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The 12 To-Dos of Direct Mail Design

Just like The 12 Days of Christmas, successful direct mail design can reward you with an abundance of gifts — and by gifts, we mean new customers! They may not come from your true love (get it?), but we’re pretty confident new business will warm your hearts and fill your pockets in the New Year.

12 To Do's

At Modern Postcard, our creative services team gets the opportunity to work with an eclectic range of clients on a daily basis, from small businesses to mega brands you’ve most likely purchased from. Our graphic designers live and breathe direct mail design, as do many of us on the artsy side of the business. Not to pat ourselves on the back, but we’re pretty skilled in defining what good versus bad design looks like, especially when it’s in our beloved direct response industry.

So, back to the gifts and 12 Days of Christmas theme: we’re gifting you with a collection of direct mail design to-dos to help your company not only improve the look and feel, but also the end results of your DM campaigns.

1. Strong call to action (content)
Get to know the art of the call to action (CTA). It’s an instruction of the immediate action you want viewers of your marketing piece to take — and it’s pivotal to the success of your campaign. Make sure your CTA is super clear and simple, such as “call [phone number] to cash-in on your offer by [deadline]” or “visit [special URL] to sign-up for your free [offer],” etc. Adding an expiration date will create a sense of urgency for your potential customers to respond. If you’re not sure what makes a get-up-and-move offer, here’s a great read on offers to help you decide. Remember, you have one chance to catch your prospects’ attention and direct them to make the next move, so choose your words wisely!

2. Strong call to action (design)
Your CTA should pop out from the support content on your mail piece, whether it’s in a bright callout, has movement, an arrow pointing to it, has prime real estate on your design, etc. We recommend your CTA be listed twice: once on the front of your piece and once on the back of your piece (or exterior/interior). If your mail piece needs to be opened or flipped through like a booklet, you can entice people to open it with creative callouts like “peek inside for amazing discounts” and such. Use a typeface that’s legible but can also stand out from the crowd. Plus, make the CTA decently larger than the body copy so it’s easily recognized as important content. Read more on design violators to help your CTAs stand out in Tip #5 below.

3. Wow-worthy imagery
Compelling images and graphics will turn heads fresh outta’ the mailbox more than a blank or boring background. Many times, we ask ourselves, “Would people want to keep the piece we’re creating; would they want to hang it on their office or bedroom wall?” If it’s a flat-out no, you probably haven’t hit the mark with your photos or design. We’re not saying you need to use shock-worthy imagery, but it should be relevant to your brand and interesting enough to make viewers hang on to your mail piece for a few seconds and consider your company’s offer.

4. Thoughtful font use
When it comes to fonts, less is more. It’s typical among professional designers to choose two different fonts per piece: one for headlines, one for body copy. Maybe three, if there are special circumstances. We suggest a maximum of two contrasting fonts that also complement each other. Too many fonts or use of hard-to-read fonts can make your marketing piece look cluttered and amateur. Stick with a clean design and consistent use of fonts to look like a pro. If you need more help, we think this is a good read on font use.

5. Be a design violator
In direct mail design, “violators” are a good thing. They are the creative elements in your design that disrupt your readers’ eyes from the body copy and strategically pull them into your offer or sales pitch. For example, have you ever heard of a snipe? A corner snipe is a callout or CTA we place in the top or bottom corner of a mail piece, enticing viewers to turn the page and see the backside offer (or whatever else you’re promoting). Other forms of violators include arrows, callout boxes, circles, bursts, banners, strips, ribbons and whatever you can come up with to help your CTA get immediately noticed by prospects’ scanning eyes. In web design, violators would look like pop-up ads, appearing forms, slide-in sales offers…you get the idea.

Fun fact: Frank H. Johnson, a pioneer in direct mail marketing, invented the Johnson Box, which was “an enticing paragraph just before a letter’s salutation that efficiently and pleasingly synthesized the sales pitch to follow,” according to the New York Times. He understood his target audience had very little time to read an entire letter, so this was his solution to demand attention and get to the point.

