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We all get junk mail, and we all hate it. But when you’re a business you get a lot of junk mail, from every single person who thinks that they have something that you might want. With so much junk mail, it’s hard to actually get us to open anything, so it surprises us when we actually do open and read promotional mail. This happened the other day.

John brought me this letter expressly because he opened it.

“It’s a strange thing, for me to open one of these,” he said, “I think, maybe, we could learn something from it.”

After all, direct mail deals with a lot of the same issues that email does. Much like email, people will immediately dump messages they think are advertisements. Much like junk mail, promotional email needs to not only make people open it, but make people respond. The truth is, there’s a lot we can learn from junk mail, both from what they do right and what they do wrong.

Make a connection

I asked John why he had opened this, even though (he claimed) he knew what it was from the start.

“It said it was from Vancouver, and that intrigued me.” He said.

With something as simple as a sending address this piece of junk mail made a connection and inside they talked about “Vancouver Tech Companies” and  being local. It found something that they had in common and made it prominent.

What we can learn

As Michael said in his persuasive design series: look and act like your target group. If you can make a connection, people are more willing to be persuaded. You can do this by targeting and segmenting your audience, or even just by making sure that you mention a topic that your subject has been dealing with.

Be a person

The letter had a return address, and its signature was from Sunny Hirai, it was written as a correspondence from a person, not a marketing department. It was professional, but not to a fault.

What we can learn

Be someone. Send from a recognizable email address and have a personal tone. People will recognize and remember a person, a company less so and a random address not at all. Blair from Extreme foods is a perfect example of this.

Don’t look like junk

The letter came in a simple white envelope, hand stamped with a Canada stamp and which obviously contained several pages of printed paper. No card, no gloss, just straight out normal paper.

What we can learn:

The first impression is important. Use both recognizable sender addresses and titles that don’t send people’s spam senses into red alert. More than anything, this means matching a receivers expectations. If they’ve signed up for coupons send them “10% off whatsing and wherever”, but if they’ve signed up for a corporate newsletter don’t start hard selling them.

A Mailchimp email subject line comparison study concurs, having found that most high open-rate campaigns were sent with relatively boring titles.

Be consistent

In the end, junk mail in a white envelope is still junk mail. Once opened this piece of mail was still five pages of marketing material with standard promotional language. Did this sell us? No, in fact I didn’t even finish reading it before tossing it aside.

What we can learn:

Just as above, match expectations. Don’t be spam in a ham’s can (except canned ham is spam, so maybe that metaphor doesn’t work). Packaging spam as normal email will only work until someone reads it, and then they’re going to click delete, or worse: “report as spam”.

To conclude…

There’s a lot we can learn from junk mail, both in what they do right and what they do wrong. We deal with a lot of the same issue, we use a lot of the same persuasion techniques, so why not, the next time you receive junk mail take a quick look at it, to see what they’ve done well.

Then stuff it all in their return envelope and return it to the sender, labeled “SPAM”.

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