Making the most of mail

Feature Story

A successful postal advertising campaign has to lure the recipient in

By Bob Blagg

Recently, I had a client of mine ask me how he could get some business during his slow time. I told him that he should send out the Cash Flow Surge Letter that is included in the HVAC Profit Secrets Toolbox. So he took the names of 100 of his clients that he had not done business with in the last year and mailed out the letter as instructed.

Well, just to let you know, I contacted him and asked him how it went. He proceeded to tell me that he did not get one reply from his mailing. Not one! So after talking to him I sat in my office and racked my brain wondering what could have happened. I have hundreds of clients that have used the same strategy and it has worked like gangbusters for them. So I asked my client to send the letter to me exactly like he had sent to his clients.

Well, the mailman delivered it to me just the other day. When I pulled it out of the mailbox I noticed right away that he had done one thing right and one thing wrong and I had not even opened it up yet. So I opened it up and found another big mistake on the letter inside.

What were the mistakes I found? Well, I will tell you in a little bit. But right now I want to tell you about something that one of my mentors, Gary Halbert, taught me years ago.

What would you do if you had to make your next mailing work? What if you could only mail one letter and, if you didn’t get a response, you would, quite literally, be beheaded? Try thinking like that sometime, like your life actually depends on the success of your next mailing. Can you do it? Can you put yourself in that frame of mind? Well, I did, and I came to a number of conclusions, and I want you to reason along with me.

Now listen if, for real, you had to mail one letter to a stranger and you had to get an order from him or you really would be murdered, here is the way I think you would be thinking.

First, I bet you would NOT mail bulk! Certainly not if your life depended on it. Would you? I sure wouldn’t for at least three reasons. First, if the stranger I was writing to had moved, my bulk rate letter would NOT be forwarded to him and, if my life really was on the line, I sure wouldn’t chance non-delivery. Would you? Secondly, if I mailed bulk rate and my letter did get delivered, I would be scared to death that maybe the stranger to whom I was writing would see it was bulk rate and not open it because he was very busy and did not feel like taking the time to open anything except his personal mail. Thirdly, I had a sneaking suspicion that sometimes postal workers would throwaway bulk rate mail because they were too tired or too lazy to lug it around and they knew nobody would miss it!

That’s way too many maybes for me. And so, my friend, for those three reasons, I decided to mail my ‘life or death” letter via first-class mail.

But wait. Since my life was on the line, I also wanted to make sure my recipient knew it was first-class mail. In other words, I wouldn’t risk confusing him by using metered mail or a first-class printed indicia. No. Absolutely not. Since my life depended on getting that letter opened, I decided I would use a real, honest-to-God, live postage stamp.

Enough about postage. The next thing that occurred to me is that I would not put a label on my carrier envelopes. Certainly not if my life depended on it. No. What I would do, instead, is type or write my stranger’s name and address on that envelope because I would want him to accept my letter as a personal communication.

OK, what else? Well, I decided I wouldn’t put any teaser copy on the envelope either. I mean, honestly, would you risk your life on getting a response from a letter mailed to a stranger if the outside envelope said: ‘Here’s how to get TIME magazine at half price!” I wouldn’t.

What would I write on the envelope? Well, I decided my best bet would be to write something like ‘URGENT” or ‘FIRST CLASS MAIL” or else maybe write nothing at all. And what about the corner card? Should it reveal that my letter was from TIME-LIFE BOOKS or THE AJAX WIDGET COMPANY or HVAC PROFIT SECRETS INSTITUTE?

Not on your life. Not on mine, anyway! No, sir. If, quite literally, my life depended on it, my letter was going to arrive in a plain white personal-looking envelope with a real live, honest-to-God, first-class postage stamp, a typed or handwritten address, no teaser copy and a corner card that revealed only (and very discreetly) the sender’s return address.

Doesn’t sound very impressive, does it? Stay with me.

So much for the envelope. So far, I had done everything I could (short of mailing by registered or certified mail) to get my letter delivered and accepted as a piece of personal mail and, therefore, I had done what I could to achieve the primary and most important thing in all of Direct Mail Land, which is: I GOT MY ENVELOPE DELIVERED and I GOT IT OPENED!

What’s that? Are you thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?” Listen my friend, as simple as this sounds, the No. 1 reason for the financial failure of most direct mail is because IT NEVER GETS DELIVERED and/or NEVER GETS OPENED!

