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Consumers send most direct mailers directly to the dumps. Avoid these common mistakes and your message may make it past the wastepaper basket.

"Avoid mistakes before seeking brilliance." This may sound a bit on the safe side, but when it comes to creating an effective direct-mail piece, it's also a sure way to avoid creative catastrophes. To avoid mistakes:

1. Don't be cutesy. Pun-laden copy combined with a garish design, wild colors and hard-to-read type hides your message and is a recipe for the circular file.

2. Don't rely on an "artiste." Designers should never lead the creation of a direct-sales message. Images entice, impress, demonstrate, dramatize, amuse and suggest, but they don't sell. Words sell. And words come from the writer.

3. Don't spend two weeks on the brochure and two hours on the letter. Although brochures may be sexy, the letter is what will clinch the sale. Make sure that letter isn't a four-paragraph snoozer.

4. Don't create a "Burma Shave" brochure. Burma Shave once ran an outdoor ad campaign that presented a rhyming message with each line on a different sign posted along the highway. As people drove past the series of billboards, the message was slowly revealed, saving the product name for last. A clever idea but not for a direct-mail piece. If you have something to say, say it clearly on the cover.

5. Don't play hide-and-seek with the order form, guarantee and testimonials. You don't want the order form hidden on the last panel, the guarantee to appear only once in the middle of some text and the testimonials to act merely as filler for a flawed design. Each is part of the skeleton of your direct-mail message--without that skeleton, the body of your mailer and message collapse. Whenever possible, make your order form a separate piece that falls right into your prospect's lap. Highlight your guarantee on every piece. And group your testimonials together so they make a stronger impression.

Julia Miller is a Los Angeles business writer specializing in sales and marketing

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