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!

Vintage Jell-O ads offer a valuable lesson

Times change but some marketing tactics not that much!

I discovered that when I came across some 1920’s Jell-O promotions (a branding ad and a direct response ad) at an antique shop a couple of years ago. I was struck by some powerful marketing tactics Jell-O used then — tactics that still work well today, and that you could use to your advantage.

First, let’s look at the vintage Jello-O branding ad below.

Jell-O Branding Ad

Branding creates product awareness by forging an identity. With just a few words and an upper-class image, this Jell-O brand ad positions the product as an impressive delight that now ALL Americans can enjoy. Why now (the 20s)? Well, did you know that gelatin wasn’t always for the masses? It was too expensive, as well as too labor-intensive if you didn’t have servants! Jell-O changed that with its easy-to-make, easy-on-the-pocketbook product.

But Jell-O didn’t stop there.

What made Jell-O hugely successful back in the early 1900’s was the distribution of free recipe books.* And to help distribute these recipe books they used direct response ads — like the one you see below.

Jell-O Direct Response Ad
Unlike a branding ad, a direct response ad’s goal is to get the reader to take immediate action — like fill out an order form to actually buy the product, click on a button to learn more about an organization, call an 800 number or, in Jell-O’s case, mail a coupon to get a free recipe book. Another distinction: Measureable response. You get data with direct response. Instead of guessing, you KNOW what works and what doesn’t with your customer base. And you can collect their home and email addresses for future promotions.

Once you’ve targeted your audience, these two elements (which the Jell-O ad contains) are critical to the success of a direct response ad:

BENEFITS-HEAVY COPY: You’re asking people to act now. So forget the fluff and provide longer copy with solid benefits. Jell-O did (it doesn’t overtax digestion, nutrition experts say it provides good food value, it’s not just for dessert, etc.).

OFFER, WITH URGENT CALL-TO-ACTION: A free item — like the free Jell-O recipe book — is a great magnet for response. But other offers, like a limited-time discount price, also do the trick.

So, take a lesson from Jell-O: Brand your product for strong identity, but then use direct response to boost your bottom line.

*Wikipedia Jell-O article

Huh … Tootsie Rolls?

When I recently purchased paints online for a craft project, I expected to get just paints. But, when I opened the package, out fell a printed “Thanks for your order” card and — surprise — some Tootsie Rolls. Sweet … except that I don’t love Tootsie Rolls, getting loose candy during a pandemic concerns me, and the thank-you was, well, generic. So, I just tossed everything in the garbage.

That’s a shame, because I know the vendor was trying to create brand loyalty. And thank-you’s are an important, proven way to win more loyalty, whether you’re a business or a nonprofit. But you need to take the time to do it right.

So, how can you craft a thank-you that will appeal to even people who don’t love Tootsie Rolls? Here are some suggestions:

PERSONALIZE. To start a relationship, a personal message is best. But, if you absolutely don’t have time for it, add a short, handwritten message to your printed card. Something like –

Meryl, I’d love to see what you create with our paints — post on our Facebook page!
Preston Smith, Business Owner. 917-123-1234

Dear Meryl, your donation made our day.
With gratitude,
Brianna Smith, Executive Director. 917-234-4567

INCENTIVIZE. Give people a reason to come back.

Include a coupon or online coupon code with your thank-you note that’s good towards the customer’s next purchase. Or send a free sample – in the case of the paint vendor, it could be a special color paint or brush – as an added bonus.

Be sure to send a sincere note right away. Be specific: Include a contact number and ask the donor to follow you on social media. And … send a regular newsletter with updates on projects donors are making possible.

Yes, times are tough. So, remember, you want to be the organization that comes to mind first — and thank-you’s that personalize and incentivize can definitely help.

Connect Better With Your Audience By Keeping It Real

With so much in disarray, what makes you smile these days?

For me, it’s watching celebrities creating do-it-yourself programming from their homes. Gone is that polished look we’re used to — the beautifully done makeup, the shiny hair, the chic wardrobe. Now kids and pets stir about as stars work from their basements or elsewhere in their homes. Don’t they look more like us now — more relatable and real?


What gave me some of my biggest smiles: Seeing Jimmy Fallon’s daughter display her graphic design efforts — just like every other kid’s! And watching Jennifer Garner in her pjs, dog nearby, baking not-so-perfect English muffins for her family.

Being real and relatable should also be reflected in your business and nonprofit communications — emails, social media, blog posts and even direct mail. Show the people behind the business. Share that you are still working, staying safe, even making a difference. If your business is temporarily closed, now is a good time to be involved in your community, with your mask and all, and speak about those efforts online! Working for a bigger company? Take your customers behind the scenes and show how you are taking precautions. Or, in your direct mail pieces, have your CEO looking like the average Joe or Jane as he or she is out helping the community.

And if you are a fundraiser, be honest — tell your donors what’s going on. Many communities that nonprofits serve have been hit hard. So, in your newsletters and appeals, show and write about it the way it really is.

Now for MY “real”! Recently, I received a list of members from my local community center to call and find out if they needed any help in these tough times. This is a “real” photo of me making those calls.

Checking in on my community

Now’s a great time not to show the staged images of your organization. Show your more “real and relatable” side, and your customers and donors just might connect with you even more during this unprecedented time.

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!

“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.

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.