Hot Copy

July 1, 2011       Herschell Gordon Lewis      

Do you remember Popeye? According to Wikipedia it is still out there, as a comic strip, although the animated cartoons that used to be theatrical short subjects are quiescent.

Popeye has had a good life – about 80 years since a cartoonist named Elzie Segar whose logo, logically, was a cigar, invented the Sailor Man. Popeye’s everlasting and memorable key words: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” For Popeye, who made spinach the choice of kids who wanted “muskles,” the line worked. For envelope copy used by some of today’s nonprofit mailers, it’s dullness cloaked with clichés.

No secret to any reader of this publication: Direct mail is having a surprising renaissance. The reasons are murky. Maybe it’s because the web is overused. Maybe it’s because nonprofits need greater competitive justifications for appeals than in the pre-Internet era. But whatever the basis, fundraising has returned to the mail.

A lost art?

Everybody in the profession should know and observe The Rule of Envelope Copy. No creative imperative is easier or more logical … The purpose of copy on the carrier envelope is singular: to get the envelope opened. If you accept the logic of that simple rule, you automatically reject this copy on the envelope of an organization’s mailing to prospects: “2011 XXXX MEMBERSHIP CARD ENCLOSED!”

Hold it. You say you see nothing wrong with that copy? Well, what if you knew it’s a window envelope? Does that affect your reaction? What if you knew the envelope has two windows? What if you didn’t notice the exclamation point? What if this were a contest, and even knowing nothing about what’s inside the envelope you were challenged to write a better legend for the envelope?

Window envelopes often are an economic necessity, because a closed-face envelope means the nonprofit mailer has to choose between omitting the name from the letter and/or the response device, which tends to reduce response, or suffering the cost of printing the name on both the envelope and an enclosure.

So copy on a window envelope shouldn’t say, “I yam what I yam and dat’s all I yam.” It has to say to the recipient, “Open me or you’ll be sorry.” That’s professionalism. That’s an art.

More lost art?

Take the sellee’s point of view. On a more commercial level, we all know the attitudinal differential separating seller from sellee. The seller’s concern: What it is. The sellee’s concern: What will it do for me? We exist in one of the most competitive worlds within the entire transactional universe. The typical donor has a finite total amount of money allocated to all causes, and you want your share. The best prospects are also the best prospects of other nonprofit mailers. Conclusion: Your envelope copy has to get that envelope opened.

Another double-windowed envelope has this copy, in sans-serif type: “2011 Annual Renewal Enclosed.” The question isn’t whether it’s either accurate or satisfactory, mailed to a name on some list or another. The question is whether other copy, or a single window with the same legend rubber-stamped, would generate a higher percentage of opened envelopes.

A single-window envelope has this wording: “IT’S CRUEL … AND YOU CAN HELP STOP IT!” Below, in smaller type to the right of the window: “PETITIONS PREPARED FOR YOUR SIGNATURE.” Might response be greater if the only wording on the envelope, handwritten, had been, “You can help stop it” ending with a period rather than an exclamation point? It isn’t as blatant an editorialized pitch coupled with an assumption.

Repeat – think like a sellee, not like Popeye.

Collecting random envelopes for this column, it wasn’t a surprise that only two, one of which was in invitation format, were windowless. Copy on the invitation format was, “A Splendid Afternoon.” Copy on the standard (no. 10) envelope was, handwritten, “At last I can give you a look.” A parenthetical point based on both research and personal testing: Initial caps – capitalizing all words other than articles – tends to lower response. Handwriting and rubber stamps personalize almost anything.)

What’s your opinion of this one, on a single-window envelope? “You have been selected to participate in an important national survey on America’s National Parks.” Exciting? Impel you to rip open the envelope to see what’s inside? Convincing that you truly have been individually “selected”? As effective as a basic reword, “Help. We really do need your opinions.”?

Compare any of those with these grabbers:

-“Don’t bother looking for this on Facebook.”

-“I say they’re wrong.”

-“our reunion” – with a handwritten “Y” before “our.”

-Color photo, man with two children – “A father with his two children? No … a husband with his wife and son.”

-From the sheriff of the county – no envelope copy.

These latter examples might not be brilliant, but they’re in sync with The Rule of Envelope Copy. Oh, you don’t agree with any of this? Then both of us are Popeyes — “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., consulting with and writing direct response copy for clients worldwide. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fund raising techniques. His most recent book is his 32nd — “Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics.” Among his other books are “Creative Rules for the 21st Century,” and “How to Write Powerful Fund Raising Letters.” Web site is herschellgordonlewis.com.