Direct mail: so ugly it works?



In a 2008 article for Target Marketing, consultant, Denny Hatch, described one of his first conversations as a new hire under Lew Smith, creative VP at Grolier Enterprises. One of the first things he asked Smith on his first day:

Why does direct mail look so junky?

It’s true.  Just last week, I was holding a successful prospecting letter saying nearly the same thing.   In a world where everything is streamlined, cohesive, “on-brand” and painfully neat, a lot of direct mail stands out as...ugly, to be honest.

Now that may sound harsh, but the important words in that last sentence are “stands out,” not “ugly.”

When we talk about most other things, it’s almost always true to say you want to stand out for the right reasons.  If we were talking about your front yard, you’d definitely want it to stand out because it was pretty and not because it’s overgrown and half-dead.

But effective direct mail isn’t trying to be pretty.  Its job isn’t to be clever or witty or attractive.  The sole purpose of direct mail is to get a potential donor to open it, read it, and absorb the information.  And if testing has shown anything, it’s that pretty, clever, and witty aren’t going to do that consistently.

Ugly will, though.

As Smith told Hatch on his first day, “neatness rejects involvement.”  When most of what a potential donor sees in her mailbox is streamlined and painfully neat, standing out for the “right” reasons is harder than not.  A pretty fundraising letter becomes one more envelope on a pile of pretty letters and mailers. 

The axolotl: so gross, and yet so, so good.  Truly The direct mail of Amphibians.

The axolotl: so gross, and yet so, so good.  Truly The direct mail of Amphibians.

Or as Smith put it, “if a thing is too neat and tidy, a reader will look at it and say, ‘isn’t that nice?’ and move on.”  Your letter may be appealing to the eye, but in appealing to the eye, your letter may get lost in the pack.

By flouting the rules of design--using multiple shapes, fonts, colors, and folds in the same letter, using bullets and captions--your letter may be the ugly duckling, but it’s the duckling everyone is going to focus on.

My fiancé can’t sit and enjoy a meal if the tablecloth is crooked.  I once knew someone who couldn’t pay attention to a word I said if the drawstrings on my jacket were hanging at different lengths.

Chances are we all know a few people like that.  We might even be one of them.  We are all accustomed to perfect design and organization in the media we see everyday.  It can make the things that don’t fit that mold very jarring.

But after that “jolt,” as Hatch terms it, comes curiosity.  What is this?  Who sent this to me?  What is this about?  Suddenly, the “ugliness” of the letter becomes the thing that pulls your potential donor in.  Now she’s opening your letter and focusing on your content, and that’s exactly what a good direct mail letter does.

That’s why we say in direct marketing: ugly works.