Which came first: the words or the design?

Inquiring marketing minds want to know, but as is the case with so much of marketing, there is no single - let alone simple - answer. Words and design blend together to form what we in the industry call "impact." Impact doesn't happen in a vacuum. People respond to words and designs that matter to them. In this chapter I'm going to put the missing pieces of the puzzle together by talking all about postcard design.

Of course, there's more to creating enticing copy on a direct mail postcard. It's not just the words you use but how you use them - even where you place them and in what order they appear. So if you're not already a graphic designer, I want to get you thinking like one. You need to get into the frame of mind that a designer should have. I'm certainly not expecting you to learn this trade to the point of sitting down at your computer and executing an award-winning design. However, I fully expect you to understand exactly what you need so that you can evaluate any design presented to you by a so-called expert.

Many people think that the quality of any graphic design is determined by how "pretty" or visually appealing it is, this couldn't be further from the truth…

Although making the card look good is important, the only true measure of any design, at least commercially, is "How well does it pull?" By pull we mean what type of response it elicits. Does it pull in calls, or pull people into the store, or pull people away from the rest of the mail pile?

In essence, does the design accomplish what it set out to do?

That's why this chapter is called "Response-Based Design" and not "Gorgeous Design." In other words, your designer shouldn't be looking for art awards or best in show; he or she should be looking for a response. I always say that the merit of a graphic designer is based on the performance of his or her designs as opposed to the beauty of them. You may be able to put together the most beautiful ad that the world has ever seen, but if it doesn't make the phone ring it isn't worth the paper it's printed on. If you can create both - something aesthetic that pulls, well then, I'd like to hire you!

The following text is a breakdown of the different actions to take and ways to make sure that your beautiful design is also a big-time moneymaker.

"BE" the Target Market

Every potential customer is different, and they are not naturally inclined to want to listen to advertising. They are going to continue to ignore you, unless you can persuade them to listen. To do that, you have to get into their heads, think like them, "BE" them.

People respond differently to marketing messages, so you need to know what your target market wants to hear. Then and only then will they spend some of their valuable time reading your postcard. The following are a few examples - two products and one service - of how to get the attention of even the most difficult to reach prospects on your list:

Example # 1 - Product:

Wrinkle Reducing Eye Cream

Who do you need to be in this scenario? Most likely a woman over the age of 40. Try it. Pretend you are a woman over 40 with crow's feet (wrinkles around the eyes, for all you guys) and they are getting worse and worse each day. Did you pretend? Are you her? Good. I'm already her so it was super easy for me!

Now, how bombarded with advertising is this woman over 40 that you're being? PLENTY! So how are you going to communicate to her in an ad to get her to respond?

You may have a headline that pushes the button of how upset she is about those crow's feet like, "Crow's Feet Getting Worse as You Age?" You may want to show a before-and-after image. Now you've got her attention - and you're halfway there.

Example # 2 - Product:

A New Golf Ball (that goes farther and straighter than the competition)

Middle aged women aren't the only ones getting blitzed with heavy-duty marketing these days. Golfers are another saturated market, so in the case of pitching a new golf ball you'd want to create different messages to target different markets.

So, let's pick one to demonstrate with: Your target market is senior citizen golf enthusiasts in the state of Florida. First, I want you to figure out what the number one benefit of this particular product is for that target market.

To answer that question, you should use three things:

  • Reasoning: You have to think about certain attributes of senior citizens.
  • Experience: Do you know any seniors that enjoy golfing?
  • Research: If you do, then call a few up and find out what they have to say about their golf game as they got older.

In this case, in particular, I can tell you from stories I've heard that the older the guy is, the straighter the ball goes. Practice makes perfect and older people have generally had much more practice. Also, as people get older they start to lose strength overall. This means that they will start to lose distance on their shot. It is relatively easy to tell that the distance factor is going to be the biggest benefit for them - and therefore should be the focus of the ad.

Also, this audience, in particular, will want a direct design. How about a putting tee with the words "You Are Here!" pointing at your ball sliding into the cup? Again, we're not calling for Picasso here; just a response-based design that is sure to get your prospect's attention!

Example # 3 - Service:

Home Refinancing

This example has you trying to determine the biggest benefit of refinancing a mortgage for families with a household income of $75,000, revolving debt of $15,000 and over two children.

Sound complicated? It can be.

The question to ask yourself is, "What visual would appeal to this market?" Would it be a fixer-upper theme for home repairs? Luggage and passports to appeal to their wanderlust for travel? A boat or some other luxury?

Maybe the benefit is getting cash to pay off their debt; maybe it's paying for college, or even lowering their monthly payments. There is no real way to tell just by looking at the situation. Now you are going to have to do some research.

