direct mail, Marketing, USPS

Direct Mail Design: This Never Gets Old

Did you know that the USPS Office of the Inspector General performs a customer satisfaction survey every year? News to me, but why not?

The results are available for viewing below.

But the stunning and head-spinning discovery about direct mail design is worth noting. In the study’s own words, verbatim:

“In FY 2016, it sent out more than 5.7 million survey invitations in the form of a two-sided postcard that invites customers to take the survey online or by phone. These invitations resulted in approximately 71,000 completed surveys, a 1% response rate.

“In order to increase response rates, the Postal Service tested two other survey invitations. An oversized postcard did not make a significant difference, but a sealed envelope with an invitation on letterhead had a 7% response rate.

“Consequently, the Postal Service adopted the sealed envelope for all invitations for FY 2018.”

A 600% increase in response!

There are two big rules of direct mail design:

1. It takes A Letter.
2. Put it in an envelope.

As for the survey, it is itself a pot-boiler and you can “self-administer” online, or participate by phone. If you are the social scientist, you know that a 50% response rate is the minimum acceptable for self-administered surveys, because who knows that the respondents don’t drop off, or conversely, have an axe to grind, or perversely, come from Chicago and complete several forms.

All results can be read here, but first and foremost, remember the two rules above.

Glad the Inspector has come on board!

direct mail, Economics, Marketing

AAA Goes Flat Out

AAA 2014-12-02 803

The door opener!

Want to know what stops just about anyone when they open their mailbox?

No, not a boxing glove. Instead, it’s a flat.   No, not a flat tire.   A flat-sized mailing piece.

AAA 2014-12-02 800

The 10 x 12 Flat. Size counts in direct mail.

So it is that I opened our mailbox to be confronted by a certificate-sized 10″ x 12″ envelope. Front and center, in portrait orientation, is an open window. As I peak through I see my name, in bold, printed below a 40-point, gothic type proclamation: Proof of Eligibility.  The State of Illinois is symbolically positioned above.

This manifest is shielded behind a thin sheet of parchment. My reaction? Better open this now.

I am not that naiive, I know this is a solicitation. But still, eligible for what?   Nomination? Higher taxes?  Bronzing?

AAA 2014-12-02 Label copy

A beautiful label… applied on a slant, with raised shading, is actually printed, not real.

As it turns out, it is the AAA Life Insurance Company, who has decided to give me a second chance to insure my remaining days.  Or until the age of 80, when all bets are off.

These are the same folks who sent along a policy kit a few months back.    That one was a flat too: a “fulfillment package”.   Presuming I am ready to sign up, it is essentially a welcome kit.   Regrettably, and unknown to AAA, I am disqualified from obtaining coverage due to a shady past.   So I deferred.

AAA 2014-12-02 eagle copy

The official seal of eligibility.

The reason I highlight the new kit is to point out the allure and attraction of the envelope.  “Proof of Eligibility” is vague.   But when it is presented so elegantly, it works.   How many of your incoming direct mail summons use parchment?   40-point Gothic?   Not much I am guessing, since the Sheriff of Nottingham died.

The design strategy of this AAA kit is to get opened.   My bet is that better than 90% of the recipients do open it.   It is irresistible.

From there, the internals have to carry the freight.

The big question you should be asking is why spend the extra postage– probably 15 cents– to send an over-sized envelope?

AAA 2014-12-02 802

The letter under the parchment, complete with filigree.

Do the math.   In a standard #10 envelope, the kit, list and assembly would cost about $250/m.   Postage, another $200/m.   Total, $450/m.

Now lay the papers flat, and place them in a big envelope instead.   Let’s say the production is cost neutral, but adding $150/m flat postage has just increased overall cost by 33%.

The bottom line in direct mail: raise your production cost 33%, you must increase response 33% too.

So if the small envelope garnered a 1% response, the flat needs 1.33% to stay in the game.

From personal experience, I know this is achievable, and judging from AAA’s use of flats before, it’s probably not unusual for them either.

AAA 2014-12-02 Eligible copyBy the way, what was I eligible for?  Discounted premiums as an AAA member.


Thanks for reading!   Never pass up the opportunity to go “big” in a mailing piece.   The cost may frighten you, but usually higher response will cover it.

direct mail, Marketing

Mayo Clinic: Right On The Money

Smart, effective direct mail design comes from experience, and some times a lot of guts.    The Mayo Clinic Health Letter subscription kit is a classic example.   This masterpiece came to my mail box last month, and while the design may shake you, the numbers will knock you out.   Here’s why:

A Whopping Big Envelope

This one measures 10 x 14 inches.  Really??  Yes.   Why send a little #9 package when

Mayo OE

The envelope becomes the carrier for all the other letters delivered that day.

you can bury the mail carrier with a doormat?   To reinforce the mailing’s impact, the paper stock is nearly cardboard–you could chip a tooth on it–and it’s printed to look like kraft paper.

