The following excerpt is from Robert W. Bly’s book The Direct Mail Revolution: How to Create Profitable Direct Mail Campaigns in a Digital World. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound
An effective direct-mail package doesn’t just ask for a response; it makes readers feel they’d be making a mistake by not responding. It also creates a sense of urgency, or gives a compelling reason why a response is required today, not tomorrow or next week.
It boldly asks for the order or some other response, such as a request for information. The focal point at that stage becomes the reply element: the part of the package the reader mails back to the advertiser to place an order or request more information. This is usually a reply card in the case of lead generation or an order form and reply envelope in the case of one-step marketing.
In the digital age, many marketers wonder whether they even need a paper reply element. After all, why not just provide a URL to a form the prospects can fill out online or a QR code they can scan with their smartphones?
Here’s why: Having a paper response element, even if it isn’t used, is a visual indicator that the mailer has an offer for the recipient and a response is required to get it. The response form can be a traditional reply card or just a 4-by-9-inch slip with the response URL and toll-free phone number printed in large, bold type. The separate reply element in effect says, “This is direct response mail, and we would appreciate a reply from you.” This increases overall response, both from people who use the reply element and from those who prefer to respond by phone or online.
Given that I strongly advise you to include a reply element in your DM package, let’s explore some basic rules that apply to all types of reply elements.
1. Easy to fill out
The reply form should be clear, never confusing. Tell the reader what to do in simple 1-2-3 language. The form should be designed so that anyone can follow your directions without assistance. If the form is complicated, unclear, or difficult to complete, people will throw it away.
For a one-step promotion, make it crystal clear how much should be added for sales tax, shipping, and postage. If the recipient isn’t sure, they’ll throw out the form rather than ask for help. Complex order forms can lose orders for you!
2. A clean design
The design should be simple, clean, and uncluttered. Don’t try to cram too much into a limited space. If you have a lot of information, use a larger form. A cluttered design turns readers off. And you don’t want an order form that repels potential customers.
3. Enough room to fill out the form
This rule seems obvious, but I see it ignored in hundreds of mailings every year. I’m sure you’ve been frustrated by forms that ask for your full name and then give you a quarter-inch of space to write it or that force you to cram your address, apartment number, city, state, zip code, and phone number on a single line.
When designing your order form, give the reader plenty of room to write. A good test is to fill out your reply card or order blank yourself. Do you find yourself writing in tiny, cramped letters to make it all fit? If so, rework it to give your prospects more breathing room.
4. Fewer steps
The less work the reader has to do to complete your order form and get it in the mail to you, the better. Remember, the more time it takes to fill out a form, the less likely people are to bother.
There are a number of things you can do to make it easier for them. A self-addressed, postage-paid business reply envelope saves readers the trouble of addressing and stamping their own envelopes. A toll-free phone number and URL printed on the order blank gives people the option of phoning in their order or going online rather than mailing in the form.
If you’re mailing to businesspeople, tell them they can attach their business card to the reply form, eliminating the need to fill in their name, company, address, and phone number. Better still, if you use an envelope with a transparent window, the mailing label can be affixed to the reply form (which shows through the window) rather than the outer envelope. Then readers won’t need to fill in their name and address on the reply card because you’ve already done it for them.
5. Headline your offer
The first sentence of the reply form should be a headline that restates the offer and rekindles the reader’s desire to take advantage of it. Here are some examples:
YES, I would like to receive a complimentary information kit about the Thomas Securities Investment Trust.
American Museum of Natural History
YES, I accept your invitation to become an Associate Member of the American Museum of Natural History at the low introductory rate of . . .
GBC Binding Machines
YES, show me how SureBind will make my Plastic Binding System even better . . .
6. Short sales pitch
In the most concise language possible, your reply form should restate the nature and terms of the offer and highlight the key benefits stressed in the letter and brochure. You want to summarize your whole sales pitch in a few sentences so the reader can get the essence of your story just by reading the reply form.
Although it’s important to be concise, it’s even more important to be complete. Don’t leave out information the reader must have to make a proper response. For example, if your minimum order is $100, the form should specify that: “Minimum order — $100.” Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do to people who send you checks for $25 or $50 or $75.