The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 3)

By: Wayne Gurley

My last two blogs in this series covered the first two Critical Elements of Direct  Mail (#1: The Mailing List and #2: The Offer).  Now I’d like to review the next most Critical element in direct marketing – the Letter (or Copy).

Copy is defined as the words you use to express your offer to your audience.  So, if you’ve selected the right list and chosen the right offer, the next thing you’ll want to do is communicate the case for your product, service or organization in clear and precise language.


One of my early mentors in direct marketing described the process of writing a direct mail letter like this:

“I sit down at my typewriter, put in a piece of paper, and wait until drops of blood begin to appear on my forehead.”

(I later learned this was a quote from American journalist, author and dramatist, Gene Fowler, who — at the time —  my mentor did not credit.  Fowler’s actual quote is:  “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”)

Actually, it isn’t quite that bad. But it sometimes can feel that way. There’s a lot of pressure involved in writing a good piece of direct mail copy - because your copy must perform.

Unlike general advertising, which is sometimes hard to measure, you get your report card immediately with a direct marketing effort. Results are what you live for. And results are what you get – sometimes good, sometimes bad.

I’ve found that the best way to start a direct mail letter is by writing the reply slip first. That way, you understand your offer and what you will be asking your reader to do.


In my experience, writing is a lot like preparing to run a race or participate in an athletic event. You’ve got to “warm up” your mind and fingers to the task at hand.

I usually start by writing a few trial lead paragraphs. Generally, those first few efforts are quite poor and discarded later in favor of a better effort after I’ve warmed up. However, a rookie writer will simply leave them in, meaning their letter doesn’t get to the point as fast as it should.

It’s important to identify your lead paragraph. Most of the time, those first few “warm-up” paragraphs aren’t really leads at all, but rather attempts at getting to a lead. Rookie writers often bury their lead paragraph somewhere deeper in the letter. The secret is finding the “real” lead and putting it in the first paragraph.

Another tip: Make sure your lead is short, to the point and captures the reader’s attention.


In the 1991 film, “City Slickers,” Mitch (Billy Crystal) asks Curly (Jack Palance) what he thinks is the most important thing in life. Curly holds up one finger and says it’s “one thing.”

When writing a direct mail letter, it’s important to focus on “one thing.” One big writing mistake is trying to cram too much into one letter. Have one main objective, and don’t let anything stand in the way of clearly communicating that objective. If you use a story as an example of how your organization helps people, use only one story – not two or three (which is something I see a lot).

Ask the reader to do one thing – not two or three. You can give them options on the reply slip as to how they want their gift to be used, but don’t give them too many things to figure out in the letter. They won’t take the time to do that.

Make sure your copy can pass the “trash can” test. Most people open their mail over a trash can, so you only have a few seconds to capture their attention. If you make your copy too hard to understand or if it’s too difficult for the reader to determine what you want them to do, they’ll simply throw it out.


How long should your copy be?

Some direct mail consultants will tell you to ALWAYS use long copy – at least two to four pages. But in reality, the most important element in a good letter is not its length, but its content. What you say and how you say it is infinitely more important than how long it takes to say it.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” letter length for every organization. My rule of thumb has always been – make the letter as long as it needs to be…no longer, no shorter. Of course, this puts a big burden on the copywriter to know when to stop writing.

Keep in mind – if you can do justice to your subject matter in a single page, then don’t overwrite for the sake of conforming to some preconceived notion about ideal copy length. If you need more space and can do a good job of keeping your reader engaged and interested, by all means, use longer copy.

But don’t take my word for it. The best way to find out what’s best for your organization is with a split copy test.


  1. Write in a warm, personal and conversational style.
  2. Avoid “institutional” copy. Don’t use “we.” Instead, use “I.”
  3. Communicate a need for urgency. Use a deadline if possible.
  4. State your case. Explain why your letter is important and why the donor should respond.
  5. Thank the donor in advance for their support.
  6. Don’t use two letter signers.
  7. Don’t apologize for writing.
  8. Don’t use reputation copy – like “we’re the best.” Support your case with verifiable information.
  9. Don’t use big words that will confuse your reader.
  10. Don’t use humor. Humor is a very individual, personal thing, and can backfire on you.
  11. Always ask for a response.
  12. Always use a PS. It’s one of the most read sections of any letter.
  13. Make the letter easy to read. Use easy-to-read fonts of a good size. Indent your paragraphs.
  14. Don’t use graphics or photos in the letter. Keep it text only.
  15. Don’t assume people will know what to do. Tell them what to do.
  16. Don’t use teaser copy unless you really know how to “tease.”
  17. Make your copy dramatic and compelling.
  18. Use short sentences and paragraphs (six lines max).
  19. Ask for a specific gift amount.
  20. Don’t list your board of directors on your letterhead.
  21. In multi-page letters, don’t end a page with a completed paragraph. Continue it on the next page.
  22. Don’t use semi-colons (only lawyers can understand them).
  23. Use statistics sparingly and only to support your case.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment