In direct mail the outer envelope—the carrier—has only one purpose.

To get ripped open.

The other day I received an announcement of a direct mail course offered by Tom Ahern,  one of the best copywriters in our sector.  His headline graphic perfectly raises the question every great copywriter often spends hours answering:

What intriguing thing can I do on my envelope that might cause more people to open it?”

Tom’s suggested options to consider:

  • Nothing (plain envelopes test quite well, thank you; JB. “the ultimate mystery.”
  • A hint of “exclusivity” (“From the President’s Office”)
  • Bold teaser that surprises me
  • Teaser that thanks me in advance for my wonderfulness
  • Stuff on the back of the envelope (people turn envelopes over)

Within minutes after reading Tom’s graphic, I turned to the stack of direct mail on my desk, picked up the package on top and decided to measure it against Tom’s options.

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Bingo!  This copywriter used Tom’s first option –plain envelope.  BUT THEN I turned it over and double bingo– Tom’s item 5 – “Stuff on the back of the envelope”.

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The stuff on the back of the carrier was a QR code, slightly noticeable in the lower left corner with copy reading “ Scan here to donate today.”

After my 58 years of copywriting and worrying about carrier envelopes –whether to use a teaser or not—the most fundamental reason  for this worry, “the envelope has to be  ripped open for the appeal to work”—had been called into the question. Kind of the shocking and heretical direct mail equivalent of “god is dead.”

Apparently, I could make a donation.  Of course, I wasn’t about to absent the slightest hint of identification. So, my immediate question was “who the hell to?”   Naturally, I had to find out what organization was behind the scan, so I whipped out my smartphone, and focused on the QR code.  The donation page pictured below popped up.


Then …I ripped open the envelope and low and behold there was a well-done, full-fledged direct mail appeal from the American Red Cross of Southeastern Massachusetts asking me to become a 2021 Supporter by sending my contribution in by September 30.

My next act was to scan the envelope and send it off to Tom Ahern asking what he thought of this technique.

Q:  “Tom, I understand the rationale for a blank envelope, but not sure I understand the rationale for telegraphing (on the back) that the reader can “scan here to donate today’?           Click to Enlarge

Is the use of the QR code designed to attract millennials or other tech savvy folks….is the technique in and of itself the teaser to bring folks inside…or is all this someone playing just to cute.”  

A:I suspect the QR code thing has gotten some new life since the pandemic. QR seemed to be dying a slow, unlamented death … but now you can, for instance, use QR when you travel for a quick scan to prove you’re vaccinated (check my facts). Couple of articles: Fortune and Forbes.                                                                 e

“Yes, I suppose, too, it could be a millennial thing. So much of the stuff being made is probably by people in that age cohort … and perhaps they ARE QR-literate? Personally, I don’t believe I’ve ever done a QR code scan … but I am a low-volume, very-few-apps smart-phone user, so I’m proof of ZERO.

“The giving page this QR jumps to has a string beginning with $1,000. That strikes me as delusional and off-putting. But I assume they’re testing … though who knows? 

“What strikes me most about this envelope is the lack of the RED CROSS logo. It looks like a court summons. Also, I’d consider this a perfect opportunity to play a little tune on my emotions with a teaser like, “You want to pitch in with disaster relief. Today’s your chance…. (PS: You’re needed!)”

OK Agitators, What Do You Think?

I’m sure everyone reading this has an opinion and we’d love to hear it.  I’m equally sure someone out there knows something about this package.  Who created it? The reasoning behind the technique?  The testing? The results?

And still other readers may have experimented with or are using a similar approach.

Come on, please share your thoughts. Curious folks want to know.