6. Consistency versus chaos
When you add stylistic features to your mail piece, be sure you have a color hierarchy and consistency across the design. If you’re showing your front-side CTA in a hot pink burst with type reversed out in white, you should show your back-side CTA or any related content in a similar fashion. This allows the viewer to immediately recognize important, action-oriented information. Define your font, color and size for headlines, subheads, body copy and CTAs — then stick with your plan. For example, if you choose to show your headlines in purple lowercase typography, that’s perfectly fine. What really matters is, every headline must follow suite so your design decision is intentional across the page. You don’t want a cornucopia of typefaces and font sizes going on, as it creates confusion and places your brand on the design naughty list.

7. Color can be key
While color can be a very good thing, we suggest you limit your mail piece’s design to a color palette of three to four colors at the most, using analogous or complimentary colors. A rainbow of colors can cause your piece to look overwhelming and unprofessional — plus, it doesn’t give the viewer’s eyes a natural place to focus. In that case, some white space to give the viewer a place to rest their eyes can also be very effective. White helps with mental clarity and clears out clutter, so a simple, fresh design is always in good taste. Orange stimulates activity and encourages socialization, so it’s a good color to use for calling attention to offers. We think this infographic is pretty cool, as it explains color and the psychology behind the different hues you choose.

8. Custom shapes and layouts
While postcards are simple yet effective, sometimes you want to think outside the postcard and create a mail piece that truly wows your audience — something so cool, they can’t help but hang onto it. Unique elements like special finishes, textured coatings and odd shapes help cut through clutter, enabling your message to quickly get noticed and remembered. If you own a farmer’s market, why not send a huge, juicy-looking die cut strawberry to your audience? If you’re a jeweler, you can give your product photography extra oomph and sparkle with silver foil and glitter coating. The ideas are truly limitless, and the friendly team at Modern can make just about any crazy-good concept come to life. Learn more here.

9. Think coupons
Nothing immediately says “free” or “money off” to an audience like a coupon does. Whether your coupon is an actual perforated tear-off meant to be redeemed in-person, or it’s simply designed to look like a coupon with dashed lines to simulate a tear-off component, it’s a handy idea to incorporate in your mail piece. If your business is brick-and-mortar such as a retail store or restaurant, tear-off coupons are a great idea. If your business is solely online, consider an offer code, such as: “Use code OFFER30 to get 30% off online” and be sure to provide your website and an expiration date to motivate buyers. When it comes to designing around online offer codes, you can still use circular callouts, dashed lines, colored boxes and other shapes to emulate a coupon feel and grab attention without creating a physical, perforated coupon.

10. Design for your audience
One of our bigger clients sells hair services and products, and you better believe the marketing creative for their female prospects looks incredibly different than the marketing creative for their male prospects. Messaging, color choice, layout and image selection should all be thoughtfully chosen in way that’s suited to your target audience. This goes way beyond male versus female. It could mean designing to certain professions, income brackets, ethnicities, locations and so much more. Whatever it is you’re selling, you must know who you’re selling to and how you can best relate to them through your marketing efforts. If you’re looking for more customers like your best customer, check out Modern’s free customer profile report.

11. Don’t forget postal regulations
Direct mail design should be creative and attention-grabbing, but it must also follow the USPS’ rules and requirements in order for designed mail pieces to be properly processed and delivered. Following these guidelines also ensures postage costs are kept at a minimum. Special dimensions, clear zones, mailing panel details, folds and more need to be fully reviewed and understood by graphic artists prior to working on direct mail designs. We suggest you read up on these requirements here.

12. Keep it simple, keep it smart
You’ve heard this before, but truly sticking to it can be a challenge. Avoid using ten-dollar words when five-dollar words will do. Keep your design easy to understand and approachable. If you’re finding a piece is getting overly complicated with too many messages, images or colors, break it out in to a three or five-piece campaign with a simple design and single concept. In the end, it’s better to engage your customer base multiple times with a strategic campaign, than to jam-pack multiple concepts into a single marketing piece.

By Jessica Biondo, Marketing Communications, Modern Postcard

Call a Direct Marketing Specialist at 800.959.8365.

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