My Top 10 Design Elements to Lift Response

Is your response rate getting a little stale? You can hit refresh with some simple design elements that work hard to communicate your message and get you better results. Sound good? Then let me share my personal list of 10 go-to elements, from proven classics to the try-something-new. 

How many could you use to lift response? Which element is my favorite? Read on and see.

1. The Box

Yes, thinking “inside” the box can get results! Proof: The continuing success of a direct mail classic, the Johnson box. Just put your offer or your main product benefit (or both) inside a box at the top of a sales letter and you’re off to a winning start. Or use an iteration of the box – the sidebar – to highlight other big benefits, as well as testimonials. Did you know: The Johnson box is now popular with email marketers, too. It goes by this name: the email preheader.

Johnson Box

2. Certificate Border

Put it around an order form or a product guarantee – create an “official” appearance, instantly.

Certificate Border

3. Circles & Icons

Want to give your money-back guarantee or limited-time offer a more commanding presence? Contain the important words in a circle. Or design a special icon, to really stand out.

guarantee icon

4. White Space

Too much text in a small area scares away most readers. Copy scattered here and there is confusing. White space calms things down and encourages closer reading.

5. Handwriting

When you want your message to be a little more personal, or you want a key benefit to pop even more, a handwriting script will do the job.

6. The Check Mark

To draw attention, inject positive vibes with a check mark. Next to a statement, it communicates an emphatic Yes! It’s especially effective in a short list of points — instead of bullets, use check marks.

7. Color

I could write a book about it! One huge color benefit: giving your message that extra push. Example: In designing a 3-color job for a financial client, I often pair black type with a color that brands the product by conveying trust or wisdom, like blue. Then, to move the call-to-action or the offer to center stage, I select a bright color (like red) that will stand out against the blue and black.

8. Graphs & Charts

Ever use a bar graph to pit your product against the competition? Or display all the good that donor contributions will do in a pie chart? These visual cues can speak volumes, with an air of authority. Plus, consider this: a simple infographic, to show how your product works and the flow of benefits to buyers.

Comparison charts

9. Bold Text

Sprinkle it judiciously in your promotions, and readers won’t miss what you most want to communicate when they scan the page.

10. The Arrow

Point to something and, snap, you pique interest. Maybe that’s why the arrow is my favorite design element – whether it’s used to direct readers’ eyes to a major benefit or deadline, or to provide a powerful call-to-action.


These are just a few easy ways you can employ certain design elements to refresh your response rate. If you need any assistance, just give me a call.

To Bold or NOT to Bold? The answer is not pretty!

As I was working on a direct mail package recently, a curious thing happened. The client kept asking me to make some of the important content “less bold.” In effect, to de-emphasize the marketing message. So why do it? Because, she explained, the bolded copy didn’t look pretty. Huh???

As direct marketers, we don’t go for ugly, but we may not always aim to be the prettiest, either. Our aim is to get response. And bold is a powerful visual tool to help make that happen.

Bold makes copy pop — thus making it more scannable.

The right phrases or subheads in bold direct the eyes of busy readers to quickly see what you most want them to see, at first glance. Result: Your promotion could get a more careful second look, instead of simply getting trashed right off the bat!

Take, for example, this two-color blurb from a flyer. Using bold (in green and in body color) makes the product’s competitive edge so much easier for the reader to spot.

Why XYZ Financial?
Most important are profits. XYZ Financial is one of the rare services that tells you not just when to buy a particular stock but also when to sell. Because profits are only theoretical until you sell.

Another example: Part of a fundraising letter, where bold is used to point out the benefits of donating.

I want to remind you that more than 60% of the kids in Honduras never reach the sixth grade. By donating now, you can provide what they can’t afford:  basic things like pencils and notebooks. Things that your kids may take for granted. With a $100 tax-deductible contribution, you can directly impact the life of a child in Honduras … you can directly impact the future.

But can you ever have too much bold?

Yes, just like you can have too much chocolate if you’re served 5 or 6 chocolate treats all at once! If you bold everything, nothing seems important – or inviting to read. Are there alternatives to bold? Sure. You can, for example, use ALL CAPS or italic, depending on how emphatic you want your message to be. Here is a hierarchy of choices:

  1. Bold with a complementary strong color
  2. ALL CAPS with a complementary strong color
  3. Bold in body color
  4. ALL CAPS in body color
  5. Underlining, but only in print materials.  (Not recommended for online promotions because it could be mistaken for a link.)
  6. Italic

What about paper considerations?

Good you asked! If you’re printing on uncoated stock, beware: inexpensive uncoated paper will absorb the color, therefore making colors darker. This can be tricky to fix, since all colors look bright when you view the job on a monitor. For example, this can happen:



The blue looks almost black when printed. Yikes, of course you don’t want that! The question then is, how do you know how dark a color will print? That’s why you need a designer — we can check it out, using our Pantone tools.

