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A Brief Guide to Developing Direct Mail Creative for Testing

Direct mail is our passion and we love figuring it out for clients who are committed to the channel. Many clients come to Gunderson Direct for the full range of services—strategy, data, creative, production, and analytics. Even those who handle their DM in-house often come to us to help with creative testing.

Response fatigue, the need for fresh ideas, and a change to the competitive environment are just a few reasons we get the call to come up with ideas for the next winning mailing. We call them “beat-the-control” projects. Here are the questions we ask to kick off these campaigns:


What are you beating?

The first question we ask is for clients to define success. Usually it’s a statistically significant higher response rate than current controls, or a 10 to 15% bump. Other goals could be to improve conversion ratios, lower costs, or address a new competitive threat.


Why is it working?

We’ll want to know what’s currently working and why. This includes garnering any insights we can into past successes and failures. Here are some ways to get at that:

  • Start with a thorough analysis of the current control and the history behind it.
  • Get behind the numbers. Look for insights from the team about why they think it worked.
  • Perhaps equally important—find out what’s been tried and has not worked.
  • Understand barriers that historically hinder response.
  • Get info on environmental changes that could impact the target (and response) since the last control was developed.
  • The competitive landscape—how do competitive mailings and offerings differ?

We do a formal briefing process that starts with a client completing our brief and follow it up with a “live” kickoff with the marketing team. That puts us up-to-date quickly on the brand, the product, and target.


What to test?

Clients often have their own thoughts on what will move the needle in a test. Here is a list we use when considering next steps in beat-the-control assignments:


Offers make a difference and can be relatively easy to test. Even if the offer is set in stone, we might consider:

  • Offer prominence—giving it more or less emphasis visually and in copy.
  • Offer and price structure—How important is it to mention price, rates, or other cost descriptors to generate a lead? If the offer is half off on a $100 product, is it better to express it as “half off,” “save 50%,” “pay only $50,” or do we give a $50 gift for a full-price purchase?
  • Respond-by dates—make these tighter or longer to test what pushes response.

This is just a sample of the many ways to test offer strategy.


What can we say, not say, or show to impact response.

  • Benefits and features—Are there new benefits or better ways to express them? Updated charts and lifestyle visuals can sometimes help.
  • Envelope copy—Getting more people to open your mail could be one of the quickest ways to boost response. Test different promo envelope copy, a stealth approach, different sizes, etc. We’ve got a post on that.
  • Copy length—In general, if long-form copy is working, try a short letter or even a bullet-pointed flyer approach. And vice versa.
  • Inserts—Add an insert to boost offer communication, add testimonials, provide a chart, etc. that you feel could improve response.


Formats influence engagement. And different formats generally work best in different categories, so category experience helps. If format alternatives have not been recently tested, then consider letters, self-mailers, postcards, snap packs, and even odd sizes.





A 10% decrease in cost with the same response rate can be every bit as valuable as a 10% increase in response. So, pull out an insert, shrink down the package, and look for other cost-cutting measures. A word of caution—if your brand matters, consider the impact of a cheaper package on brand perception. Beware of short-term cost savings that erode your brand.

In general, we look at the creative task along a risk-reward spectrum. We’ll consider test alternatives that stay close to, yet update and refresh, controls. And we’ll look at longshots that stand the chance to really break it open (we hope).


How will you analyze results?

A poorly designed test can lead to inconclusive results—a waste of money and resources for all involved. So, before you launch into what to test, know how you’ll test. Design your test so quantities are readable, segments are discrete, and attribution is in place. Consider the implications of geography, seasonality, and target segments, among other variables.


Final word: Be prepared. Every control fatigues eventually. If you’re a regular mailer, keep ahead of the curve with constant creative development and testing. Don’t wait until you’re scratching your head over falling response rates to have that next test ready.

One Final Note

If you’re interested in adding direct mail to your marketing mix, then drop us a line. We’re standing by to answer any questions, and, most importantly, to help you get your mail opened.

Jeff has been with Gunderson Direct since 2017 and has played a significant role in the growth of the agency’s client base while helping to manage growth across agency departments.