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The Making of a Direct Response Control Buster

Posted by Emily Hegland on September 9, 2021

So you have a killer direct mail control package. Well done. It's getting some results... it's been working for years... it's a control, after all.

But here's the thing. You can always improve your control. 

Whether little by little through split testing or head-to-head with a brand new creative execution, you should always put your control to the test. And if a new control unseats your original... it's time to do it again.

Read on to learn how to build a package that can bust your control.

First, Analyze the Audience 

The first step to any direct mail package is RESEARCH. You need to understand the person who is opening their mailbox and looking at your package. Your research should go beyond age, location and marital status. Ideally, you’re looking to find out what stands in the way of your reader TAKING ACTION. Invest in research and focus groups that look at barriers, questions, and pain points people have about your industry. Your goal before you even start is to get inside the reader’s head 

Next, Split Test 

One way to improve a control? Go at it scientifically. Change one element and split test your current reigning control. 


  • More personalization: You could add their name to the CTA and headline. 
  • More color: Test colors with positive connotations, like green and blue. Avoid red; it’s alarming and off-putting.
  • A different envelope: For example, a #10 envelope with a pistol window instead of a traditional window.
  • Rewrite the offer: The way you phrase the offer can make a difference. Think about different ways to frame what you’re promoting (half off vs. 50% off vs. BOGO). 

When you split test, you’re looking to alter a single variable and unseat the control. Keep trying and improving. Trends and tastes change over time. This way, you can make sure you are up to date on what’s working with your control and what isn’t. 


Incremental improvement from split testing can sharpen your control. But if you’re looking for a breakthrough, you’ll want to test a whole new execution. Essentially, the message is the same, but you need to say it a whole new way. 

Take a look at your control package’s current copy. Rewrite it, then rewrite it again. Pinpoint any words that are more than two syllables and see if you can find a simpler alternative. You’re shooting for a third-grade reading level here.  

Look for opportunities to break up longer copy into small bites. See where you could swap out sentences for: 

  • Bulleted lists  
  • Tables and charts 
  • Side rails  
  • Johnson boxes  
  • Icons or line drawings  

For a deep dive on why short copy is so successful, check out this blog. 

And most importantly, incorporate the research. When you understand your audience, you can focus on what they want to hear. You’re not trying to be witty or entertain. It’s about addressing the reader’s needs… removing any barriers… building urgency… and getting them to take action.  


Now, if you’re looking for a new execution, you’ll need to rethink the layout. Your design should guide the reader through the package seamlessly.  

For the envelope: 

Look for opportunities to try “official” versus “promotional” designs. Black-and-white printing tends to have a more official feel, while color is eye-catching and promotional. This decision depends on your audience and your industry. Insurance and financial services usually benefit from an official look and feel, while retail and hospitality can be more promotional. 

Keep in mind: A lot of people see the envelope before they even open their mailbox. With an adoption rate of 26% as of September 2021 (42.2 million households) and an open rate of 68%, USPS Informed Delivery emails give people a glimpse at what's coming their way. These daily updates show a scanned version of the outer envelope. This first glance is when they might decide if it’s “junk mail” or worth opening up. Make an impact here. You can even include a ride-along image that’s displayed in the Informed Delivery email. If your envelope and ride-along image are intriguing enough, you can get them to act without even opening the package. 

For the letter:

The current trends in direct mail point to simplicity. Don’t be afraid of leaving white space. Your letter should guide the reader from the top left of the page to the bottom CTA. Hold the reader’s hand by adding simple arrows or directional graphics. And make sure to create bolded subheads that highlight the “scannable” details. The package should be anchored with a CTA at the bottom, but it’s also a good idea to put the contact information in the top third of the letter, too.  

For the buckslip:

If your package doesn't have a buckslip, you can do a test to see if it makes a difference to add one. Get creative here. Don't be afraid of being more promotional. Some ideas:

  • Gemini (identical on the front and back) 
  • Experiment with layout (horizontal, vertical)
  • Try including bold lists and graphics
  • Use testimonials 
  • Add lifestyle imagery or illustrations 

But remember, you should stick to one or two ideas for the buckslip. Focus on one aspect of the offer you want to highlight.

Learn From the Results

Direct mail is part art, part science. You should use data-driven insights to inspire new creative. And when the results roll in, you have the opportunity to learn from your experiment. If you bust the control, keep looking for improvements. And if you don’t, try again. Sharpen, finesse and tweak. Direct mail trends are always evolving. So keep testing your control to get the best results. 

Here's an example of a control-busting campaign created by J&C:

J&C helps direct marketing professionals create highly responsive direct mail campaigns that generate improved response rates, more revenue, and better ROI. And it’s all done using our proven philosophy. Our mission is to shatter response rates for financial, insurance, and any other companies in the regulated and restricted products market. To learn more, get in touch with J&C today.



Topics: Direct Marketing, Direct Mail, Creative

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