How Cubism Is Like Direct Mail

Do you enjoy viewing paintings by the masters such as Rubens, Michelangelo, and Vermeer? Most people, whether they are art aficionados or not, can connect with these painters, since their style of rendering the figure is very life-like.

What about Picasso, and the style of Cubism? I smile when I hear people who are not trained in the arts say, “I can do that.” And “This painting is not pretty.” But for those who fully understand the intent of a Cubist painter, that changes everything. They understand that Cubism is about multiple perspectives, meaning that it fuses the past and present, and different views of the subject at the same time.


Direct mail also uses a multiple perspective approach, and the most brilliant pieces are not necessarily the prettiest. Sometimes the creative appears so simple that, again, I smile when people say, “I can do that.

For a piece to be successful in direct mail you need to look at past, present and future simultaneously. From the past, you need to analyze the data of what worked and what didn’t. In the present, you plan the timing of the mailing, and how to get someone to open the envelope and respond. For the future, you need to think about how to retain that person for future purchases or fundraising efforts.

In the Cubist painting above, notice the face is rendered in different perspectives. The lips and eyes are drawn as if you are looking straight at the person, but the nose and ears are in side profile. Direct mail requires you to look at different angles also. Angles such as — Who is your audience? What is the goal of the mailing? If it’s for marketing a product or service, what are the benefits and offer, while for a nonprofit, it’s what would make someone feel as if they are making a difference?

When you take this Cubist approach, you too can become a master — a master of direct mail.

One Minute Critique

Take a look at this magazine subscription card above that I came across (I removed all references to the title and publication).

While keeping its simplicity, the above card can be improved dramatically to elicit a stronger response. I took the liberty to rework it below. Here’s what I did.

1. Knowing there are only seconds to grab someone’s attention, I didn’t want to hide the best component of the offer. It needs to be emphasized. A proven way to do that is with a burst.

2. “Free” is hidden under the “Yes” copy. I moved it to a more prominent position and made it much bigger. As all direct marketers know, “Free” is a very attention-getting word.

3. I emphasized the “Free” component even more by adding an image of an iPad. This gives prospects a better idea of what they will receive.

4. The title, “Special Subscription Offer,” is fine. If you can give a sense of timeliness to it, even better. Is there a holiday coming up that you can tie it to? Here I changed the title to “Special Holiday Offer.”

5. There are two offers on this simple card: one on the top and one on the bottom. Also, the strong selling point “SAVE 69%” is smaller than the rest of the copy. If someone is considering the offer, I want to make it as easy as possible for the person to select the best option. Therefore, I put both offers together and enlarged and bolded the “Save” copy.

6. Finally, I added an arrow next to “Best Deal.” Arrows have a way of attracting attention–let’s use them!

Fall email2

Now look at both cards. Can you see that the bottom card’s message is much stronger and easier to figure out quickly? These changes are just a starting point. Even more can be done.

Direct response creative (whether it’s email, direct mail, a landing page or banner ad) can be a very effective tool in bringing in new revenue, subscribers and members to your organization–when done properly.

Don’t Litter Between 11AM-12:30PM?

Look at the above sign. All other times it’s okay to litter?

We all know that can’t be and for those of us who live in New York City this is a very familiar sign — it’s the alternate side-of-the-street parking sign. But in this email the sign appears to be about littering, not parking. You may even wonder what the “P” stands for.

This is a perfect example of why these 3C’s — Context, Conciseness and Clarity — are so important in all creative. Let me explain how it applies to the above image:

CONTEXT — This sign is taken totally out of context. It’s not hanging on a pole on a New York City street and you’re not trying to find the best parking spot. When you are parking your car and quickly looking at this sign your eye only goes straight to the hours, because that’s the only thing you are concerned about.

CONCISENESS — This sign has two messages. “DON’T LITTER” is really not necessary.

CLARITY — The lesser message “DON’T LITTER” is really overpowering the real message. This is due to the strong design element of a broom popping out and directing your eye to the words “DON’T LITTER.” This confuses the real message of the sign.

These parking signs are bolted to steel poles, therefore they are only going to be seen where they are. But not all messages are like that. Always keep the 3C’s in mind with your direct response creative. Ask these questions:

1. How or when is a customer receiving your collateral? If it’s moved to another context will it have the same meaning? Also consider who and when your audience will see your mail piece. If people are reviewing their email quickly on their smartphone, is your message right to the point in the least number of characters?

2. Can you get your message down to its core? If your mail piece needs to have a second message, make sure it does not fight for attention.

3. Is it clear? I recommend getting a fresh set of eyes to review your message — ideally a person not at all connected to the project.

We’d love to help you improve response. Let us be the fresh set of eyes to review your current creative message.

Ugly and Unorganized Worked!

The artist and organizer in me is always looking for ways to make things attractive and neat. But if there is one thing I’ve learned early in my career in direct response: pretty and organized creative is not always what gets the highest response.

My early work experience at Time Inc., when sweepstakes were a driving force in obtaining subscriptions, made that clear to me. As I was reviewing one of their controls, I thought: This is one of the most unorganized mailings I’ve ever seen! Place this sticker somewhere to get the extra $10,000 bonus … place another sticker on some other form to get the free gift … here’s a list of your prizes, but if you want this specific prize then check a box, etc.

CONFUSING, BUT IT WORKED! Why? Because the customer was thinking: “If I can figure this out, I really might be a winner.” However, what worked for this particular sweepstakes package won’t necessarily work for the direct response pieces we mail today. Each kind of piece draws its own emotional response from the customer. To find out what elicits the right response in your customer, you must follow the direct mail mantra: Test, test, test.

Are You Turning Off Customers?

Judging Email Creative Based on “Images Off”

The default settings on some email programs are with images off when opening the email. Above are examples of 2 emails with “images off.” The top one (which I created) is an HTML-coded email with several grayed “images off” boxes. Note here that the message was still strongly evident — which will help pique someone’s interest to turn the images on to see the entire email. On the other hand, the bottom image has just one very large gray “images off” box. We have no idea what the email’s message is. This is not good, since there is nothing here to get someone to want to learn more.

Big lesson: Don’t risk losing your customers before they’ve even had a chance to read your email: Never use one big image for your email. Besides, the big image may take too long to download, which is another way to lose your customer.

Curiosity Opens the Envelope

Using Feel to Get the Envelope Open

A credit card company recently mailed me this envelope, which looks like a package due, to the label and kraft color. Upon touching it, I felt some padding inside. It certainly piqued my curiosity and made me think: Is there something special inside for me? I opened the envelope to find just a prominent credit card offer and some bubble wrap. Question: The package look and bubble wrap can certainly get people to open the envelope, but is the offer strong enough to get people to act? And will enough people respond to get a great ROI?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I will say this: including the padding in the envelope is a great trick to keep in mind, if you want to get people to open what you send them – which, as you know, is a critical first step to any successful direct mailing.