Really. Aside from making the wrong offer to the wrong list, not getting your letter delivered or opened is the numero uno mistake. Think about it: What does it matter how sparkling your copy, how compelling your offer, or how attractive your price if your intended recipient never receives (or opens) your letter? You know, this simple truth seems to me to be so self evident that I feel a bit silly being so redundant about it. But, you know what? I’d rather be redundant than bankrupt, and bankrupt is where a lot of mailers have wound up because of failure to grasp this simple and ‘obvious” concept.

More about that later. But now, let’s say we’ve got our letter opened, so what else is there to worry about? Hmm? Let’s see? Well, what about this? What if my prospect opens what he thinks is a piece of personal mail and then, all of a sudden, he finds out it’s not because he sees a color brochure, a printed order card, a BRE, a rabbit’s foot and some kind of ‘Yes-No” ‘hot potato”? No good. Certainly not if my life depended on getting a response. No good at all. There’s just no way I would be willing to risk having my guy open what he thought was a personal letter and then see all that stuff and go, ‘0h, yuck!”

Nope. You know what I decided I would want him to see when he opened that letter? Actually, it’s so unusual I’ll bet you’ll never guess. And, unless you’re very broad-minded, you’ll probably never forgive me for this kind of anarchistic thinking. Because what I decided I wanted my guy to see when he opened that envelope was a (gulp!)…a … a … a…A LETTER!

Bob Blagg

Yes. I wanted him to see what was, or at least appeared to be, a real, honest-to-God personal letter. And nothing else.

And so, my very first ‘life or death” mailing contained only two elements: the rather plain envelope I’ve already described and a simple one-page letter that had the appearance of a personally typed letter.

In any case, what you have just read is the evolutionary process of how I developed my A-pile, B-pile concept. If you create direct mail yourself what I suggest you do is put those particular pages in a file someplace and re-read them every time you are about to design another mailing. And, if you pay other people to create direct mail for you, I suggest you photocopy (just this once, you have my permission) these pages and give them to your creative person and tell him/her to consider the concepts contained herein before your next piece is created.

Onward. The A-Pile vs. The B-Pile. Are you ready to get started? Good. You are now about to learn the most important thing you will ever learn on the subject of direct mail.

I am now going to give you my semi-famous A-pile, B-pile lecture. It goes like this: Everybody in the world divides his mail into two piles, which I call the A-pile and the B-pile. The A-pile contains letters that are, or appear to be, personal. The B-pile contains everything else: bills, catalogs, brochures, printed announcements, envelopes that obviously contain a sales message, and so on.

Now listen up: The most important thing you can ever do when creating a direct-mail promotion is to make sure your letter gets in the A-pile. Here’s why. Everybody always opens all of their A-pile mail and only some of their B-pile mail.

It’s as simple as that. And when you are spending hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars to mail a sales message, you want to make damn sure that everybody who receives your letter will at least open the envelope. You know, this simple truth seems to me to be so self-evident that I am always amazed when someone wants to argue with me about it. And, usually, as you might expect, the most vigorous arguments come from the most ‘experienced” advertising people. These people just love to tell me how they always found that B-pile direct mail is more cost effective.

They are always wrong. You see, they may have sent a personal-looking envelope but usually, as I’ll explain later, they forget to eliminate the ‘Oh, yuck!” reaction. But first, let’s talk about the differences in the appearance of an A-pile envelope as opposed to an envelope that is destined to wind up in the B-pile.

It’s really quite simple. You see, A-pile envelopes always look personal. Not necessarily personal like they came from your Aunt Minnie, but, at least, personal like they were a communication from one real person to another real person. The best (most cost-effective) A-pile envelopes always have a live postage stamp affixed. They never have teaser copy. They never immediately reveal by the corner card that the material inside contains a commercial message. They are never addressed by label and they are seldom oversized or odd shaped.

Want an example? A plain white No. 10 envelope with a typewritten address, a first-class postage stamp and a corner card that reveals only the name and address of the sender. Down with awards for graphic design, up with response!

Now, let’s talk about B-pile envelopes. What do they look like? You already know. You’ve seen thousands of them. They are usually label addressed and they contain teaser copy, award-winning graphics, photographs, Yes-No windows, windows with a fake check showing through, ‘Miami Vice Colors,” a printed bulk-rate indicia or else a printed first-class indicia (the stupidest mistake in direct mail), tear strips and any and everything else a misinformed direct mail ‘expert” can think of that will (he thinks) help get his envelope opened.

It’s so sad.