If you want to make some BOLD moves with expert guidance, let’s chat!

“Oh no! …”

I was in a pharmacy today looking to replenish my supply of hand lotion. For an item so simple, there are so many choices. But what caught my eye the most was the one bottle of lotion on an otherwise empty shelf. There were other lotions to choose from, but those shelves were full. Suddenly my sense of urgency grew when a woman came and stood next to me — and patiently waited for me to choose. Now I had to make my decision —

“Oh no! If I don”t grab this bottle NOW I may lose out!”

Can you relate?

This is a everyday example of how visual cues and our emotions work to compel us to take action. We use the same techniques to elicit the same reactions in direct response creative.

Here’s how we do it. To elicit the “Oh No!” emotion with copy, we add phrases to our call to action like:

-Order now while there is still time!
-Don’t miss out!
-Time is running out!
-Offer expires XX/XX

But that’s only half of it. To be most impactful, you need to pair these phrases with specific design elements. Think of the bottle of lotion again sitting by itself on the shelf surrounded by empty space. There’s bold text on the package that was shouting out its benefits. If this same bottle of lotion was placed on a full shelf with the competitors’ brands, I would not have noticed it as quickly and strongly.

Now let’s apply this to direct response creative — how do you draw someone’s eye to the take an action with a sense of urgency? Just like the lotion, surround it with white (empty) space, then add bold and color to the text to make it shout out.

Still, there is one more element we need to add to make the strongest impact: the arrow. I equate this arrow to the woman standing next to me, directing my eyes to the solo bottle of lotion. It is the “big push” to get someone to see the call to action.



Arrows can be big, fingers pointing, colorful or not, or even small but — they all have impact. Why are they so effective?  It’s because people’s eyes will always follow where the arrow is going.

Arrows can be big or small, colorful or not, even pointing fingers — but they all have impact. Why are they so effective? It’s because people’s eyes will always follow where the arrow is going.

If you are not already adding an arrow to your call to actions, try it. I am confident to say it would benefit your creative.

Direct Response in Action

What Happened When I Taught My Nephew 5 Simple Tactics

We all know that direct response isn’t child’s play. It’s hard work. Nevertheless, if you keep just a few things in mind, even a novice can make a difference — and the story of my teenage nephew, Ian, and what he was able to accomplish is a good example.

Ian is on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. His final project in order to achieve this top rank is to create something for the community that includes a fundraising component. Ian’s idea was big: in memory of a deceased friend he would clean up and upgrade a student community area at the high school his friend loved and attended. This would entail purchasing and installing a new gazebo, as well as adding a picnic table and a bench or two. Total cost: $5,500.

That was a daunting amount for a teenager to raise. But I knew it was doable — as long as Ian followed some basic fundraising tactics on his crowdfunding site and in his letters. Here’s what I taught Ian:

5 Simple Direct Response Tactics That Work

1. Think: Who are you writing to and how do they want to be addressed? It’s important to start on the right foot. Ian was writing Mr. and Mrs. Smith (not real name). I asked if that is how they want to be addressed. Ian said no, by their first names. Then do that, I said. His teacher wants to be called Mrs. Jones (not real name). That’s how Ian addressed her.

2. Tell a sincere story: Show compassion, without ever going over the top. Ian told the story of his dream of becoming an Eagle Scout and his deceased friend simply and from the heart.

3. Give the facts: Where is the money going? Be as specific as you can because people want to know. Ian provided cost figures for each major item on his list.

4. Simplify: Make it as easy as possible for donors to respond. Ian added a form to the letter so people knew what to do next. He also provided a reply device: a postage-paid envelope with his return address on it.

5.  Remind people of tax benefits: Give donors an added incentive to be generous. Let them know that their donation could be tax-deductible. It’s easy to do, and Ian did it.

I’m happy to say that, in a month’s time, Ian exceeded his fundraising goal!

Lift Your Open Rates: 2 Tips from the Trenches

Part 2 — Spam Filters & Preheaders

I learn a lot from my email work with clients. In Part 2 of my series on mistakes to avoid, I want to alert you to Mistake 3 and Mistake 4, which — when it comes to lifting open rates — you should never, ever ignore!

Using this CTA phrase (a spam filter favorite)


One of my clients was using the above phrase often in email text. Harmless, right? Wrong. To their horror, they discovered that many spam filters don’t like that innocuous phrase, making their emails prime candidates for the junk folder.

Here’s another phrase that we found to trigger spam filters:

money-back guarantee
One solution is to use images. But it’s not our first choice for these two reasons:

1. Images don’t work everywhere on the email and
2. Images lose impact when an email is opened and the images are not displaying.

