Writing a mailshot

Writing a mailshotMost businesses send out mailshots several times a year, whether they are large-scale mailings, mass emails, or individualised letters or emails to a small number of key customers or prospects. Getting the message right helps ensure that you get a positive response.

A good mailshot catches readers' attention, maintains their interest and encourages them to take action.

Plan your approach

Making a start

Making it convincing

The letter

Making the pack work

Using professionals

1. Plan your approach

Know what objectives you want the mailshot to achieve

You may want to:

  • sell a product or to generate sales leads;
  • launch a new product or service or break into new markets;
  • drive readers to your website, blog or online shop;
  • enhance your service to existing customers by giving them up-to-date information.

Identify your readers so that you know what sort of approach is likely to work best

  • What prior knowledge do they have about your product or service?
  • Why do they need what you are offering?
  • What do they want to hear about your product or service?
  • What are their likely objections?

Choose the right format

  • Most mailings will consist of a pack of one or more items, usually with a letter acting as the central piece.
  • A simple letter can work well so don't discount this option.
  • Copy for email mailshots needs to be brief and factual. You can use graphics, logos and pictures to make your email messages more interesting.
  • Consider inserting embedded links in emails to take readers directly to your website, blog or online shop. For example, you can link to an online brochure, product specifications, case studies of satisfied customers and so on.

2. Making a start

The first step is to write yourself a brief

  • The brief should be detailed and specific - who, what, when, where, why?
  • Consider the needs of different audiences and different market sectors. You should plan to write separate versions of the letter for different groups in your mailing list.

Identify one major benefit and lead with that

  • Other reasons can come later, but start by backing your most likely winner.
  • Forget trying to be clever. You do not need a smart idea. Finding a simple, powerful way to say what your product or service does for people is usually the best approach.
  • If your product is truly unique or exclusive, say so.

Work out how to get the reader's attention

  • Offer a tangible and quickly-realised benefit for an obviously reasonable price.
  • Other approaches include highlighting unusual product features, emphasising low prices, launching special offers and competitions and using startling headlines.
  • Send a free product sample, if this is relevant and viable.
  • Include a small gift, a voucher or an unexpected gimmick. Good gimmickry wins attention, even from serious corporate customers.

Find something new to say, even if your product or service is well established

  • Brainstorm ideas. For example, think about new or unexpected uses or unlikely substitutes for it.
  • Look at it again as if you had never seen it before.

Be aware of topical links to outside events and your other marketing activities

  • For example, exhibitions and trade or consumer advertising.
  • Plan your copy to exploit seasonal factors and any known buying patterns.

Try out your ideas

  • Ask other people, especially customers, to read your draft copy and tell you what the words mean to them.
  • Test different versions of your mailing, with different messages, on small samples. Find out what works best before sending the best mailing to your entire list.
  • Email mailings are particularly quick and easy to test. You can quickly see how many emails were opened, how many readers clicked through to your website and so on.

3. Making it convincing

Make your offer sound credible

  • Be direct, enthusiastic and honest. Do not write anything that is untrue.
  • Explain all the good reasons for buying.
  • Anticipate objections and counter them.
  • Make all the facts and figures you quote accurate and specific.

Use language your readers will feel comfortable with

  • Tailor your wording to your audience - natural and relaxed for consumer mailings, more purposeful for business mailshots.
  • Match your tone to your company's image and your industry.
  • Avoid jargon or technical terms, unless you are writing to a technical audience.

Offer plausible trade-offs

  • 'Buy three, get one free' is attractive. Buyers can see you are trading off price against volume.
  • A trial offer of your product or service is powerful.

Exploit third-party material that backs up your claims

  • Testimonials will always boost your success rate, especially a copy of an original letter.
  • Reprints of press cuttings give credibility.
  • Quote reputable and credible scientific studies that support your points.

Spell out the terms of your guarantee

  • This is especially important if you are targeting new customers.

12 ways to maximise response

  • Write a straightforward headline, featuring your main benefit, to start the reader off on the right track.
  • You have only seconds to make an impact. Get to the point immediately and avoid waffle in your opening sentence.
  • Explain your offer. Make sure the big benefits are in the first paragraph.
  • Show how your product solves the customer's problem.
  • Be clear. Be simple. Be convincing.
  • Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  • Focus on the reader and the reader's needs. When you are writing, talk to the reader directly, as 'you'.
  • Use the tried and tested attention-getting words - award-winning, bargain, big, bright, easy, first, free, improved, love, money, new, now, offer, safe, save, want, and, above all, you.
  • Avoid sounding self-important in the hope of sounding serious.
  • By ending a paragraph with a question, or ending a page in mid-sentence, you can tap into the cliffhanger effect and attract readers to read on.
  • Check through what you have written. Then ask someone who does not know your product or service to check through it again.
  • Read everything out loud. If it sounds strange or forced, it is - and you need to modify it.