Now, bear with me. I want you to imagine, in your mind’s eye, that a very busy man (or woman) is going to his mailbox and there, lo and behold, he finds a double handful of B-pile mail. Can you see it? Can you see that unbelievable ‘collection of creativity”? Can you see all those pastel-colored window envelopes? See the one that says ‘Free Oxygen to Everyone Who Breathes”? Can you see the one that says ‘The Most Important Collection Of Books Ever Offered by TIME-LIFE”? Can you see the one that has (oh boy!) three windows)? Can you see that fat one that contains enough printed material to make up the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica? (Come to think of it, that one did come from the Britannica.) Can you see the one that has a photo of a starving child begging for food? Can you see the one that some idiot tried to personalize by computer printing (on the envelope!) some cute little message that says, ‘Here’s good news for the Blagg family and everybody else who lives close to 1415 2nd Street!”? Just look at that mess!

Can you guess what happens when a busy man (or woman) goes to his mailbox and finds such a collection? What is the first thing he will do with all this stuff? Go ahead and guess. I bet you get it wrong. OK, let’s find out. Did you guess that the first thing a person will do with all this stuff is throw it away? If you did, you are wrong. You see, the first thing a person will do with it is sort through it to see if he has received any A-pile mail. After that, then he throws it away!

Now, before I go on, I want to admit that he will not always throw all of it away. If he happens to spot an envelope that catches his eye and, if he happens, at that very moment, to be just dying to buy another magazine subscription or self-help book or, if he has just been going crazy waiting for a piece of mail from the Columbia Record Club, then maybe, just maybe, he will open one of these envelopes and see what it is all about. But don’t count on it. The percentages are against you.

OK, if getting your letter into the A-pile is the most important thing you can do, what is the next most important thing you can do? The answer is simple. The next most important thing is to make sure your letter stays in the A-pile.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose your prospective customer gets an envelope that looks like one of the A-pile envelopes that I have already described. There is no doubt that such an envelope will be opened. It looks personal, it has a first class stamp, it does not obviously contain a sales message and, all in all, it is an excellent example of a personal-looking envelope. However, what happens when he does open the envelope and he finds a bunch of material that looks like the creation of it has set up some graphic artist for life.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I’m talking about the big, colorful brochures, Yes-No tokens, lurid, oversized order forms, ingenious award winning ‘hot potatoes,” whistles, bells, kazoos and a personal message from President Bush.

What will happen? I’m sure you already know: What will happen is that our prospect will say, ‘Oh, yuck!” and, most likely, he will now throw the promotion away!

No good. Here is a better way. I want you to imagine what will happen when your prospect opens the A-pile envelope and, instead of seeing ‘Graphics on Parade,” he sees what appears to be a simple, typed letter and another envelope that is plain, white and sealed and has typed on it: ‘Please open this envelope as soon as you have read my letter. Thanks. GH.”

What will happen? It’s easy to figure out. Your prospect will begin reading the letter to find out what this is all about. And then, if you are skillful enough, your letter will grab your prospect’s attention, it will hold his interest, it will whet his appetite for your goods or services and then, at the end, it will refer him to the sealed envelope and tell him to open it for more information and descriptive literature.

And what will he find when he opens the sealed envelope? Nothing special, really. You see, what he will find is all the same stuff (order card, brochure, reply envelope, etc.) that was in many of the B-pile packages I have previously described. But what is different, what is so very different, is when he was exposed to this material. It’s a matter of timing. So it is with selling. Any kind of selling. It doesn’t matter if it is door to door, direct mail, television, radio, newspaper ads or whatever; if you take the trouble to warm up your prospect, to seduce him a little before you pop the big question (‘Will you buy my goods?”), then your closing rate will be much, much higher.

So, please remember what you have just read the next time you decide to do a mailing and I guarantee that your return on your mailing will increase 100 percent.

OK, so what was wrong with your client’s letter? Well, the first thing I noticed, as Gary Halbert said, was the envelope. It was a No. 10 white envelope and someone had hand addressed it to me, which was great. My client also used a real first-class stamp on it. But the return address was a colored company logo instead of the hand-written name and address of the owner of the company. What I mean is my client should have handwritten his name and his company address for the return address. This told his client is was an advertisement before it was even opened.

When I opened it, the first thing I noticed was that my client had put his company name and address at the very top of the letter. Again, his client knew it was some type of advertisement before even reading it. The last thing I found wrong was that when someone put my name at the beginning of the letter, where I told my client to put Dear Friend, instead he put my name in bold letters: MR. BLAGG.

Please do not waste your money by making the same mistakes. Always remember the A-Pile vs. B-Pile every time you are sending out a mailing.

Bob Blagg’s HVAC Profit Secrets Institute has helped more than 963 HVAC contractors skyrocket their profits. He has been in the HVAC Industry for 30-plus years. If you would like to contact him, you can either visit his Web site at or e-mail him at

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