Direct Mail Design Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  You’ve got a deadline and orders to put together a campaign, but you stall out staring at the blank piece of paper.  That blank slate, is open to an infinite array of possibilities, so many that you struggle to even start.  Lets face it, direct mail design can be a pain in the butt.

That’s actually the way I feel about blogging.  However, by adopting some basic frameworks you can significantly streamline the process. Today we’re going to give you a simple framework that will make creating your direct mail design easier.

Before Paper Look at Data

Before you grab a piece of that blank paper you need to first take some time to really define who your target audience is.  I can still hear a former colleague telling me, “You can’t possibly know what to say until you know who it is, you’re going to talk to.”

It seems like easy advice to follow, but to do it well requires diligence and thoroughness.  We won’t spend a lot of time talking about it here because we’ve covered it in a previous post.  However, it’s important to understand that defining your target audience will help guide the language, the visuals, and the call-to-action that you incorporate into your direct mail design.

Messaging, Messaging, Messaging

Messaging on your direct mail design should be broken into three primary components.  Headline, supporting text, and your call-to-action.  When you first start working on these don’t focus on where they’ll go on your actual mail piece.  Rather, just focus on refining the messaging in text form, and then later on you can adapt as needed when you incorporate the visual elements.

One other consideration you need to make is understanding what kind of direct mail kit you’re going to be working with.  We’ve covered the primary kits here but for today’s purposes, we’re going to just focus on postcards. 

Crafting Your Headline

In college, I remember an acclaimed ad executive who guest-lectured on one of my courses.  At one point he started talking about out-of-home (OOH) ads, specifically billboards.  “Seven words or less.  You have to consider that most people seeing your ads are driving by at 60-70 miles per hour.  You’ve got a fraction of a second to make a lasting impression.”

Direct mail actually has some similarities.  Fortunately, the mail isn’t flying at you going 60-70 miles per hour, but your recipient’s brain is likely going much faster and so the point still remains.  You’ve got a recipient with a short attention span and so you’re also competing with other mailers getting delivered at the same time. 

Your headline’s job is to set the tone for the mailer and to grab the recipient’s attention.  Going back to the beginning where we focused on the target audience, it’s important to think about what will grab their attention.  Sometimes you can leverage humor, a strong factual statement, or perhaps a bit of intrigue or mystery.

Reinforcing Your Headline with Supporting Text

The first opportunity for supporting text is going to be a subhead.  Whereas the headline’s job is to make the recipient take pause, the subhead is to give a little more substance that encourages them to really get into the meat of your messaging.

Body copy is your opportunity to tell your story.  It’s your chance to explain the who/why/what of your offering.  Who are you and what is your unique selling proposition (USP)?  Why should they buy from you, can you highlight customer success stories?  What are you offering and more importantly how can it benefit the recipient?

Leading a Horse to Water

We’ve all heard the anecdote about leading a horse to water.  Your call-to-action is just that.  It doesn’t ensure that the recipient is going to make a purchase.  However, if you don’t give them explicit directions of what you want them to do then your strategy is hope and we all know that hope isn’t a strategy.

Your call-to-action is also where you can incorporate an offer(s).  Just make sure that you have an adequate expiration period on the piece.  Not too short that they don’t have ample time to truly redeem, and not too long that there’s no urgency.

You also need to make sure your call-to-actions are selective.  If you have too many then you run the risk of diminishing your primary objectives.  I get mailers in my own inbox that have so many calls-to-action like email us here, call us there, visit our landing page or social media pages too.  What’s the primary action that leads them further down your sales funnel?  Focus on that one, exclusively as it makes sense.

It’s important to remember that your direct mail design is just the first step in the selling process.  Every good direct mail design has an equal or greater next touch point.  Whether that’s a landing page or a call center make sure they’re properly prepared to execute the good leads the mailer generates.

Book Covers Matter

Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover lied.  Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t evaluate the merit of the book by the cover alone, but if the cover isn’t intriguing then you’re not going to pick it up.  The same is true with your direct mail design. 

Whether you’re using graphical illustrations or photographs, I like to think about the primary image in the same way you approach the headline.  The image is meant to quickly grab attention in interest.  Accordingly, do your best to avoid stock images unless you’re going to edit them in a meaningful way. 

They should also follow the theme of the headline.  If your headline leans on humor, then your image should be in concert.  Speaking of which, it’s around this point that you need to start massaging your graphics and your messaging so they work well together.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Once you have your messaging and visuals started it’s time to start incorporating them onto your actual direct mail design.  The first thing to evaluate is how well your headline and image are working together.  It’s always good to identify which component is stronger than the other and subsequently use that as your anchor and try variations of the other.

If you happen to have a really strong headline, then you should try a few different visual options to see which one elevates the overall piece the best.  

As you work on placing these you want to consider how they’re balanced on the page.  Inherently we read things from top to bottom and left to right.  Accordingly, there are two primary focal points, in the top left and bottom right corners.  You’ll want to position your headline and image in a way where the focal point of each counterbalance one another in each of these focal points.

Direct Mail Design Balance Samples


I’ve talked about this before, but as an intern in my first professional job I made a colossal mistake.  You see my boss was going to be traveling and so he brought me into I’d been brought into a campaign mid-stream.  We had outsourced an ad design that was going to be printed in a national magazine and all I had to do was proof the piece.

As I’d been brought in mid-stream, I didn’t really know what the campaign was really about, and instead of asking for a copy of the creative brief as a backup I simply looked over the ad and missed a glaring mistake the designer had made.

This was back when vanity phone numbers were very popular, and the designer had used one for our 800 number.  I can’t honestly remember what word he chose, but what I missed at the moment is that the word he chose had only 6 characters, one short of a valid phone number.

As a result, our beautiful and compelling ad rang flat because recipients had no way to know what the actual number was.

Don’t be like Josh.  Proofread your direct mail design before it goes to production, and your contact information. 

50% of My Marketing is Working

There’s an old adage that says “50% of my marketing is working, I just don’t know which 50%.”  This has stuck with me since hearing it at a marketing conference nearly 15 years ago.  While the emergence of direct marketing has made campaign reporting much more transparent direct mail can still be a black hole if not properly tracked.

 There are several effective ways to track direct mail including, but not limited to:

 -Dedicated landing pages only referenced on a mail piece. 

 -Unique phone numbers assigned only to the mail piece.

 -Promotional codes tied to an offer that are unique to that mail piece.

 -QR Codes with a dedicated URL assigned to the mail piece.

 -Physical redemption can be used for retail businesses where the mailer must be provided to redeem the offer.

 As part of our full-service approach, we also offer match-back analysis.  This is where we analyze your responses and conversions during the campaign period.  We then compare that against the original mailing list so we can accurately attribute customers to the campaign.


How You Can Get Started

Interested in trying direct mail for the first time and don’t know where to start, or perhaps you’re simply looking to improve direct mail performance? We have over 20 years of experience and would be happy to learn more about your company and objectives so we can give you a candid assessment of how you could start use direct mail to your benefit.  Feel free to drop us a line at 415-648-7787 or send us an email at