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Anatomy of a direct mail letter

Posted by Sheera Eby on October 3, 2013

Developing effective direct mail is as much science as it is art. Direct marketing is a discipline that is defined by response and action. Applying proven best practices and techniques to direct mail letters can be the difference between direct marketing success and failure.


DM letter anatomy

To best understand how to construct direct mail letters, we’re going to dissect the components of a direct mail letter and how to apply proven techniques for driving response. These are best practices that are tried-and-true proven techniques compiled over millions and millions of direct mail mailings.


This article focuses on the letter, since it’s the most read component. A direct mail package can’t be successful without strong letter performance. Direct mail letter performance tends to be influenced by mechanics. Whether it’s presenting the same information in two different formats within the direct mail letter or providing complete information, proven techniques are the best way to ensure direct mail success.





Here are the three parts of a direct mail letter, and how to optimize each part for enhanced performance.


1. Body Copy

SE 2 One of the golden rules of direct marketing is if you’re trying to get people to make a decision, make sure you provide all of the necessary information to get them to say “yes.” This includes highlighting features and benefits, as well as providing compelling reasons to act. In competitive markets, pricing or product comparison information is also a critical part of the story and reasons to get someone to buy.

The letter should include full content in paragraph form in the body, with key bullets called out in either the right-hand column or within the letter itself. This allows the audience to read the content however they prefer, i.e., in-depth or by scanning.

Another critical factor in direct mail letter writing is use of subheads. The subheads need to tell the story, and be utilized to pull the reader into the paragraph.

Here are a few other critical pieces to assembling the optimal direct mail letter:

√ Deliver segmented and tailored copy wherever possible
√ Include an expiration date
√ Prominently highlight the offer within the letter
√ Include call-to-action at least three times within the direct mail letter

Also consider the tone of the letter. Ensure the body of the letter delivers informative and action-oriented copy. Avoid passive wording, be concise and to the point and ensure the reader is clear on the optimal outcome, e.g. signing up, enrolling, requesting more information, etc.

Optimally the direct mail letter should end with an actual name. A name provides a mechanism for customers or prospects to contact your company. And don’t forget to incorporate a P.S. line at the end of the direct mail letter. The P.S. is historically the most read part of a direct mail letter. Here are three tips for P.S. usage in direct mail letters.

√ Reinforce a message already delivered within the body copy within the P.S.
√ Include a clear call-to-action within the P.S.
√ Incorporate an expiration date within the P.S.


2. Right Rail
SE 3

Right rails are a critical mechanism and best practice in the construction of direct mail letters. Right rails have become a standard in both email and direct mail communications.

Utilizing a right rail within the direct mail letter helps capitalize on human behavior. Different readers will intake information in different manners. For many, a quick scan review of key information is going to prove to be the most effective communications mechanism.

Additional direct mail letter best practices for the right rail are as follows:

√ Present copy within the right rail in the bulleted format
√ Highlight important messaging within the right rail
√ Restate the call-to-action within the right rail
√ Emphasize the expiration date within the right rail


3. Response Device

SE 4Marketers are often surprised when we counsel them that about 20% to 25% of target customers still respond using the printed response device. Convenience, ease, lack of immediate internet or phone access, and tradition are all reasons that some respondents prefer to respond via paper response. Even when paper response devices aren’t returned, they serve a critical physical and subliminal reminder to respond.

Smartphones have popularized the use of icons. Leverage icons, such as a phone, mailbox, email or internet within the response to reinforce the action required. Icons serve as response triggers and reminders within the response mechanism.

Lastly, be sure to provide at least three ways to respond within the response device. Always mention the mail-back option, phone number and web link or URL.



Direct marketing is a science with a number of factors that can influence performance. Incorporating direct mail letter best practices can ensure success. 


Topics: Direct Marketing

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