Research the Target Market for What to Say: Two Essential Questions for Prospects

Research can be as in-depth as actually phoning some of the people in the target market and conducting surveys, or as simple as looking at your experiences with past customers. If you decide to survey, here are some good questions to ask:

Question 1:
What do your top five customers' orders have in common?

Do they all purchase a certain add-on? Is there a service that none of them take advantage of? This will help tell you what a "good customer" actually is. (We'll get back to this mortgage refinancing example in a few paragraphs.)

Question 2:
What is the most-often-stated benefit of your service?

In order to learn more about your industry (or if you are a designer - your client's industry) you must ask: Is it something specific about the product? Is it service? Is it price? Ask your customers. They know and you need to know for obvious reasons. This is one where you can BE the customer to a degree, but from my personal experience there is nothing better than asking. If you were to ask 20 customers, "What, precisely, is the greatest benefit Company X's service or product has provided you?" 10 may have the same answer while the other 10 have varied answers.

For instance, let's say you sell and install window treatments. You find out from reviewing your invoices that a certain blind sells great and most of the customers that purchased them live on the water or in a high-end part of town. (It just so happens it's a fairly expensive product.)

You know that this particular blind never fades and helps keep heat out of the room. You may assume that this product sells to a high income home owner because of these incredible features. But upon surveying that demographic, you find they simply chose what they thought went with their décor and felt would add style to their home.

If you were to advertise this product with the features YOU thought were so valuable, you may or may not be pulling in the recipient's attention with that headline. They may or may not need that problem solved. You may find the majority of people say your sales rep Tom is so handsome and charming most housewives buy whatever he recommends and he has a bent for this particular blind.

I mean, if all your customers shout out in delight about the very same feature or benefit of your product, by all means, go with what works. I am in no way suggesting you reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing your postcard, but merely look at the design not just from your standpoint, but the standpoint of your customers.

Heck, maybe you should put Sales Rep Tom's handsome mug on that baby, after all! It may not be your idea of an aesthetically-pleasing postcard, but remember that's not the true test of a good postcard design - what pulls is!

You honestly may not know how your customers respond unless you ask.

Now let's revisit that targeted family we are trying to help refinance their home: Pretend you are a family man or woman with a household income of $75,000 with revolving debt of $15,000 and you've got two kids. Kids can be pretty expensive. So, why would you like to refinance?

I'm not going to give you the answer this time. It's up to you to "BE" the recipient and then engage in some research and use your own good reasoning to figure it out. I know you can come up with it because we have a host of young designers here at PostcardMania that don't have kids yet or a mortgage and they've figured it out! All it takes is a vital imagination and the ability to role play; two qualities most small business owners have in droves!

What Do You Want the Customer to Do?
(If YOU Don't Know, How Can THEY?)

Since you have now figured out what the customer needs to read/see to be interested, next you need to figure out what it is you want from them. What are you trying to accomplish? Sometimes it is as simple as getting them to go to your website for more information. Other times you are looking for them to pick up the phone and actually place an order. Either way, spell it out for them. We're not writing a mystery novel here; whatever it is that you want your customer to do, you need to state it clearly on the postcard.
Don't mince words and whatever you do NEVER sacrifice clarity for cleverness.

I repeat: Don't sacrifice clarity for cleverness.

For example, if you want them to call and talk to a representative, the card should very clearly say, "Call today and speak to one of our representatives for more details." This simple statement tells the customer exactly what you want them to do.

It even tells them when to call: Today.

Remember, response-based design is 
addressing their response,
not yours.

Writing cryptic messages or riddles, using artsy references or literary quotes, copying famous artists' poses or hiding mouse ears in your designs may make you and your close, intimate circle of friends smile, but if your customers don't get it, what response are they likely to give?

That's right - none.

Believe it or not, people like to be told exactly what to do in advertising. They appreciate fun, whimsy and cleverness, but not at the cost of clarity. You should make it as easy as possible to make the requested action. The more your prospects have to think, the less likely they are to actually act.

Case in point: how many clever commercials have you seen on TV that you have no idea WHO the company was or WHAT the product is - let alone what they want you to DO? Personally, I LOVE the stop-motion video Kindle commercial - it's beautiful! Great song and fun to watch! But, how many times did I have to see it to figure out what the heck they were promoting. AND THEN every time it came on I'd think to myself "what are they promoting again?" until the end… when I'd see the word Kindle. I just wonder how much money they spent on airtime for all those ads?

Another key part of the call to action is supplying the proper supporting information along with the request. In this case, the phone number should be prominent and be the closest element to your call to action. Common sense would seem to say as long as the phone number is somewhere on the promo, they will find it and give you a call. However, the reality is that if the number isn't right there for them to see, your response rate will drop considerably.