We try to code as much as possible in the email, including the buttons, to make sure an email is most effective. Play it safe, forget these spam filter favorites altogether. We like to use LEARN MORE or GO HERE for the call-to-action button. For the money phrase, that’s a little trickier since nothing beats those 3 classic words. We normally don’t include the money phrase in the email but make it prominent on the landing page. If you feel you must include the phrase in the email, then make it a graphic image — but make sure your developer leaves the alt tag blank.

Ignoring the preheader and its impact on opens

You and I know that, together with the sender (or “From”) name, the subject line has the biggest impact on whether your email gets opened. But, today, when you often have barely 3 seconds to get someone’s attention, my clients make sure to pair the subject line with another tool: the preheader, which can increase open rates sometimes up to 45% (Litmus statistic). In my example below, the preheader is the gray text that is circled.

Sample Preheader
Most inboxes automatically take copy for the preheader from the first few words of your email, if you don’t specify otherwise. What we do for our clients: We write specifically targeted preheader copy, to hook readers. This is placed at the very top of an email, above the “view in browser” — giving it top billing. If we don’t do this, then “view in browser” will be the first sentence of the email, causing it to appear in the red-circled area above.

SPECIAL NOTE: Some email deployment systems automatically add their own “view in browser,” which knocks your composed preheader out of the top billing spot. To stop this from happening, the “view in browser” function needs to be disabled in the deployment service software, and your developer will need to code this part by hand.

Lift Your Click-Through Rates: 2 Tips from the Trenches

Part 1 — Alt Tags; Retina Images in Email

We all know that emails are the “workhorse channel.” But are you working everything available to you to optimize your open and click-through rates? In creating hundreds of emails for companies, I’ve learned to do just that. I see firsthand where the trouble spots are. To help you get the best results more often, here is Part 1 of a special 2-part series of newsletters I’ve created that address frequent mistakes and ways to avoid them.

Not proofing alt tags

Look at this edited email I received from a Wine Club. It came in my inbox with the images off.

Notice the blue text in the white boxes — the alt tags. They still allow me to see what the offer is. That’s good, since it’s enough of an incentive to click-see images. But do you see the typo in the second line of the blue text? Not so good!

I added that typo to illustrate that alt tags can have errors! Few people proofread the alt tags for sense and accuracy, leaving them open to errors that could reduce the number of clicks you get. Solution: Do as my agency does for each email: Proof. Use Firefox as your browser and add a Web Developer extension [here’s the link] so you have the tools you need to proof the alt tags.

Not recognizing the importance of using
retina display images

Think the images in your email look great on your standard office monitor? Well, readers on retina displays might be seeing something else — like blurry product shots or a blocky-looking logo! See my example below: same image, different pixel density.

sharp image
  2x image  

blurry image
1x image  

Only the 2x image on the left looks sharp on a retina display. The 1x image was created only for a standard office monitor and does not have enough pixels in it to render properly on higher pixel density retina displays. That’s why it’s blurry. All the emails created at my agency have the higher resolution, so no worries!

But how can you make sure your other vendors are supplying retina display images if you are using a standard office monitor? Simple. Just use the Web Developer extension (here’s the link again) and select image>view image information. If the images appear twice the size of what is used in the email, you have retina display images.

Hope this helps! Let me know if I can be of further assistance. And keep your eye out for Part 2 of my special series of blog posts for more tips from the trenches.

How to Stand Out with More Visual Promotions

Top 3 Reasons for Charts

Did this chart catch your eye?
Today, you may have just a few seconds — maybe less — to grab someone’s attention. Charts (pie, line, bar, and others) are proven attention-winners. Of course, they’re perfect for presentation of data. But, with a little creative flair, you can also employ them to make your most important sales messages pop, online and off.

What makes charts work?
No need to rack your brain — just look at the chart above. In addition to ATTENTION, they provide AUTHORITY and QUICK UNDERSTANDING. A chart speaks volumes, with just a few words. So today’s multi-taskers can quickly say, “Aha, I SEE your point!” Moreover, a chart lends an air of authority to what you’re presenting because it supports your point or actually proves it, when you include relevant data. Add a short caption to your chart and you can be certain it will be read.

Take a cue from infographics: Get MORE visual!
You’ve heard of Information overload? Maybe that’s why infographics are now so popular in content marketing. They break things down with visuals, including charts, and a pinch of razzle-dazzle. But you don’t have to go that far in your promotions — a simple, unstuffy chart will be just as effective, whenever you want to:

Make a strong price or savings statement
Provide competitive product comparisons
Visualize a problem/solution
Show a relationship
Highlight a trend

Try it! Charts might be just the thing to make your promotions stand out. Let me know if I can be of assistance.

