(Open) The Envelope, Please!

The secret motives that will drive people to open your direct mail package

For most folks, a trip to the mailbox is filled with emotion and expectation—both good and bad. They’re hoping there won’t be a delinquency notice or some other bad news. They might be expecting a check or some other thing of value. They might even be hoping to find a letter from a family member (probably not).

In any case, they know they’ll have to sort through lots of clever offers and solicitations—the junk mail—to get to the important stuff.

So, in the midst of all the noise and distraction, how do you get someone to take note of your mailing—and actually open it?

You already know the answer, because the factors that motivate them are the same ones that motivate you.

Here they are:

Familiarity. If a person is already accustomed to interacting with your organization, congratulations, you’re in! They’ll probably take the time to at least look at what you’ve sent them.

Now, just don’t blow it by:

  • Offending them
  • Boring them
  • Letting them think they’re looking at something they’ve already seen

That last part is tricky, because you want to present a consistent brand image while conveying that this mailer is something completely new—so they’d better read it. That’s where a good envelope teaser comes in. Give them a hint of the compelling news that’s inside. Make it irresistible.

Expectation of benefit. This is also tricky, because people are jaded. They’ve seen all the free cruises and exclusive dinner invitations—and they know there’s a sales pitch hiding in there. I don’t even bother opening those mailers anymore. Do you? But I’ll tell you what gets me every time—personalized address labels. I know I’ll use them, so I open the envelope. And I’ll usually read at least part of the letter. Give your prospects something of immediate value—even if it’s only a small value. They’ll open the letter. The rest depends on your amazing offer.

Fear. “FINAL NOTICE!” Does that get your attention? It might be your last chance to take advantage of a great offer—or it could be from a creditor about to file a lien against your home. Either way, it might just be scary enough to make you open the envelope. On the other hand, when you find out it’s just another pitch, you’re liable to get angry and toss it. The envelope that’s designed to look like an official government document can provoke the same response. But fear is, and always will be, a strong motivator. You’ll have to decide whether it’s the right one for your product.

Curiosity. The blank envelope. You know it’s probably just another sales pitch. But you can’t be sure. So you open it.

Or, the envelope with an intriguing teaser. It piques your interest just enough to rip it open and see what it’s all about. After all, it will only take a few seconds …

Both approaches can work—or not.

To tease, or not to tease?

That is the question. Fundraising expert Gifford Claiborne says, “There’s a lot of research that says just a blank envelope will out-pull one with teaser copy.” He should know. He’s been testing this stuff with nonprofit mailings for about 50 years.

Stephen Hitchcock addresses the same issue in his book, Open Immediately: Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising—What Works, What Doesn’t and Why. And as the title promises, his take is straightforward:

Most teasers are about as useful as an 8-track tape—without an 8-track player. That’s because a lot of organizations keep forgetting how intelligent and sophisticated donors are. If they’ve heard about your organization or if your organization’s name sounds like something they’re interested in, then donors open your envelope. Absent those factors, no amount of screaming or no degree of cuteness will save your package from the recycling bin.

There’s that familiarity factor again. It doesn’t offer much hope for organizations seeking to acquire new donors or customers.

But then Hitchcock follows with a caveat:

Of course, there are exceptions.

A truly creative or brilliant teaser—one tied forcefully to the central concept in the letter—can sometimes work well. That’s especially the case if there is a true crisis or emergency about your appeal.

Hitchcock also notes another interesting discovery from his own testing:

Membership or annual renewal notices appear to generate a higher response when the renewal process is telegraphed on the outer envelope.

That makes sense. We’re all programmed to be on the alert for expired memberships. No one wants to call the Auto Club for roadside assistance—only to find out their membership expired last month.

Here’s a good test for any mailing—one that’s easily overlooked. Imagine that you’ve just found the letter in your mailbox. Do you open it, or not? If you wouldn’t, why would you expect anyone else to?

Make sure you’re appealing to one of the motivators mentioned above: familiarity, expectation of benefit, fear, or curiosity. Then, once you’ve got their attention, hit them with an offer they can’t refuse.

Here’s to your successful direct mail campaigns.

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