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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

Boxes I Have Mailed, Received and Admired
By Alan Rosenspan

When I used to do a lot of television and radio commercials, we had a saying about jingles.

"If you have nothing to say, sing it!"

That's why when I helped launch Young Miss magazine (now called YM), and we had to create the campaign before we actually settled on the editorial content, I wrote the following set of lyrics.

"Young Miss…you've never seen something like this
You've never seen something like this…
You've never seen something like this…"

Okay, I admit it - I'm not John Lennon. I'm not even Barry Manilow, who wrote, "I am stuck on Band Aids, 'cause Band Aids stuck on me." But the launch was very successful.

Why am I bringing up this lyrical episode in my career? Because there may be a similar corollary in direct mail.

If you have nothing to say, send them a box.

And, of course, if you do have something to say, a box can be even more effective. Let me explain.

The Single Best Box Mailing of All Time

As part of the direct marketing class I teach at Bentley College, I ask students to bring in the most unusual or most memorable piece of direct mail they have ever received.

Invariably, they bring in boxes - including some that they've actually kept for several years. (Do people save your direct mail? Probably not.)

The one that I bring in is my favorite box mailing. It won "Best of Show" at the European direct marketing award show a couple of years ago. See if you can guess who sent it.

The outside of the box said, "Before you open this, throw it down!"

Of course, that happens to a lot of boxes - that's why they have insurance.

But once you picked up this box and opened it, there was another box inside. The headline said, "Now do it again!" A pretty effective involvement device, but what on earth could they be selling?

When you opened the second box, you discovered a real egg inside - intact, protected by packaging from Dow chemicals! It received an extraordinary response.

I showed this at my seminars in New Zealand, and I was told about a similar box that included actual cocoons. The mailing was timed so that a butterfly would come out when the package was opened. Clever idea for an emerging company.

Unfortunately, they didn't use the right packaging materials, and, well…the results were a bit messy.

The Seductive Power of a Box

Boxes enjoy a 100% opening rate. They always get opened, and this alone gives them an important advantage over flat mail. (There's one major exception. Please see my "Rules for Box Mailings".)

They also usually pass the gatekeeper. Administrative assistants who cheerfully weed out every piece of junk mail will almost always pass along a box.

But that's not the only reason to use them.

Another important consideration is that boxes are invariably the most unusual, most attention-getting piece of direct mail that your prospect will receive that day, or possibly even that month.

So, in a sea of direct mail, in their homes or on their desk, don't you want your package to be the first one that's opened?

There's also the "pass along" impact factor. When your spouse or co-worker receives a box, don't you want to see what's in it? When you receive a box, don't you want to share what you've received? (Or are you one of those people who say, "I'll open it later"?)

And what other form of direct marketing can provide that kind of impact?

Are Boxes Really Cost-Effective?

The rap against boxes has traditionally been - sure, they're effective. But they're so expensive. Are they worth it?

It depends on your product or service. If you're selling a low-ticket item (like package goods) then the increased cost and increased response probably won't pay out.

However, if you're in a business where even one extra customer can represent thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of customers, a box may be the best investment you can make.

And there are several tricks you can use to make them more cost-effective.

1. Use a standard box, not a custom-designed one.

One company I know did a very clever box mailing using an ordinary box. Inside they put their letter and their brochure, but they also included a Mylar balloon with their name on it.

The balloon had been filled with helium. And when you opened the box, the balloon popped out and slowly rose towards the ceiling! A little eerie, but it did get a great response.

By the way, if you do use a standard box, there's an easy way to make it your own. Simply use a larger label that gives you room to include your advertising message and graphics as well as the address. Slap it on the top and that standard box becomes your box.

2. Put an offer, not a premium in the box.

I recently did a mailing for a large technology company. We wanted to send people a beautiful (and expensive) desk clock, when they agreed to bring us in for a consultation. But we couldn't afford to send it to everyone.

Our solution was to send the desk clock to our top 100 prospects. We then sent a photograph of the premium inside the box, and told them we would bring the actual clock when they called us in. It was an extremely successful strategy.

3. Put nothing in the box

Another technology company did a box mailing to managers of radio stations. They sell a technology product that makes sure commercials are aired on time.

The outside of the box said, "What is your deepest, darkest fear as a station manager?" When you opened the box, it was completely empty, but the words, "Dead Air" were printed on the inside.

A box can also be used when the cumulative sales of your product justify the investment.

For example, my son Jeffery just turned 18. Gillette sent him a box that read, "Happy 18th birthday!" on the front, and "Test pilot wanted" on the back.

Inside was a Mach 3 razor, a free can of shaving gel, and a letter that said, "At Gillette, we think every man deserves the best. In recognition of your 18th birthday, we've sent you some of our best products to enjoy as a complimentary gift."

They included a coupon for his next purchase. All in all, a very expensive mailing. Was it worth it for Gillette? Well, Jeffrey's going to be shaving for a long, long time…

And you can be sure he told all his friends.


My 7 Rules for Box Mailings

1. They need to be easily identifiable as coming from a company, not a terrorist. A ticking alarm clock does not make a good premium, unless you want your box opened under water.

2. Be extremely careful about sending fragile or time-sensitive materials. One company sent out a delicious cheesecake to their prospects. Unfortunately, the mail arrived on Saturday, and it sat there all weekend…

3. Never include something that can fall on the floor, like confetti. It may sound festive, but not to the person who has to clean it up. And they will despise you…

4. Make sure it can be opened without destroying what's inside. Borrow an old trick from TV and movies. Have you ever seen someone struggle with gift-wrapping? No, they simply lift up the top part and magically the box opens. You don't have to do that, but you must make it easy.

5. Once you have someone's attention - use it. One of the greatest failings of box mailings is that they get opened, but they fail to follow through. They do half the job.

A box can only start the response process - it gets opened and it gets attention. You need other elements inside it, like a letter and a brochure and a reply card, to make sure it does the job.

6. Put something provocative inside the box. Something that's out of place. Or even out of size, like a giant paper clip.

7. Put something provocative outside the box. And it doesn't have to be a headline. A very successful box mailing was done with a few strategically placed air holes in it. That was intriguing…


The Creative Challenge of a Box

The most appealing part of a box mailing for me is that it forces you to be creative.

It makes you think inside the box.

It makes you ask - what could we send people to dramatize our benefits? What would get their attention? What could we send them that is very unusual, or that they will remember?

In fact, let me end this article by asking you a question.

What's the most unusual box that you have ever mailed or received? What was in it?

E-mail me your answer at and the best one will receive a free gift.

In a box, of course.

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