Legendary copywriter Gary Halbert used to make a big thing about the importance of getting your direct mail opened and read.
How People Sort Their Mail - The A Pile And B Pile
Gary would teach the concept that most people get their mail and sort it into two piles - the A pile and the B pile - before opening anything.
Why do they do that?
Because everybody's time is limited.
The A Pile gets some attention.
The B Pile is often thrown away unopened.
Are There Three Piles Of Direct Mail?
You might argue that you actually you have three piles with the A pile split into A1 open and look at now and A2 open and look at later (which is how I tend to work) but you get the idea.
Your job if you are sending a direct mail letter is to make sure that you are in the A pile and you stay in the A pile even after the letter is opened.
How do you send A Pile direct mail letters?
Gary Halbert goes into the A pile / B pile ideas in a lot of detail in his classic Direct Mail Nerd letter from The Gary Halbert Letters but the principle is simple.
You make your letter look as much like a personal letter as you can.
And that means removing all the tell-tale signs that it is a bulk direct mail letter from the envelope.
A proper envelope.
No teaser copy declaring "25% Off Our Magazine Subscription".
No commercial return address that gives the game away. Note that in the US, return addresses are used but are rarely used in the UK.
No labels for the address or window envelopes. Writers of personal letters don't work like that so an individual typed or even hand written address.
No franking machine "stamp" but genuine stamps - and I've even heard some direct mail experts say that you should be using several stamps to make it look like you are using the leftovers of what you've got. First class makes a much better impression than bulk mail / second class.
How do you stay in the A pile?
You get your direct mail letter opened so the next critical step is to stay in the A pile and not have your letter fail what Dan Kennedy calls the 3 second test...
"Is this junk and, if so bin it!"
So you want your letter to be revealed in the right order.
No order form to give the game away.
No fancy brochure or flyer to scream "I WANT YOUR MONEY".
The envelope has to be opened so that the reader sees your headline which has a strong "what's in it for me" or curiosity/news theme.
How Did Gary Halbert Discover These A Pile And B Pile Secrets?
Well in some ways they are obvious.
It's probably what you do when you get your mail each morning - you sort into an A Pile and a B Pile.
But the copywriting experts weren't dishing out this advice and in his early days as a direct mail novice, Gary Halbert struggled to get by.
He tells the story of spending the rent and utility money to do another test mailing.
Enough was enough and he asked himself a critical question.
"Gary, what would you do if you had to make your next mailing work? What if you could only mail one letter and, if you didn't get a response, you would quite literally, be beheaded?"
It's a tough question but it gets you into a great frame of mind for writing copy and it certainly helps you to focus on the critical aspects like making sure you are in the A pile and not the B pile.
Anyway you can get the full story, as told by Gary Halbert at the Direct Mail Nerd
Is Gary Halbert Always Right?
That's the great thing about direct mail and direct response marketing.
You test, see the results, establish your control and then continue to experiment.
Sometimes teaser copy on the outside is needed.
Really important official stuff looks like boring post which can be put to one side - but a notice that says "You have only seven days from the date this letter was posted to avoid the fine" may well get you opening that letter immediately.
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If you want to read more about direct mail, try: