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!

A Panhandler’s Trick You Might Profit From

Recently, I was struck by how marketing savvy a panhandler was on the NYC subway. Like all panhandlers who enter a quiet subway car, he assured straphangers that he did not want money for drugs but for food. What really made me take notice was what he said next:

“I am envisioning a Shake Shack hamburger,
fries and soda.”

Panhandler dreaming of a burger

Smart move! The panhandler revealed how he was going to use the money — just to buy a simple, inexpensive meal. So now his captive audience could put a specific monetary value to his ask: about $10. And as he walked around the car to see if anyone’s heart would open, guess what happened — a young woman handed him 10 bucks.

Wow, his marketing tactic worked! If this panhandler had not relayed a picture of what he wanted, he still might have gotten some loose change, but probably nothing like $10.

My takeaway: I couldn’t help but see how this transaction relates to tactics used by nonprofits to increase donations. I call it Transparency Impact. When you list in your direct mail (or email) exactly how the money would be used with a dollar amount next to it, it helps you gain a level of trust. This transparency lets the potential donor know where their hard-earned money can directly help, thereby translating into higher giving amounts.

For example: Say you are trying to raise money for a school in a third-world country. You may list:

$10 will help purchase books
$30 will buy a knapsack
$100 will pay for one child’s tuition

Don’t you feel more inclined to give when you see the direct impact of your donation?

I sure hope the $10 the panhandler received bought him a nice meal at Shake Shack. It’s fun to see how direct mail tactics can be used, even by people you least expect to use them!

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!

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.

8 Ways to Make a Great Thank You Deliver

Direct marketers know that FREE, FINAL CHANCE, and ACT NOW are some of the most effective words to get someone to respond to your solicitation. Today, I’d like you to consider the power of a simple THANK YOU.

People like to feel appreciated. And when you show your appreciation with a personal note, they feel a closer connection to your business or non-profit organization, which can prompt another purchase or donation.

The above statement is especially true in fundraising. Tests done by a major fundraiser reveal that quality thank-you letters outperform the typical when it comes to rate of renewal and average gift value**. Another fundraiser made almost $450,000 more in gifts with the inclusion of a thank-you note!***

Now, you’re probably thinking, what makes up a quality thank-you? Here are some DO’s and one big DON’T that will make things very clear – and quite possibly improve your donor retention rates.*

1. Send a REAL letter: No preprinted card or boilerplate copy. It must be personal.

2. Get to it right away: That means within days (not weeks or months) of the giving.

3. Use the name of the person who gave the donation. You’re starting a relationship, so no “Dear Donor” or “Dear Friend.”

4.Inform: Thank the donor for the gift and give details on how the funds will be used to make a difference.

5. Deepen the connection: Let the donor know when to expect an update—and keep your promise.

6. Be warm & positive: Invite the donor to contact you directly for more information. Or include the name and phone number of a staff person to contact at any time.

7. Make it short: A one-sided letter that speaks sincerely and succinctly will do the job.

8. Honor your donor: Get someone high in the organization to sign the letter.

Do not sell, do not send a survey, do not ask for another gift. Save that for another time.
So, start writing those great thank-you’s now. And if you’d like to have my team evaluate them, send them to me. We’ll be glad to take a look.

 ***Tom Ahern article: “No thanks? No, thanks!”; **Tom Belford article: “OK, Thank You!”;
*Penelope Burk article: “Thank You Letters: Powerful and Profitable”.