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Seven

WHo even are we. And what are we selling.

 
 
 
 

a guide to direct-mail advertising:
Or, how to be the best garbage

Believe it or not, direct mail is performing better now than ever. Spam has moved to email, so there's a lot of newly open space in the old-school mailbox. Unfortunately, everything else has also moved to email, so there's roughly a 100% chance that everything a prospect receives in the mailbox is going to be unwanted or unsolicited. That's the pond we're swimming in, and we shouldn't forget it.

 

decent direct-mail ads are easy.
Just do these 5 things.

  1. Survive the trash-pile
    People divide their mail into a read-pile and trash-pile. Most advertisers try to escape the trash-pile by relying on hyperventilating headlines and visual noise.
     
  2. Drive the prospect to one specific action
    The ad should ask the prospect to do one specific thing, be it visiting a specific website for a specific reason, visiting a specific store for a specific promotion, or signing up for a specific offer within a specific timeframe. One precisely articulated, time-contingent action—and nothing else.
     

  3. Include an incentive (usually a coupon)
    Coupons work. They've always worked. Since the dawn of time.
     
  4. Fulfill your promises
    The action you're asking the prospect to perform needs to be performable. So if you're offering a discount, make sure that discount is real and easy to apply. If you're driving to a custom-made URL, make sure that URL exists.
     
  5. Track your data
    Obviously.

That's it. That's the basics. But excellent ads? They'll know how to stand out, and how to stand out beautifully.  The key to doing so is to stay branded and dignified within the context of all the nonsense people are expecting from direct-mail. 

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But Here's how to write an outstanding ad

Be the designated driver

Everyone else in the mailbox is drunk. That means it's easier to stand out by staying sober, elegant, muted. A sleeker, simpler design, beautiful photography, and captivating, even enigmatic headlines can go a long way.

Aim for the fridge

In other words, take your ad seriously. That means refusing to treat your ad as trash, even as you acknowledge that your ad is literally designed to end up in the trash. The goal of the ad cannot stop at the basics; the goal should also be to end up on the prospect's refrigerator—if anything because the prospect loves the ad so much that they want to see it again and again. This can really happen.

Fuck it. Take a risk.

After all, nobody else does. Direct-mail flyers all look the same, and that's why people dislike them and forget them. (Can you remember any direct-mail ad you've received? Ever?)

 

Here's how "fuck it take a risk"
can go wrong

So I was asked to write a direct-mail ad with these constraints:

  1. Help Candid, a new oral-wellness brand, sell custom-designed clear dental aligners
  2. Drive consumers to sign up for a free laser-scan of their teeth at a soon-to-0pen retail location in New York City
  3. Incentivize the CTA with a $200 discount on the purchase of clear aligners

This was hard (really hard) for 4 reasons.

  1. The product was complicated and unfamiliar 
    It requires an in-office visit for an oral laser scan, followed by an approval process, followed by a months-long commitment to using the product itself. Even worse, most consumers haven't heard the term "clear aligners," and instead know the product by the trademarked Invisalign brand—Candid's main competitor. 
     
  2. The price point was high
    Even though Candid sells clear aligners at a significant discount over competition brands, this is still a $2,000 product. High-price-point products require a very different marketing approach and incite a very different behavioral response—one that isn't always conducive to direct mail.
     
  3. The incentive was abstract and indirect
    Incentives are emotional, and $200 is only a lot of money  if it feels like a lot of money. In this case, the discount didn't feel like anything, because it rewards a separate action from the one being incentivized, and only after a massive cash outlay from the consumer. So while the ad is trying to get consumers to sign up for a laser scan, the incentive applies to the purchase clear aligners—an action that happens days or even weeks after the laser scan, and which requires a $2,000 expense. A better (and cheaper) strategy would have been to offer a free, tangible reward to customers who sign up for the scan—a free Quip toothbrush, for instance. 
     
  4. The kitchen is not for vanity decisions
    Some expensive products (like cars or engagement rings or houses) are great for direct mail, because consumers deem these products to be essential. People read their mail in the kitchen, and kitchens are where essential decisions are made, so direct mail makes se. But cosmetic dentistry simply doesn't register with consumers as an essential purchase, so the best practices for direct-marketing a high-price product aren't very useful here. 

So I decided to go big.

Typically, a direct-mail headline should describe the product and benefit clearly and directly. In this case, that was impossible. Candid's product is simply too complicated. A headline like "Get $200 off custom clear aligners," or "Clear aligners delivered to your door for 65% less," or "Straighten your teeth without the metal braces" would either fail to stand out, mischaracterize the product, or risk alienating people who have no idea what clear aligners are. So the responsibility of describing the product and consumer benefit fell to the sub-headline, and I allowed myself to go all-in on an attention-grabbing headline.