Direct Mail Debate: Should You Disguise the Envelope – or Not?

One of the arguments that has been going on in the direct-mail business for as long as I've been in it has been about the envelope. The question: Should you make it look like advertising and risk having it tossed – or should you disguise it as something else?

On the disguise side of the direct-mail-envelope argument are such DM luminaries as Herschell Gordon Lewis ("The only purpose of the carrier envelope is to get itself opened.") and Gary Halbert ("Remember, people sort their mail into two piles: the A pile and the B pile. Your goal is to get your mailing into the A pile.")

I once heard Halbert argue that a plain, No. 10 envelope, addressed in a typewriter font and bearing a first-class stamp, would always out-pull something with teasers and bullets.

The other side of the argument was made by Bill Jayme (another direct-mail hall-of-famer), who said that you should never disguise the fact that your mail is advertising. "Your outer envelope is where your prospect decides whether to stop, look, and listen. It's the come-on – the headline on the ad, the cover of the catalog, the dust-jacket on the book, the display window outside the store.

"This holds true for the business arena as well. Any competent secretary can recognize bulk mail. The secret to overcoming 'the secretary barrier' is to create an envelope that looks interesting."

Axel Anderson, who has studied the industry more closely than almost anyone else, says that in looking at 200 long-term controls, "not one fit the Halbert model."

My own opinion: The truth is somewhere in between. I've been involved in the mailing of millions and millions of direct-mail packages and hundreds – no, thousands – of tests. Among them, I've tested this particular argument at least a dozen times … and this is what I've found.

If you have so-so copy on the envelope, a fake first-class, personalized envelope will do better. But if your teasers and bullets are on target, putting them on the envelope will get you a higher response.

My practical recommendation to my clients is always this: Create the strongest envelope you can. It should state – in the most intriguing possible way – the essential and dominant promise of the copy. Do everything you can – with copy and graphics – to make opening the letter irresistible. Then put it in the mail.

If it works, back-test a plain, first-class-looking envelope on your rollout. Sometimes, that will work better. When it does, continue to test an advertising-oriented envelope against it.

[The above article is an excerpt from Michael Masterson's daily e-service, Early to Rise (http://www.earlytorise.com/awai). It's March already and if you're not on track on reaching your goals as a copywriter then you might want to consider looking into Michael's goal setting program. Believe it or not, there are a few simple goal setting techniques that will help you do more by working LESS. Visit: http://www.agora-inc.com/reports/700SDDGC/TGT for details.]

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Published: March 17, 2003

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