old type-sensitive guys.  I've spent a lifetime in typography — in a prior life of course.  Ask me about it sometimes, when you have a couple of free hours.  Anyhow, back to designing your letter:

    Make the first line short and compelling to read.  Like this.

    Here you can see the value of a line that stands alone. Since it’s short and set apart, everyone will read it.

    The first line of the letter is the single most important line because it must interest the reader enough to convince him to continue reading. Grab the reader and demand he read further. To do this, an opening paragraph should be one line—maybe two lines at most. A single line can be most electric. A single line is too short to pass up. Inspire your reader at his first glance to start reading.

    To start the eyeflow of the reader, indent the first line of all paragraphs five spaces. This also breaks up the copy from the monotony of squared-off visual blocks of text. Set the paragraphs to rag right (ragged edge of type on the right-hand side) to further break up the look of the block of copy. Never justify the type in the body of the letter.

    Since we are dealing with letters as both copy and art, make a deliberate call on where each line ends and breaks on the right-hand side of the letter. I do.

    To make the letter look less forbidding and faster and easier to read, make the top line of each paragraph shorter on the right-hand side than the lines in the rest of the paragraph. This rounds off the paragraph and makes them appear shorter - which encourages reading.

    If this visual trick creates a bad break, poor copy flow, or an awkward sentence ending, it's not mandatory to do this, although I recommend you try. I try to do this for every paragraph, and will rewrite the copy if necessary to achieve this effect.

    Limit paragraph length to five lines.  Sometimes I go up to seven lines at the very most. If a paragraph runs longer than seven lines, break it into two paragraphs. Artificially broken paragraphs are OK—this isn’t English class, it’s real life.  Besides, I never did well in English class.  So the truth is out... and now I'm getting back at all my old English teachers.

    Stagger paragraph lengths so they don’t all look the same, keeping the copy looking fresh and visually interesting. One short paragraph, two long, two long, one short, etc. Varying the text block design like this will make it look inviting. No one wants to read a wall of type where each paragraph looks exactly the same.

    Next, to keep the letter visually stimulating, and to direct the eye of the reader to the parts you wish him or her to see, underline one or two words or a short phrase in all but one or two of the paragraphs.

   Italics can be used a little more frequently as they don't stand out as much or call attention to their space.  Discretion is still the better part of the subtlety of the art of a letter.

    Use bold words in one or two paragraphs. Don't be awkward and have a line break in the middle of a group of underlined or bold set of words.  

   For words in a list, bold can be used more frequently. Use all capital letters only once or twice on a page for a short phrase that describes a really attractive benefit.  

    Finally, to break up the copy and keep it visually interesting, in the center of the letter you can list bulleted information to catch and hold the reader’s attention.

         Bulleted copy:
• Directs the eyeflow to this area
• Draws attention to the important parts
• Shows the strongest benefits
• Enhances the best offer
• Highlights the guarantee
• Pulls the eye to features you want your readers to see
• Increases the response you want

    If your heart is set on showing the features of your product, the way to list them is in this brief, bulleted style.  If you have a list of benefits, that can go in a bulleted list as well.

    Another visual trick in commercial direct mail letters is to use a shortened paragraph:

You may also use a shortened paragraph in the
center of the page to direct the reader’s eyes to
the important points. Indent a paragraph on both
sides with wide margins, and justify the type to
set it apart from the rest of the letter even further.

    This paragraph can be in a smaller or different typeface. A paragraph like this increases visual interest. When used with a smaller typeface, it can also increase the amount of copy you can get on a single page without making it look crammed or forbidding to read.

    If it gives a clean impression, you can just use that old Smith-Corona portable typewriter you have in your closet—I used one for years. An IBM Selectric isn’t a bad choice, either. Nowadays most folks use a computer, but don’t get lost in all those fancy typefaces. Just make it look like a letter. Use typewriter-style type.

    Remember the art of your letter begins at the very top of the page.

    To further the impression that your highly stylized ad is really a letter, use a letterhead with your company logo. But since you can use this area more effectively for selling and the logo is not a reader benefit, make it smaller than usual. Then reduce your letterhead so it doesn’t get in the way. Perhaps you can squish it over to the left and drop in some early sale copy on the right.

     
This area - above the salutation on the right is the Johnson box.  Here, your letter should start to sell the response: to get the reader to call. (Remember the objective?) 

    Since it’s not really viewed as part of the body of the letter the copy in the Johnson box can be set in any style and any size type. It can almost be an ad in itself, but don’t use a border—it will take away from the intended image of the page as a letter. Following this area comes the letter itself, in traditional form and format.

    Following the letterhead and its accompanying pre-selling copy, it’s best to show a date, even if it’s just the month and year (September 2014). If you’re unsure about your mailing date, it's important to leave this out. Once printed, a stale date can sink a mailing like a stone and waste every single sheet of paper it’s printed on. So think carefully about putting in a date.

    As in any piece of art, each element of the design enhances or detracts from the appearance, and in this case it directly affects the readership -- and the response. The more elements you consciously control, the less you leave to chance, the better the letter will work for you. This will ensure that your letters will consistently be effective.

    When you are finished and happy with your letter’s appearance, run your eye down the right-hand side and bring down any words that stick out too far into the margin.

   If your letter is commercial-looking and not too personal, one or two handwritten marginal words or a short phrase can call attention to a strong benefit.  Hand-underlining can also be effective, if used sparingly.

    Sign with a legible signature.  Don't scribble.  Even if your real signature is the symbol for the planet Goron, write it plainly.  It becomes a visual hook and give people something to identify you with.

   Don’t forget to enhance your letter with a powerful PS. Shorten the right-hand margin of the PS one inch to tuck it in and make it attractive. A handwritten PS can also work if it’s really short - like a couple of 2 or 3 words.  If your handwriting is less than perfect, don’t chance it.

    Always keep in mind that you are not writing a letter, you are writing copy and inserting it into a piece of art. The objective of the art is to create an attractive design that makes the copy appear easy to read. The objective of the copy is to guide the reader through a set of benefits leading to a desire to inquire (pick up the phone) or order the product.

   This article was reprinted with permission from the book
Uncommon Marketing Techniques by Jeffrey Dobkin.  It's available for download by clicking here to go the order page.  Thanks, and I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful.