Envelope gimmicks: Juicing up the impact of direct mail

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Direct-mail best practices often focus on such things as hyper-accurate databases, the Postal Service's new Intelligent Mail bar code and bulk-mail cost savings. Just as important can be the mailed object itself, specifically a variety of “postal gimmicks” applied to direct-mail envelopes to prompt attention and conversion.

“It depends a lot on the market niche you're addressing, and in some cases—health care or financial services, for example—these gimmicks can be distasteful or disruptive to your campaign,” said David Henkel, president of direct-mail printing and production company Johnson & Quin.

Nevertheless, Henkel said, many agencies he works with are tricking out the appearance of direct-mail envelopes to give them a sense of importance and urgency.

These might include a “Do Not Bend” proclamation to indicate subliminally that the contents are extra valuable. A similarly printed “Dated Material” or “2nd Attempt” notice might be used to convey urgency, regardless of the urgency of the message inside. Various (and insignificant) bar codes can also be printed along the envelope edge to indicate uniqueness.

Some tricks imply that the item was handled and mailed by a human being, which tends to mitigate the junk-mail onus. One such example might be deliberately sloppy, off-kilter metering that can be printed that way, not metered by hand.

“Of course, with all of these tactics you have to be careful as a mailer that you don't run afoul of Postal Service regulations,” Henkel said.

One avid user of postal gimmicks is Denise Elliott, VP-sales and marketing at Kiplinger Washington Editors, which publishes Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine and “The Kiplinger Letter,” a weekly newsletter. While overseeing subscription solicitations, Elliott has found that postal gimmicks can lift response to a campaign.

“Make your piece look confidential and therefore important,” Elliott told attendees at last month's Business Mailer's Co-op & Interactive Marketing Conference in White Plains, N.Y., sponsored by list management company MeritDirect.

Heading a session titled “What's Working in Solo Direct Mail?” Elliott said attempts to make an envelope look personal can include using a “live” stamp instead of metering (if the budget permits) or printing fake, embossed “labels” on the envelope to make it look as though it was handled by an actual person.

Other ploys that lend importance and immediacy to a mailed piece include printing the outside of envelopes with a light blue screen to mimic opaque security linings inside critical correspondence; adding a vertical bar code along the left edge of the envelope; or printing green rectangles with wording that suggests the Postal Service's return receipt stick-on label on envelopes.

“These mean nothing,” Elliott said, but she's experimented with all of them.

Direct mail marketing company Response Mail Express has gone even further by developing a line of oversize, colorful envelopes that somewhat resemble the Postal Service's large Priority Mail design.

The company's president, Jorge Villar, got the idea when he noticed many companies use Priority Mail and FedEx for attention and impact, not for speed of delivery.

“So we asked ourselves, ‘What if we developed an envelope that grabbed attention but could be mailed for 98 cents?' ” Villar said. “Now, we think there is a very high propensity for our b-to-b envelopes to go to the top of the pile.”

Striving for legitimacy, Villar received approval for all his designs from the Postal Service. Further, he insists that customers use the envelopes only for urgent messages, such as pending due dates or limited-time offers.

“If you don't have a legitimate offer inside, the campaign will backfire on you,” he said.

Both Villar and Henkel cautioned that marketers can get carried away with gimmicks.

“Any good mailer checks with the Postal Service way in advance, telling them what you're doing and seeking feedback,” Villar said. “And you better adhere to that feedback. A lot of people get burned every year, where there's half a million pieces at the dock and the post office says it won't deliver it.”

Henkel said one danger area is the preprinted, faux metering using an eagle, a circle and indicia markings, which must be printed just so. Another trouble spot, he said, could be the use of the green printed screen that resembles a return receipt.

“That's an official thing that must be purchased, and it could trigger a response from the post office,” he said.

When Villar sought review and approval of his Priority Mail-like envelopes, the Postal Service demanded only one change: That he drop the bold image of an eagle on several of his “Express Letter” designs. It resembled the Postal Service's own logo, which at the time was rendered as a realistic eagle.

“We changed them all to red hawks,” he said, “because they closely resemble eagles.”

The Postal Service had no problem with the hawks, he said.

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