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"The Envelope, Please ..."

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Happily, at this year's Academy Awards, there wasn't an envelope mix-up. (If you care to relive last year's, just Google "Warren Beatty Faye Dunaway Oscar Envelope.") The powers that be at the Academy Awards (not to mention PricewaterhouseCoopers) made certain that "envelopegate" wouldn't be repeated.

In direct marketing, we see plenty of envelope gaffes — maybe not quite as critical as announcing the wrong movie for Best Picture, but mistakes and mishaps that could easily be avoided. Even more often, we see missed opportunities.

The lesson for today: don't underestimate the envelope.

Waitaminute. With everything else that goes into a direct mail campaign (literally and figuratively), just how important is the envelope anyway? 

Um ... VERY. 

The envelope is the virtual gatekeeper to your entire package. You need to hook your audience immediately. You need to convince them not to throw the piece away; you need to convince them to open it and learn more.

The first trick is to make your envelope stand out (unless you're going for a stealth approach, which we'll address a little later). Of all the mail in all the juke joints in all the world, what will get yours noticed?

• Size - Don't limit yourself to a standard size. Try bigger than average — or even smaller than average. We once had great success with a package that looked exactly like a #10, but was about 50% bigger in each dimension.

• Shape - Square envelopes cost more to mail, but it may be worth it. They definitely stand out.

• Pictures - Include a photo or an illustration on the envelope. This works particularly well if you're soliciting for a non-profit. Children and animals. Enough said.

• Color - Since most mail is white or buff-colored, a bright, unexpected hue will certainly get attention.

• Teaser copy - Make them an offer they can't refuse ... right on the envelope.

• Mystery - (Or the aforementioned "stealth" strategy.) Send a blind envelope, plain with a return address but no company name. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's also opened many an envelope.

Another tactic is to start the marketing conversation right on the envelope.

• Benefits - Give them an at-a-glance list of what your product or service can do for them.

• Offer - If you have an offer worth promoting, put it front and center on the envelope.

• Target audience - Let them know the promotion is for them: "Teachers: Open now for free classroom supplies."

• Preview - Tell them what they'll find inside, outside.

• Deadline - Let them know when the special offer expires. Create a sense of urgency from minute one.

Finally, think of ways to make the envelope more engaging. We're talking about tips, tools, tricks, and — yes — gimmicks.

• Touch - Choose a paper stock or production technique that makes the envelope feel different — and, hopefully, better — than the rest of the mail.

• Windows - Many campaigns come in window envelopes for obvious (money-saving) reasons. But, maybe you can come up with a more interesting reason for a second window. A glimpse of something inside, for example.

• Lumpiness - Yes, lumpy envelopes get opened. Whether it's a skinny little pencil (an old standby from 60s and 70s magazine solicitations) or a shiny quarter glued to the reply device. If it feels like there's something inside besides folded paper, the envelope will get opened.

• Postage - Use a live stamp rather than an indicia. Even better, use a live commemorative stamp.

• Opening - Build in a zip-pull or encourage the recipient to open the envelope in some other unusual way.

• Stickers - Include stickers on the envelope with directions to pull them off and adhere to the reply card. 

Believe it or not, people like being told what to do. So don't hesitate to (politely) order them about. "Open here ..." "Look inside ..." "Respond by April 15th ..."

For your next campaign, design the hardest-working envelope you can come up with and test it against something quieter. The truth is always in the testing, and why not start at the very beginning?

Your new and improved envelope.


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