Formats for Direct Mail

These are the ways in which you can present your direct communications to your prospects … BUT, the result is going to be affected by your message or offer, not merely its presentation.

Still, an attractive package obviously influences its chances of being opened and read.  You talk to your reader with every element of your mailing package:  illustrations, colour and feel of paper, arrangement of pieces, the length of letter and style of writing.

This is probably the right time to consider a piece of advice that is so often ignored, yet which has been proved true over and over again:  The letter is the most important part of any mail package.  Leaving it off means risking a lower response.  Why?  Because your letter will be the only element in your mail package which is signed by an individual — and only people can communicate — not fancy brochures and leaflets, nor companies.  Don’t take the chance of leaving it off.

Before deciding on what format to use, consider the following:

  • The audience.  Is the message aimed at consumers or is it a business-to-business communication?  A letter to a businessman will, for example, need to be more formal in tone and appearance.  Its content will most likely take up less space than a more “jazzy” letter.  Gimmicky type mailshots are usually not that effective in such a case.
  • What is the purpose of the message?  Are you out to sell, or merely to inform?  Announcing a change in telephone number will be more effective if printed as a sticker which can be attached to a telephone, than as an item included in a letter or a newsletter.
  • How long must it last?  This will affect your choice of material as well, and whether the format must allow for filing.
  • How long is your message?  An extra page in a newsletter can be costly … Is a personal letter not the answer?
  • How will it be distributed?  If by mail, and the mailshot is bulky, consider the need for secure packaging.  How will the latter affect costs?  If the audience sample is small, won’t door-to-door distribution be more feasible?  If so, it allows for a bulkier package.
  • What will it cost to print?  If you’re restricted to a budget (usually the case), a creative idea might have to be watered down somewhat.
  • Will it meet with post office requirements?  The most creative design can fall flat if the post office refuses to deliver your oddly shaped package.

Of all the direct mail formats available to you, the letter is the most important and valuable, because:

  •  It provides a personal, “me-to-you” communication.
  • Anyone who can compile a reasonable business communication can use a letter to get going on direct mail.
  • It is the only piece in a mailed package signed by an individual.
  • A letter is versatile, adaptable and functional.  It is cost-effective to produce and can include photographs and illustrations.

The letter itself … Must it be good or just okay?  Don’t even consider leaving off the letter from your direct mail package just because you might have doubts about your writing abilities.  Any letter will improve response, but obviously a good one will deliver a better performance.  If you think you need help, get it.

A single-page leaflet or flyer provides an inexpensive format for putting across a strong message quickly in limited space.  It can form part of a direct mail package, or be used as what is called a “knock & drop”.

Your message can be prepared at very short notice because leaflets are easy to produce.

Some guidelines are:

  •  Keep it simple, with the text well spaced. Use short sentences and bold subheads.
  • You’re dealing with human beings, so make your leaflet friendly, both in its appearance and in the way the copy is written.
  • Repeat your offer a few times.
  • Use devices to involve your reader.  Arrows and illustrations that point him along the route you want him to follow.
  • Use colours, tones and tints on blocks of text or accompanying tables and charts.

They can convey more information than a letter, yet keep a person informed without his having to work through heaps of sales information.  It provides a way to keep customers and prospects informed about your business and its products.

It is accepted as an “editorial” form of promotion and is therefore more readily received than an advert or hard-selling direct mail approach.


  •  Keep it simple.
  • Keep the text well spaced.
  • Keep the content “newsy”.  Don’t advertise directly at the reader.
  • Mail regularly.Keep down the number of pages.
  • A single sheet is often all you need.

These are postcards or specially printed cards, for use when a small format can deliver the message.  Don’t think their small size limits their impact!  They are ideal for when a short message such as a thank-you note is needed, or to make a quick announcement.  One side of the card must obviously comply with post office regulations.

Don’t send a brochure out on its own when you can avoid it.  Rather introduce it with a letter.

Brochures are usually glossy items that impart information as well as an impression of stature when used as a corporate mailshot reflecting the activities of your business.  They are long-lasting and are often kept on file by the recipient.


  •  Make use of colour, quality paper and print.
  • Have them professionally produced.
  • Break up lengthy text with frequent sub-headings (in a second colour, if you like).  Use background tints to separate blocks of copy.
  • Try to create a visual effect of movement, action and excitement rather than clinical lines of type.
  • Use illustrations and photographs freely inside, but one main picture on the cover.
  • Use the back page for testimonials or your final sales message.
  •  If you use a response coupon on the back page, position it so that it can be cut out without losing important sales points inside the brochure.
  • Make sure your name and address are on both the brochure and the reply coupon.
  • Avoid fancy folds.
  • Be careful with reversed type.
  • Graphics should point the reader in the direction you want them to go.

These include novelty mail formats, die-cuts, cut-outs, pop-ups and unusual ways of folding the mailpiece.  Their originality can create a high degree of awareness and impact because they grab attention and are usually remembered longer than normal mailshots.

Gifts such as diaries, calendars and blotting pads can give added impact to your mailing, and make the reader feel more obliged to at least read what you have to say.

Special formats obviously cost more to produce, so make sure your offer or message warrants the expense.  Usually they are best suited to high-profit products where the mailing base is low and very well-defined.  Yet, they need not always be expensive die-cuts or enclosures — a printed format such as a simulated telegram works well.

If you plan on sending out something special, first establish the cost of posting and production.  Also make sure you need to use a special format … Achieving greater awareness won’t overcome a weak sales message or offer.

Although not a format on its own, a vital element in your package is the response device.  If it’s reader reaction you are after, nothing much will happen without one!

It could be a coupon or a separate response form or postcard.  Note: when requesting personal details, a postcard that can be scrutinised by anyone often inhibits response.

If you’re not just mailing out information, always make sure you ask for some kind of response.  Never rely entirely on the recipient to decide what’s required from them or even whether a response is required at all.


  • Make sure your business name and address appear on the response device.
  • Make your form easy to read and even easier to complete, with lots of space for the recipient to fill in his name and address and whatever other details are required from him.
  • If you are selling by mail order, make sure all the information required to order is on the form.  Colour?  Size?  Quantity?  Payment details?
  • If you are providing a self-addressed envelope, make sure the response device fits it properly.
  • If you ask your recipients to respond by telephoning your business, give them the name of the contact person.
  • If you’re using colour card, don’t make this too dark to write on or for you to read properly.
  • Don’t make the print too small. This leads to mistrust and is difficult to read.
  • If you are going to measure response, make sure you include a key number on the device.
  •  Always include a response form, even when mailing to companies.  Don’t accept they will send you one of their own order forms.
  • Make sure the coupon stands out from the rest of your advert or other mailshot material.  Place a dotted line border around it.


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