Guest Post: “What Not To Mail.” 6 Reasons to choose a letter package over a self-mailer.

Dear readers: These days it seems that the go-to direct mail piece is the self mailer.  In this guest post by Marjorie Bicknell, she addresses 6 reasons you should consider ALL of your options.

The television show, “What Not To Wear,” offers women simple rules that create attractive outfits for individuals who don’t have a clue how they should dress.

If only there were a television show called, “What Not To Mail.”  It would offer marketers simple rules for creating effective direct mail that enhanced their ROI. And like “What Not to Wear,” it would demonstrate that a single solution – no matter how popular – may not be the right solution for every problem.

Take the self-mailer. As a format, it has a lot going for it. It’s a quick read. It’s colorful. It stands out in the mail. It’s often inexpensive. But all these advantages don’t necessarily make it the go-to piece for every direct mail solicitation.

A whole cottage industry has grown up around printing self-mailers for small businesses, making many individuals believe that a self-mailer – and I include postcards in this category – is the most effective format they can choose. But in side-by-side tests, direct marketers have found that letter packages in a #10 envelope continually beat self-mailers.

Here’s why:

  1. A letter in an envelope is “real” mail. Self-mailers are attention-getting, but they also announce themselves as “junk mail,” making it easier to throw them away. Because a #10 envelope is the standard business size, it automatically feels more important to the prospect. It also allows you to tease a prospect to look inside, which makes them more commtteed to reading your message.
  2. A letter is still the most effect tool a direct marketer has. In his article, The 12 Most Common Direct Mail Mistakes…And How to Avoid Them, copywriting guru Robert Bly lists not including a letter as “Mistake Number 3.” He says, “The sales letter – not the outer envelope, the brochure, or even the reply form – is the most important part of your direct-mail package. A package with a letter will nearly always out pull a postcard, a self-mailer, or a brochure or ad reprint mailed without a letter.”
  3. A letter package offers privacy. Think about it – have you ever received a credit card or insurance solicitation in a self-mailer format? That’s because these solicitations can carry personal information that the prospect may not want to be revealed. When writing direct mail for weight loss companies like Jenny Craig and NutriSystem I quickly learned that – despite the photograph of the newly slim individual on the front – self-mailers bombed. Why? Because prospects were upset that people could see we thought they “needed” a diet.
  1. A letter package gives you room to tell your story. Self-mailers have limited space, so you are forced to write in headlines and use graphics to get your message across.  That makes them an excellent choice when the message is simple, the offer is compelling and the product is eye-catching. But sometimes you need both time and space to tell your story … and an envelope lets you tuck in additional pieces that allow you to approach the prospect in different ways and make a more complicated pitch.
  2. A letter package is more personal. Yes,digital printing allows you to change the photograph, the headlines, the body copy, and even the name on the product itself to target the individual, but the very nature of a self-mailer – a billboard in the mail – fights any attempt to make it feel like a one-to-one communication. Letters by their very nature are personal, even when the only personalization used is in the address and salutation. Take the time to personalize the letter further and the letter becomes even more effective.
  3. A letter package can be more economical than a self-mailer – and provide a higher ROI. A collectible company once asked me to test against a #10 control with a self-mailer. The self-mailer – which did an excellent job of showcasing the product : beat the #10 package by 60%. But the self-mailer cost 36 cents to print … and the #10 pacakge just 16 cents. So we took the copy and art from the self-mailer and adapted it to a #10 format and tested it against both the self-mailer and the old control. The #10 format beat the self-mailer by 40% – and the old control by 100%. Best of all, the cost of printing the new package was just 18 cents, so we not only increased response, we also maximiaed ROI.

So next time a client reflexively insists that he or she wants a self-mailer, point out to them that – as attractive as the format may be – self-mailers may not always be as effective as a plain old direct mail letter kit.

About Marjorie:

Marjorie Bicknell is a freelance copywriter and creative consultant. She runs Bicknell Creative a virtual creative services boutique that brings together experienced talent to create direct marketing that consistently beats controls. She is the winner of over 30 marketing awards including an Echo and 16 PDMA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact her at

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