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Using the local angle to personalize direct mail

Posted by Tom Power on November 12, 2014

A long time ago in a ZIP code far away, I worked as an editor on a travel industry trade magazine. Travel agents were the primary readers of this magazine.

On “closing day,” the day before the next issue came out, I would join a group of about a half-dozen senior editors in a budget meeting. The managing editor would provide us all with printouts of the stories being considered for the front page, and we’d all read through them one by one and afterwards comment on them. The idea was to decide which would be the lead story on the front page, which would be the “off lead,” or secondary story, and so on down the ranks.



Because we all had heavy workloads, most of us wanted to get this meeting over with as quickly as possible. But there was always a voice of reason in the room. (I’ll just call him Joe.) Almost invariably there would be one story in the bunch that would elicit a grunt from Joe. His objection was rarely that the story wasn’t important to the travel industry. It was just that something was missing.

“Why would a travel agent want to read this story?” Joe would say, to no one in particular. After which we would all simultaneously think, “Duh.” What was usually missing is what’s known as the local angle. Say two airlines just agreed to merge. There’s a straightforward way to write that story for the Chicago Tribune business section. But for a travel trade magazine, the story has to lead with what it means for travel agents going forward.

The same idea applies to direct marketing. You can put together the prettiest direct mail package with the snappiest headlines and the most compelling graphics, but if it isn’t personalized to the recipient, chances are it’s going into recycling.


OK, news stories and direct mail packages are not the same thing, but they do have something in common: They both involve a type of selling. The business of newspapers and magazines is to get people to read them, and to do that, you need to “sell” the story to the reader. The way you do that is with an attention-getting headline and a lead paragraph that hooks readers into wanting to learn more, which they can do by reading the body copy that follows. Well, guess what. Direct mail does the same thing. Let’s take a look at some of the elements of a direct mail letter and a news story and examine what they have in common.



1. The headline
In a direct mail letter, the headline is the hook that lets customers know an offer that is pertinent to them is available. For example, look at the headline in the letter below right. Right off the bat, readers know that this is about the car they own or lease and an action regarding the vehicle is being recommended.

In a news story, the headline capsulizes the essence of the lead paragraph, usually in 10 words or less. More than any other element, the headline bears the burden of selling the story to the readership. If those few words don’t grab readers’ attention, chances are they’ll move on to another story. As you can see, that’s not likely to be a problem in the example shown above left.



2. The subhead
Although it is not always present in either a direct mail letter or a news story, a subhead can serve as an important device to stair-step a reader into the body copy with an additional detail. Again, in the direct mail letter example shown above, the subhead follows up the message delivered in the headline with details on what’s in it for the recipient to respond to the offer.

In a news story, the subhead serves a purpose similar to that in the direct mail—it adds additional details—but, as in the example shown above, it can also add context. The first line of the three-line subhead tells the reader that the “10,000” in the headline is a forecast for Africa, but the rest of the subhead gives the local angle—in this case, the implications for the United States.



3. Body copy The main body of text in a direct mail letter and a news story serve similar purposes, but their construction is often very different. In the direct mail letter, the body copy follows up on the offer in the headline and the subhead, if any, by explaining the benefits of responding as well as the consequence of not responding. There are usually at least three calls-to-action spread throughout the body copy, including the P.S., which is one of the most-read parts of the letter. The body copy also includes the offer’s expiration date, which adds urgency to the messaging.

A news story traditionally is constructed as an “inverted pyramid,” with the most important information at the top of the story (lead paragraph) and the less important details appearing lower in the story. The reason for this is that if the story needs to be cut to fit in the space allotted, it can be cut from the bottom. A news story also follows the format of the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. While there is no element in a news story that correlates to the call-to-action, the writer’s name and contact information are increasingly appearing at the end of news stories in newspapers and magazines.



4. Right rail/Sidebar
While a right rail is nearly always an element of a direct mail letter, its nearest cousin in newspapers and magazines is the sidebar, and whether it is necessary or even appropriate depends on the story. The right rail in a direct mail letter usually repeats information that is in the letter but presents it in a bulleted or numbered format that is easier to scan. It’s an intentional redundancy that helps ensure that the reader will grasp the offer and the necessity to respond.

A newspaper or magazine sidebar fleshes out in more detail something that is only touched upon in the main story. In the example above, the sidebar and an accompanying chart sit below the main story’s headline. The sidebar enables the editor to give information the prominence it deserves without unnecessarily sidetracking the main story or, worse, burying the information. It also provides that local hook that some readers might even find more interesting or applicable to them than the main story.


Topics: Direct Marketing

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