ugly direct mail works

May 07, 2013 |

Ugly WorksHoots reminded me a few days ago how much she likes ugly. I have to say, it’s hard not to take that kind of comment personally, after all, we’re married and partners in all things.

But once I realized she wasn’t talking about me, I caught up. And I had to agree, I like ugly, too. In a world where beauty reigns . . . where even newscasters are chosen for their chiseled features or Cosmopolitan allure, I like ugly.

Ugly gets direct mail packages opened.  We do a ton of direct mail for clients. Both mail we produce, as well as projects we consult on. The reality is that good direct mail is sorta ugly.

In a world where the post office is struggling, and many organizations’ response rates are declining, and my mailbox is crammed full of everyone’s “offer,” I want direct mail appeals for my clients to get opened.

And ugly works. Don’t believe me? Try this: Spend an hour at the post office watching people pull mail out of their PO Boxes and sort through their mail. Almost all the items look the same. Almost all of it gets tossed in the trash right there. Even the pretty, polished advertising pieces get trashed.

But watch what happens when someone gets the UGLY PIECE. (If you’re lucky enough to run across it).  They handle it . . . they look it over . . . they put it in the take home pile. Sometimes it gets opened on the spot! And that’s the hardest thing to do in direct mail . . . get the envelope OPENED.

Over the last five years, we’ve tested package after package after package. And it’s true. UGLY wins over pretty every time. With the same internal components. UGLY gets the package opened.

So if you want your appeals to get tossed straight in the trash, if you like the idea of hundreds of your carefully crafted and most eloquent requests for funding to never get read, then avoid “ugly.”

Here are my rules to make sure your donors ignore your direct mail:

Make sure your envelopes blend in.  Better yet, make them look like pretty, slick advertising pieces; you know, to show how professional and cool your organization is.

Don’t use bright, contrasting colors; they won’t match your logo palate. Make sure you have your branding document near at hand when designing.

Refuse to use an unusual or attention-grabbing teaser; after all . . . they don’t fit your image and who really reads those words anyway?

And most of all, NEVER use a large, unusual font; people might think you don’t understand great design!

Bottom line: if you want to improve your direct mail revenue, then be bold, embrace a little “ugly.” It’ll be OK, in fact, you may enjoy the income more than great design. (I know you may be hyperventilating at this point, but it’s OK, it’ll be worth it when you see the improved income).

Don’t believe me? Good. Test it. Do it. Get someone’s attention. GET UGLY.

Remember, it’s a direct response fundraising piece . . . it’s not primarily branding design. It’s primarily about getting the envelope opened because if they never open the envelope it doesn’t matter how perfect your message was. Sad but true.

I like ugly.  Ugly raises money. And I’m all about raising money.

How about you? Does this make you crazy? I’d love to hear what you think.

Oh . . . and if you haven’t signed up for our newsletter, you really should. The next issue is centered on why you must stop sending email blasts. It’ll leave you thinking, I promise. We save our best stuff for the newsletter. It’s free and you can sign up here.


Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: alexbrn)

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