Creating the kraft look is just the beginning though. The address label is not real, but it is varnished to look like it, and as a special touch, this mass-produced kit has a postage meter label, except–that’s printed too.  The overall presentation says to the reader: “you need to open this now”.

My immediate reaction is:

1.   The Mayo accountants are taking blood pressure tests on both arms in the cafeteria, jabbing at their adding machines, looking for answers.

2.   USPS Postmaster Donahoe is toting up his winnings on this over-sized Flat mail piece.

Long On Words

The extravagance continues inside.   I ripped open the zipper on the envelope to pull out the letter. 8 pages!   That’s four, 8-1/2 by 12-inch

The letter: a lifetime of Tweets.

The letter: a lifetime of Tweets.

sheets, printed front and back.  For you attention-deficient followers, that’s about 198 Tweets.   The CFO is banging out numbers to see how much waste was incurred by using 16-point type instead of 10-point.    Not to mention typing the letter on lined pages!

Nobody reads letters.  Well just about nobody.  Right?

Canary Yellow Reply Envelope

Subtlety doesn’t work in direct mail, even for Mayo.   We can’t just hide stuff in white reply envelopes when we can tell the world we probably have an urgent itch in a better-left-unmentionable place.   So there it is– a large bangtail order form I send back in this shout-it-out yellow BRE.

Yellow BREs never get mislaid.

Yellow BREs never get mislaid. And they get action, too.


Stickers-just to keep it tactile.

Stickers-just to keep it tactile.


The ad agency downtown would never place a sticky label in a mail piece.   How corny.   Yet Mayo does this prominently and proudly, knowing that we can’t resist the temptation.  Does anyone really need to peel a “trial issue” label and stick it on the order form?   Of course we do.  There’s a sense of decisiveness and approval connected to the action, just like updating your car plate ever year.

It’s All About Me

What is irritatingly attractive is Mayo’s continual pandering to my ego.   They have hijacked my name.  Of course, they have it on the envelope, but it’s also on the letter.   And at the top of the letter is a handwritten note addressed to me.   Wow!

The P.S.--after 8 pages, there's still more to say!

The P.S.–even after 8 pages, there’s still more to say!

Again on page 8, up to which, yes, I read, there’s a P.S.  Also written to me.

As expected, the order form has my name, but they slapped it on the flaming yellow BRE just for good measure.

The Story Continues

To dispel any last doubts about the Mayo brothers, they have also included a brochure on the Mayo Clinic just in case I had been hiding in a duck blind too long.   Plus a Post-It note stuck onto the letter quoting readers who bragged about how the newsletter fixed their swollen joints, their riled digestion and unbending digits.

The family story fills in the cracks.

The family story fills in the cracks.

It’s About Making The Numbers

Any cognoscente in the advertising world would roll their eyes at this piece and grab another canapé off the awards dinner banquet table.   Mayo is not going to win a trophy any time soon.

That is because they are too busy depositing checks at the bank.    This package works because it takes enormous advantage of our curiosity.   If you are in the right demographic, you can’t ignore it.

Here are the numbers as I see them.  I have not confirmed with Mayo, but then again, they didn’t ask me either.

It's going to run into money!

It’s going to run into money!

List and production costs have to be at least $350/m. Postage for this Flat, $200/m.   This could be a 55-cent package, all-in.   By the way, while you thought the accountants might have been turning into jelly at that number, it is more likely they are quietly smiling while they top up the USPS Caps account.

Now, response rates.   1% is pretty much the norm, but this gargantuan kit, which includes a gift, could pull a 2% response, which again, I have not confirmed with Mayo.   At 2%, a 55-cent kit delivers a $27.50 acquisition cost. ($0.55/2% = $27.50).  Large, but actually about half of what any credit card sub would cost.   In any event, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

The Final Number

Medicine aside, Mayo still needs to return a positive cash flow, a.k.a. profit.   An annual subscription to this newsletter is basically $32.00.  Assuming a contribution of $8.00 per sub, Mayo needs to keep the average reader for 3-1/2 years to pay back the $27.50 acquisition cost.

But maybe not.  Because while these 50-year to 80-year-olds, approximately 500,000 of them, are perusing their newsletter, they are also biting on additional offers for Mayo’s entire library of publications. Enough to fill all the waiting rooms in Fort Myers, Miami and Scottsdale for years.

Even if the Mayo Clinic Health Letter program only breaks even, it is the gateway to a flood of peripheral revenues.

Mastering a standout program like the Mayo Clinic Health Letter didn’t happen over night.   These savvy marketers have tested into the present format.   In fact, it could be a test too.

But the numbers are still rewarding, if formidable.  And that’s where the guts come in.



Thanks for reading along on this.  Please let me know you liked it.  And share, too!