Interview with a Pro:
How to Increase Response Rates Up to 100% Without Changing a Word, Part 1 – A Conversation With Ted Kikoler

With a total of 30 years of design experience (industrial, retail advertising, and direct mail), Ted Kikoler is one of the most successful direct mail graphic designers in the world. Over the past 19 years, he's designed packages for such companies as Citibank, TIME, Fidelity, the Wall St. Journal, Hume Publishing, Johnson & Johnson, Lever, Verlag Norman Rentrop (Germany), and Nightingale-Conant. Ted is known for increasing response – sometimes as much as 100% – without changing a word of copy!

Not long ago, Krister Maxe, Direct Mail Copywriter at DM Konsult in Sweden, landed an exclusive interview with Ted – and was kind enough to share it with us. In Part 1 of the interview, we find out how he got started, what he believes are the most common mistakes companies make in direct mail, and the importance of getting prospects to read the copy. In the next issue of The Golden Thread, you'll get Ted's comments about the relationship between copy and layout – plus his thoughts on the use of pictures in direct mail and whether "slick" or "ugly" packages work best.

KM: For readers who are not familiar with your name, could you give a bit of background about yourself, your business, and how you got involved in the direct mail business?

TK: I was working as a freelance graphic designer when a publisher approached me, asking me to design a new logo. This publisher sold entirely by direct mail, of which I had zero experience.

One day, I commented on his direct mail package. In my ignorance of direct mail, I told him I didn't like it. As a bet, we agreed on a test in which I would redesign his control mailing without changing the copy, the offer, or the price. After reaching into my retail-advertising bag of tricks, I created a design that he absolutely hated. But a deal was a deal and he tested it. My new design lifted his response by 37% and increased cash with the order by 100%.

Overnight, I was a direct mail expert and clients approached me from all across the USA. In each case, I redesigned their mailings and response increased by as much as 100%. When I teamed up with copywriters, we often achieved 100% to 300% lifts. Of course, I've had failures. That's how you learn.

KM: OK, so let's get into the details of direct mail. What are the most common mistakes you see companies make when it comes to direct mail?

TK: The biggest mistake is to leave the letter out of the mailing. And, by letter I mean a personal message to your reader. Even if you're sending a self-mailer or a small card, the recipient needs to feel that it's coming from a human being.

The letter should start by tapping into one of the reader's unmet wants. It should promise to provide her with what she wants … help her imagine how wonderful life will be when she has it … show her how quick and easy the results will be … prove that the claims in the letter are true … present an irresistible offer … throw in an incentive … remove any sense of risk … awaken a sense of urgency … and encourage her to respond right away.

Another mistake is insufficient copy. I've heard product managers say, "People won't read long letters." Nonsense. Someone who is thinking of spending money asks quite a few questions that need to be answered. Answer them. And don't be afraid to repeat those answers several times throughout the mailing. Keep in mind, in most situations, long copy beats short copy.

A mistake that almost everyone makes – yet few understand that it is a mistake – is to include a brochure. Sure, a brochure looks beautiful. It's the show-and-tell part of the presentation. But in most cases (not all), it hurts response. Why? Picture this: When you open a direct mail package, you want to know immediately what they're selling. Suppose it's a book. If there's a brochure, you immediately see the photo of the book and you say, "Ah, they're selling a book called, 'How To Blah Blah Blah.' I don't need it."

But imagine there's no brochure. And no photo. Now you're forced to read the letter which starts with, "Dear Reader: Have you ever suffered from blah blah …?" And you'd say, "Yes!" And you keep reading, and reading, and reading … until the emotions swell up inside you and you find yourself shouting, "I can't live without this book!"

In selling through direct mail, copy is king. What you say, not what you show, determines if you sell.

My primary role as a graphic designer is to make people read the copy. If your mailing has a brochure, you decrease the chances that people will read your sales letter.

An easy test is to mail your package without the brochure. I learned this in the mid 80s when a client accidentally mailed her package without the brochure and response went up. Try it. You may be surprised at what happens.

KM: You're known in the business as being able to increase response, sometimes as much as 100%, without changing copy. Could you tell our readers a little bit about that?

TK: At the risk of making a simple concept sound complicated, let me throw some numbers at you.

With every mailing, you always know two numbers: the number of pieces you mail and the number of orders you receive. But what you don't know is how many recipients actually read your sales letter. Let's call this unknown number X.

So, if you mail 10,000 pieces and receive 100 orders, the numbers would look like this:

10,000 recipients = X readers = 100 orders

It's logical that to get twice as many orders, you would have to mail twice as much:

20,000 recipients = 2X readers = 200 orders

But look at the last part of that formula: 2X readers gives you 200 orders. That means that if you can convince twice as many recipients of the original 10,000-quantity mailing to read the sales letter, you'll have twice as many orders. The numbers would be:

10,000 recipients = 2X readers = 200 orders

It's really that easy. All you have to do is get twice as many people to "listen" to your sales pitch. And I firmly believe that the primary purpose of graphic design in direct mail is to force people to read that copy.

[Don’t miss part 2 of this interview.]

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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: January 27, 2003

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