Raise Response with Email + Direct Mail

When email and direct mail join forces, their combined strengths can really put some POW in your response rates and give your business or nonprofit greater ROI. Here’s how:

Email first, followed by direct mail

Time Inc. sent prospects an email announcing a special subscription discount offer that was coming in the mail soon. The email showed a picture of the direct mail package so that recipients would take more notice of it when it arrived. The package was sent about a week later. Result: Greater response than if only email or only direct mail had been used.

Direct Mail first, followed by email

Email marketing is so popular these days that cluttered inboxes are becoming a problem. Plus, research shows that emails are opened at much lower rates than direct mail. How do you fight those obstacles? Some marketers are sending direct mail — such as a postcard — to alert prospects to a special offer, followed soon after by an email with all the details. Result: Improved email OPEN and CLICK-THROUGH rates, and improved response.

Powerful takeaway for you:

Today, to get people’s attention, it pays to give your message double exposure by synchronizing email and direct mail so they work in tandem. You gain more mindshare, too, when you brand your campaign with a consistent look and feel across channels!

A Timely Message

Get ready! It will be here before you know it! For what, you ask? Above is how much time we have left until it’s 2020!

Did this clock get your attention? Countdown clocks get results in emails and on landing pages. They engage the recipient/viewer and help create a sense of urgency for whatever event or product offer you’re promoting.

What’s unique about this clock is that, whenever you open an email or view a landing page you get the exact time before the event — providing real-time incentive to act.

NFL Big Win: One example of where the countdown clock was very effective, according to Marketing Sherpa. The NFL placed a countdown clock in their email newsletter, and it increased open rates by 121% and clickthroughs by 26%. Not only that, but people kept going back to it to see when the next game was. A marketer’s dream!!

That said, what better holiday to test a countdown clock than Christmas — especially when it’s 4, 3, or 2 weeks before the big event! And don’t forget to put some timely visuals in your print campaigns, too: Use a picture of a clock, with appropriate copy. Or show a calendar with the holiday date circled. These are classic tactics that continue to perform well.

Let me know if I can be of assistance.

Responsive Emails: Make Them Work for You

Research proves that the best way to get your audience to respond to your email is with a responsive email.

For those who are not sure what I mean by responsive email — it’s an email that is designed and coded to enable the device it is being read on (desktop, tablet or smartphone) to automatically adapt the layout to better fit the reader’s current screen size.

Below is an example of how my latest newsletter looked in responsive email format. Depending on the device it was read on, the layout of the email changed.

email for mobile
Email on a desktop

Notice the same email looks dramatically different! Elements of the mobile version image have been “stripped away” to two key points. The rest of the content is either hidden with the “Read More” option or is absent. Stripping down is a needed component of mobile emails. Why? Mobile users are often on-the-go or engaged with other activities. If you want your email read, a simple, direct, clear message and image work best. Therefore the most important points need to be determined and all else “stripped away.”

Another thing to consider is if an email is not formatted properly for the user’s device — meaning not responsive, the user becomes less engaged. This translates into a lower click-through rate.

Responsive email is more complex to design and code than standard email, and therefore costs more. That said, it will result in a better user experience and has been shown to produce a higher click-through conversion rate, which can improve your ROI.


Unopened Email: How It Can Bring In Sales

Try this out. Look at the above subject lines.

Just by reading the subject lines and NOT opening the email we do know —

1. If we stop by a Verizon store the new BlackBerry Z10 will be there
2. If we need a new Apple product we can save on shipping at Staples
3. It’s a good time to go to The Gap, we can save over 40%
4. If we want to hear Broadway Stars singing this weekend we can go to the Irvington Town Hall.

Therefore, we can easily say this: Unopened email can bring in orders. People will just show up at the Gap knowing they can save over 40%, or show up at the Irvington Town Hall and see Broadway Stars singing.

Does this tell us that the subject line is not only important for getting people to click-through, but also effective in doing a quick shout out? My answer is yes and no.

Look at which sectors it works well for, namely retail and entertainment. You can use the subject line as a marquee that basically states the offer. But if we look at this Adobe subject line — “Avoid the five pitfalls of personalization” — it’s a little different. Here, I can’t really do anything unless I open the email and read what the pitfalls are.

Conclusion: A subject line can stand in for an unopened email in certain sectors and with certain offers — but not if we have more of a story to tell.


How to Lift Email Response: 4 Call-to-Action Design Ideas

Try testing a new call-to-action. According to Hubspot by changing the design of your call-to-action, you can improve your click-through rates by 1300% (or more!)

Four ideas to try are:

1. Use different copy. For example, instead of “Learn More” try “See How XX Works”:


2. Add a drop shadow:

3. Use a different color or texture:

4. Add an arrow and even change the shape:

**KEEP IN MIND ** When you are testing, a button needs to look like a button.

Plus: Do not create a long button along the bottom. People will think it’s a footer — not a button.


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.