Make sure the call to action is bold and easy to understand. And keep any important contact information in close proximity to the call to action. Remember, postcard design should be less artistic and more simplistic.

What Should It Look Like?

The "look" of a direct mail postcard is a subject of much debate, so I am only going to give you my experience from literally thousands of clients and postcards. I've seen the flops and I've seen the raving successes so, if you only trust me on one issue, trust me on this one.

Let's start by evaluating one of my best clients.

The owners of Measurable Solutions, a business management consulting company, know how to market. So much so that they made none other than Entrepreneur magazine's "Hot 100 List" in April 2005 - this is a list of the fastest-growing new companies in the country.

Clearly, these guys know how to get the phone to ring and the truly amazing part about their postcard campaign is that for the first four years of their business they only promoted to one mailing list of 30,000 names.

They started by providing their service to one industry - physical therapists who own their own practice.

I love this story because we didn't design their card and I learned something really fascinating from them. You see, I am a graphic designer. So my background dictates that the card has to be aesthetically pleasing to the recipient. These guys proved me so wrong!

Not only did they completely wring out of my brain that idea but they also taught me something else: sometimes to BE the customer you have to actually BETRAY what you think about that customer.

What Measurable Solutions does, in a nutshell, is business management consulting. I know, sounds pretty hoity-toity, high brow, conservative, intelligent… right? And who they do it for is doctors who own their own practice, specifically physical therapists that own their own practice.

So you may automatically assume that you need a conservative-looking postcard, especially if you're mailing to doctors that have never heard of you. Right?

This really drove home "BE" the recipient to me. Think about it. A doctor with his own practice is a man or a woman - just a person really, right? A woman or a man with a personality, likes, dislikes, problems and the rest. What is going to communicate to this person?

Well, Jeff Lee and Shaun Kirk, the owners of Measurable Solutions, surveyed them to find out. They didn't assume anything and this is the art they presented to us to use on their business launch postcard:

I cringed inside, smiled politely and said, "Are you sure this is what you want to use?"

Well, they mailed this card over and over to the same 30,000 doctors for years.

The color pops, I imagine it makes them smile, and it solves the most common problem discovered from surveying - not enough patients.

After more surveying, they found another problem these particular doctors deal with: to be able to treat a new patient, that patient has to be referred by an MD. Shaun and Jeff found out PT's (physical therapists) all over the country lure these MD's to refer patients by FEEDING them. Yes - buying them meals. They also discovered PT's absolutely loathe this activity. They simply consider it a necessary evil.

So despite its obvious lack of artistic merit, its design imperative is impeccable; this postcard answers those points in a way PT's find comforting and the folks at Measurable Solutions find profitable. In the end, that's the true test of an effective design.

The point I'm trying to make is this: The beauty of the design is secondary to the message; and it's secondary to whether or not the message communicates directly to the recipient.

To this day Measurable Solutions has never changed their successful action of a simple, bright yellow card with legible and immediate communication. They've never tried to add an "aesthetic" image to what has already been working so well. Would an aesthetic image pull even better results for them?

Maybe - maybe not.

Regardless, they're not willing to take the risk, and I don't blame them. If it were up to me I would probably do a test mailing with a great image to a small portion of the same list and compare. On the other hand, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."


Start Planning Your Own Marketing Campaign!

chapter index: The Ultimate Postcard Marketing Success Manual
chapter 1: Marketing Strategy Defined
chapter 2: Two Step Marketing
chapter 3: Attention Grabbing Marketing
chapter 4: Overcoming the 4 Marketing Obstacles
chapter 5: Email Lead Generation is NOT the Answer
chapter 6: Marketing ROI is Key, Not Responses
chapter 7: How to Build a Marketing List
chapter 8: Marketing to Customers
chapter 9: Marketing to Follow-Up List
chapter 10: Marketing to Targeted Prospects
chapter 11: Targeted Mailing Lists 101
chapter 12: Targeted Mailing Lists 102:
Keep Them Fresh
chapter 13: How to Design an Effective Ad
chapter 14: 10 Elements of a Effective Postcard Design
chapter 15: Writing Effective Ad Copy
chapter 16: Crafting a Successful Marketing Offer
chapter 17: Web Design Marketing Tips
chapter 18: Building an Integrated Marketing Plan
chapter 19: Setting a Marketing Budget
chapter 20: Setting a Marketing Schedule
chapter 21: Marketing Repetition is Crucial
chapter 22: Tracking Marketing Campaigns & Improving Results
chapter 23: Lead Follow-Up Process
chapter 24: Complete Marketing Process Overview
chapter 25: Postcard Marketing Case Studies
chapter 26: Key Marketing Terms Defined