4. The letter

The first few words are crucial

  • You have less than two seconds to convince the reader it is worth reading.
  • You should usually include a highly focused, relevant, attention-grabbing headline.
  • In the first paragraph, describe the benefits.
  • The bulk of the letter should explain and amplify your offer.

Make the letter as long as it needs to be to say what you need to say

  • It is a marketing maxim that long copy outpulls short, as long as it is relevant. Research and response levels both show that even the busiest people will read on, if they get a whiff of a worthwhile benefit.

Use the formats that are successful for other people's direct mail

  • Formatting devices - italics, bold, underlining, indenting and subheadings - can break up slabs of text. But beware of making your letter look messy.
  • The letter should look like a letter, rather than a piece of print.
  • Letters should be signed, preferably by hand - this can double responses.

Finish on a call to action

  • The letter itself, the leaflet and the order form should each end with an exhortation to act: 'To do this, do this now.'
  • Make it clear to the reader what you want them to do.

The PS is vital

  • Restate your main point and call to action. Your PS will often be your most-read sentence.

When you have finished, proofread everything you have written

  • Spelling mistakes and glaring errors of grammar will distract from your message.

5. Making the pack work

Make the writing and design work together

  • A multi-piece mail pack should be planned as a whole, with one theme. This includes factors like the phrasing of the order form.

Personalise wherever possible, by using the recipient's name

  • Apart from the letter and envelope, you may be able to pre-print names on reply cards and order forms.

Including several enclosures can increase your response rate

  • Enclosures must be relevant and attractive. High quality enclosures are more likely to be kept and could be acted on at a later date.
  • You can enclose leaflets, price lists, case study sheets, photographs, testimonials, newspaper cuttings and order forms.
  • A pack with several pieces gives you several chances to put your offer across and get the reader hooked.
  • Bear in mind the added costs of production and postage.

Encourage immediate responses or buying decisions

  • Offering a free gift or added benefits by a certain closing date is a proven way of boosting response.
  • Be aware that business customers and government departments may disregard any offer that comes with a free gift.
  • Make sure your mailshot is not misleading (for example, offering a free gift that requires payment of a fee or saying that the reader has been selected as a prize-winner). You can get advice from the Committees of Advertising Practice.

Make it easy to reply and find out more

  • Use a coupon with a Freepost address, or include a Business Reply envelope or reply-paid card.
  • Always give a telephone contact point to encourage spontaneous enquiries. Consider providing a freephone or low call cost number.
  • Include your email and website addresses.
  • If you want to encourage customers to visit, provide clear details of your location including a map.

Provide an order or enquiry form that is as large and attractive as possible

  • Repeat your main points, so the form can still clinch sales, even if it gets separated from the pack.
  • Make the instructions clear and legible.
  • Provide a faxback order form and a freephone number to encourage people to buy instantly by credit card.
  • If possible, print the name and address on the form. This removes another barrier to response and guarantees you a complete, readable address.

Offer as many payment methods as possible

  • Consider giving interest-free credit for orders placed before a fixed deadline.
  • Offer existing customers their normal credit terms.

Make the most of the envelope

  • Using a short message - printed or franked - can build interest in the message inside. You should usually repeat or build on this message as the headline for your letter.
  • Neatly handwritten envelopes are always opened. If you are a small firm, mailing a small consumer list, consider writing envelopes by hand and using stamps instead of the franking machine.
  • Put your return address on the back of every envelope. This allows you to update your database if letters are returned.

Ten most common mistakes

  • You write the right mailshot, then send it to the wrong people.
  • You hedge your bets and fail to give readers one compelling reason to buy.
  • Your copy forgets to deal with the most obvious objection to a sale.
  • You fall for a witty headline that does not sell your product or service.
  • The copy makes exaggerated claims that people do not believe.
  • The brief is vague, so you get vague copy that fails to deliver a clear and targeted message.
  • Your letter annoys people by failing to explain the product or service clearly.
  • You turn people off by patronising them.
  • Readers misunderstand your offer, are disappointed, and leave you bearing the costs of returns and refunds.
  • Your excellent mail pack fails to make up for a product or service that is wrongly priced.

6. Using professionals

Should you write the mailing yourself or outsource the task?

  • If you have a good knowledge of your product and the sort of people who buy, you can probably do it yourself.
  • Look through the direct mail you receive each week and learn from other people's mistakes. Which envelopes do you open? Which letters do you read? Which do you reply to? Why? Your mailshot must be compelling and provide a clear call to action.
  • Do a test mailing to a small proportion of your audience to find out quickly and cheaply if you can afford to take the DIY approach. If the reaction is nil or negative, take the hint and get help from a professional.

A freelance should be affordable

  • A good freelance should be able to work with you to write a well-thought-out letter and copy for your order or enquiry forms and price lists for a few hundred pounds.
  • Even top direct mail specialists can often be brought in for less than £1,000 for a small job.