File: DMNCOL40

Topic: DM News -- column #40

Date: 3-9-06

Approximate length: 800 words

Topic: Letters vs. postcards


What works best -- a letter, self-mailer, or postcard?


By Robert W. Bly



            In his book Secrets of Successful Direct Mail (Bottom Line Books), the late mail order consultant Dick Benson says: “Self-mailers almost never work.”

            “Testing has consistently proven a one-page letter with a compelling offer outperforms a glossy mailer [in business-to-business lead generation] by 100 percent,” says Liz Taylor of Liz Taylor Marketing.

            And in a recent issue of his e-newsletter, copywriter Alan Sharpe says, “In business-to-business direct mail lead generation, letters invariably outpull self-mailers, including postcards.”

            As a copywriter, I’ve always been prejudiced in favor of sales letters, because it’s my favorite form to write.

            But obviously, a sales letter is not always better than a postcard or other self-mailer -- and in recent years, I’ve come to love postcards for the results they can produce for marketers on a budget.

            Consider subscription promotion for magazines, where double postcards and vouchers routinely outperform traditional letter packages on an ROI basis.

            For more than a decade, Medical Economics tested all sorts of letter packages against a snap-pack control for Physician’s Desk Reference. None of them could beat the self-mailer.

            And look at the outrageous success of the magalog – a long-copy self-mailer format – in selling nutritional supplements and consumer newsletters.

            The copywriters I talked to were split. A few, like Ivan Levison and Herschell Gordon Lewis, praised self-mailers and said they can work well. Others, such as Sharpe and Jeffrey Dobkin, are clearly fans of sales letters.

            “On a dollar-for-dollar basis, self-mailers can outperform a closed-face envelope in b-to-b mailings,” says copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis.

            “No, you can’t get mailed credit card information. But more and more, when the pitch is for a phone call or online response, a quick look gets read where a classic mailing seems ponderous.

            “Closed-face means either a two-way match-up or an unimprinted response device, both of which kick costs upward. Windows scream, ‘This is a bulk mailing.’”     

            “The great advantage of the self-mailer is that it’s cheap,” says Ivan Levison, a copywriter specializing in software. “It’s also easy for the prospect to unfold a self-mailer. There’s no envelope to tear open, so you know that you stand a good chance of getting the reader into your message.

            “The self-mailer is a good choice for making noisy announcements, which is why retailers use them at sales time. If you have a simple, clear story to tell, a self-mailer can make a great deal of sense.”

            A lot of copywriters, ad agencies, and marketing consultants like packages better than self-mailers because they can charge the client more for them, and because they find writing and designing letter packages more fun and rewarding creatively. Not a good reason to use them, of course, as Jeffrey Dobkin admits.

            “When clients ask me what is the most effective piece we can send I always say a letter,” says Dobkin. “And it’s not just because letters are my specialty or that I charge so much for them. I do think letters are the most effective you can be with the understanding that this is in most instances. There are exceptions.

            “A personal-looking letter is almost always opened. I like the teaser ‘Gift Certificate Enclosed’ on anything that looks commercial: the open rate is exceptional.”

            “In certain situations, letters may outperform self-mailers,” says copywriter Joan Damico. “In business-to-business direct mail, getting through the corporate mail room may be better served with a #10 letter package.

            “It also depends on what stage in the buying cycle the prospect is receiving the mailing. A prospect in the awareness phase may respond better to a colorful self-mailer, while a customer in the loyalty phase may respond better to a #10 letter package.”

            Here are a few rules of thumb that can help you select the right format – traditional letter package, self-mailer, or postcard – for your next mailing:

            * Postcards can work well when the primary response you seek is a visit to a Web URL or a call to your toll-free number.

            * When your story is detailed and complex, a traditional letter package is likely to work best.

            * Study your market. See what formats are being used in your competitors’ controls. Use the same formats for your mailings – at least to begin with.

            * When you are generating leads with a free bait piece offer – such as a white paper, catalog, or brochure – use a one-page letter in an envelope with a business reply card.

            Of course, the ultimate strategy for format selection is to split test -- and let consumers vote with their responses.


About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 60 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt & Co.). His e-mail address is and his Web site address is