Sales Letter Envelope: How to Get Your Prospect to Open Your Mail

How’s your direct mail program working? Not quite satisfied with your response rates? Improve them by changing your envelope.

You’ve carefully selected your list. You’ve labored long and hard over every word, sentence, and paragraph. Your letter is a powerhouse of persuasion with every key element firmly in place, including compelling benefits, powerful testimonials, a superb P.S. and an impossible-to-resist offer.

But all your hard work, your hours of craftsmanship and painstaking attention to every little detail will go for naught unless your prospect opens the envelope.

The Envelope: Your Knock on the Prospect’s Door

Direct mail marketing is a lot like — almost exactly like — “door-to-door” selling, with the outer envelope being your knock on the door. But there’s one big difference. In door-to-door selling, you can make sure that you’re the only salesperson standing at the door. With direct mail, there are no such assurances. In fact, on any given day it’s a virtual certainty that your “salesperson-in-an-envelope”…will be in heated competition with any number of other mailings…all crying out for the prospect’s time and attention.

So, if you surmise from what you’ve read so far that getting your envelope opened is no mean feat, you’re correct.

Which leads to the premise of — and payoff to — this article: There are specific envelope treatments that can increase the odds of your prospect opening your mail. And here are two distinctly different ways to go about it:

1. Make Your Mail Look Like Personal Mail

That means sending it out in a heavy, high-quality paper stock, closed-face, number-ten business envelope with the name and address of your prospect printed on the front. No labels, no window envelopes, and no postage metering. And do not use teaser copy or illustrations. Your envelope should quietly state importance, dignity, value.

For an added personal touch use a commemorative stamp or better yet, instead of one 32-cent stamp use several smaller denomination stamps. (When was the last time you received a piece of business correspondence with 5 or 6 individual stamps?) Another personal touch: instead of printing the name and address on the envelope hire a cadre of students with good penmanship and have that information handwritten.

Also, do not use your company’s name or logo. For example, the upper left-hand corner of your envelope would read — Joe Johnston, 914 S. Hoover Street, Los Angeles, CA 90006.

This envelope strategy can often be a good approach when mailing to executives. Another good technique (albeit considerably more expensive) when targeting upper-level executives is to send your sales letter or direct mail package via Federal Express. Recent surveys of executives on the topic of what gets opened and what gets read indicate that FedEx gets the job done.

2. Treat Your Outer Envelope Like a Billboard

When you take the “Billboard” approach, you make no attempt to disguise the fact that your mail is advertising mail. In fact, as the name implies, using this technique means that you treat your envelope as a billboard — actually printing “teaser copy” on the outside of the envelope. The objective of your teaser copy is to get your prospect to think: “Hmm, I ought to take a look at this.” Here are some examples of effective teaser copy:

THE INVITATION INSIDE COULD HELP SAVE YOU HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS…and provide better financial security for your family. Please open and respond…

DON’T BELIEVE THEM! The airlines that say you can’t get a refund on a non-refundable ticket. On page 3 inside you’ll see exactly how to do it.


COMPUTER CRASHES. Now you can end them — Forever. How? See inside…


Is something free — a free consultation, free Special Report, free video — part of your offer? If so, here’s a tip: Order a rubber stamp (make sure it has a border with rounded edges) of the word “FREE!” and use it to stamp each letter you send out. (If you use a lettershop tell your vendor you want the word “FREE!” — designed in such a way it has a rubber stamp graphical look to it — printed on the outer envelope.) Why a rubber stamp or the rubber stamp look? It suggests urgency, no matter what it says.

In addition, when adding your rubber stamp effect, make sure it looks as though it was added at the last minute, not neatly centered on the envelope.

For a final example, here’s a teaser using personalization that’s a little edgy, but can be very effective. Consider testing it if one of your key selling propositions is that your product or service can show your prospect an increase in sales, profitability, productivity or some other desirable increase.


(Sample letter opening: Ernest, here’s your opportunity to up yours! Up your response rates, up your sales and up your profits. How? By….)

When writing teaser copy all the rules of good copywriting apply. Be specific, be benefit-oriented, speak directly to the recipient and make your copy attention-grabbing, intriguing, provocative. Marketing guru Ed Nash sums it up best: “The outer envelope is the headline of direct mail.”

Don’t give away too much information

The sole objective of your teaser copy is to get your mail opened. So don’t give away too much information on the outer envelope. The element of intrigue is very important. For example, the other day I was working on a project and my initial teaser was, “You save time or we give you a beautiful wall clock. Either way, you win.” Then I thought, “What if they don’t need any more clocks.” So I quickly reworded it to read, “You save time or we send you a beautiful FREE gift. Either way, you win.”

So which of the two envelope treatment strategies will work best? The answer is… I don’t know.

In one camp (Make Your Mail Look Like Personal Mail) you have imminent and highly successful direct mail marketers such as Ted Nicholas and Gary Halbert. In the other camp, you have thousands of highly skilled, highly knowledgeable direct marketing professionals whose efforts have produced billions of dollars in results. Included in this camp is the late, great copywriter Bill Jayme, who is quoted in Denny Hatch’s outstanding book, Million Dollar Mailings as saying:

“Your outer envelope is where your prospect decides whether to stop, look and listen. It’s the come-on — the headline on the ad, the dust jacket on the book, the display window outside the store, the hot pants on the hooker.”

Incidentally, of the 71 Grand Controls (direct mail packages that have been actively hauling in profits for three or more years) profiled in Mr. Hatch’s book, 63 of them — that’s 89% — take the “Billboard” approach. That said, my firm and our clients have had success with both approaches.

To arrive at a definitive answer as to which strategy will work best for you for any given mailing there is only one solution. Test. Your end objective for any direct marketing effort is the most sales or highest number of quality leads for the least amount of money invested. And the only way you can be assured of achieving optimum results is through testing. To quote nationally renowned expert Dick Benson, “There are two rules — and two rules only in direct marketing. Rule 1: Test everything. Rule 2: See Rule 1.”

© 2006 Ernest Nicastro

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