Some Direct Mail Is So Eye-Catching, It Borders On Fine Art. But Does It Generate Business?

By: Natalie Engler

Starting A Conversation

Some direct mail is so eye-catching, it borders on fine art. But does it generate business? 

A year ago, Brea Olson, a marketing manager in Denver, received a direct mail postcard that caught her eye. Promoting an offer from online shoe retailer Piperlime, the card was designed to look like the green citrus fruit. Olson doesn’t recall her exact response to the message — but she knows that she couldn’t ignore it. A year later, that lime-shaped postcard still hangs in her kitchen.

Lin Ennis knows this experience well. A decade back, she stumbled across a direct mail postcard with the word “create” printed across it. Ten years later, its offer long since expired, that card still adorns her office wall. “It’s tattered now,” she says, “but I seem unable to part with it.”

Olson and Ennis aren’t alone. In offices and homes across the country, mail pieces initially designed to pitch an offer or service have become something more than just another piece of business communication. For many recipients, these pieces are something deeper, richer, more inspiring. No longer just an ad, they are also viewed as art.

We’re not talking just a crude illustration or generic stock photo designed to elicit a passing chuckle, either. Rather, many of the pieces that endure are created by respected artists and fully intend to do more than just prompt a purchase decision. While almost any mail piece can catch someone’s eye for any reason, the pieces that last due to sheer artistic brilliance are almost always intended to do so.

Writer and designer Alison Macmillan has kept several direct mail postcards because they provide inspiration for her own marketing campaigns, she says. Among them is an ad for a water filter, with a photo of a girl in 1950s-style clothing; a nursing services piece celebrating art and soup; and a mailer from an eyewear store that she saved because “the colors draw me in, as does the sultry look of the model in dark glasses.”

What recipients also see — weeks, months and even years after the marketing message has lost relevance — is a constant reminder of the company that sent them this irresistible bit of mail. And while evidence about the influence of highly artistic pieces is largely anecdotal, it’s still clear that a brand can get an unexpected boost by having its name or logo affixed to a wall for years purely because of the aesthetic appeal of a mailer.

There are plenty of companies that invest in visuals that they hope will outlast the immediate message of a mail piece. Some are companies you’d expect — such as art houses, graphic design companies and other visual-arts businesses. But there are also other major businesses, from retirement communities to big-city dance troupes, hoping to win over consumers with visuals that go beyond just a generic stock photo or crude illustration.

Return on Artwork

The first, most obvious payoff from the use of high-level artistry in a mailer is that the piece becomes more likely to capture potential respondents’ attention. The right images can help differentiate a direct mail piece from competitive mailings, says Kacy Cole, vice president of marketing at Corbis, a Seattle-based resource for advertising, design and media professionals worldwide. “Using imagery in direct mail campaigns helps convey a complex concept or idea in a glance,” she says. “Using quality imagery helps a campaign stand out.”

Recently, Corbis launched an initiative it calls BrainBran, which includes both an online and hard-copy component. The direct mail piece consists of a pack of 24 cards, each featuring a single and thought-provoking image along with a brief statement (“Remove the technology”) or question (“What’s the emotional motivation?”). The cards, which can be ordered from the company’s Web site, are designed to help stimulate ideas among creative professionals while also promoting Corbis as a fount of smart thinking, resourcefulness and eye-grabbing art. Just as significantly, they are designed as keepsakes.

Of course, you’d probably expect an art supplier to invest heavily in direct mail images that art lovers would want to keep. You might not, however, expect a popular retirement community to make a similar stake.

That’s what happened, though, when strategic marketing agency Creating Results launched a campaign for Westminster at Lake Ridge, a continuing-care retirement community. Creating Results sent 10,000 double-sided, full-color postcards to retirees. The 6-inch by 10-inch postcards spotlighted two resident artists — a photographer and an award-winning painter/sculptor — and displayed images of their work along with details about their lives. “Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing your passions,” says Karen Pitts Baugher, director of public relations for Creating Results. “The vibrant artwork helped us show that Westminster at Lake Ridge gives you the time and freedom to live a vibrant life.” The campaign even inspired a reporter for a local paper to write about each featured artist.

In the weeks after each mailing, visitors to the Westminster Lake Ridge Web site roughly doubled, Creating Results reports. Calls from new leads surged as well, and the community’s occupancy rate of 96 percent was the highest ever.

Individual artists can benefit from an artistic approach to direct, too — especially when they are savvy about their mailing lists. When a Houston-area dance company showed the artwork of internationally recognized artist and designer Pablo Solomon in connection with an April performance, Solomon advertised the show with a postcard displaying one of his sculptures.

But he not only sent the mailer to prospective attendees, he also used it as an opportunity to reach out to past and potential business associates, gently reminding them of his existence. This targeted mailing resulted in several new opportunities, he says. For example, when he sent it as a “thank you” to the company that makes the particular product with which he sculpts, the company made him a spokesman.

And a mailing to critics he met several years ago when he did promotions for an art-related television series as well as a few local fine arts institutions and retail establishments led to several new artistic collaborations. Meanwhile, a poster-sized version of the postcard was hung at the theater complex where he was the featured artist. As it turned out, Houston Grand Opera shared the complex that night, so he also received inquiries about doing graphics work from opera-goers.

Different Strokes

But can a direct mail piece be too arty? Although beautiful mailers catch the attention of creative types, does investment in eye candy make sense for everyone?

Not necessarily, caution direct marketing experts. The value of aesthetics hinges on the industry, the audience and the message, they say. “We are a visual society,” observes Thomas Lamprecht, creative director of Hacker Group in Seattle. “We rely on our eyes more than any other sense, so visuals in marketing are important.” But he points out that we are also an Internet society, accustomed to finding pertinent information immediately — so if the visuals are fabulous but the message is muddy, your beautiful work may end up in the trash.

Hacker Group, which has created campaigns for numerous brand-name companies, occasionally compares the impact of an art-intensive execution of a campaign with a plain version. What they’ve found: Art tends to produce more bang for the buck when marketing an “object of desire,” such as real estate or motor vehicles, Lamprecht says.

Among the firm’s successful art-driven campaigns was one for a motorcycle manufacturer. Each direct mail piece displayed a digitally enhanced view of a motorbike, but in full and detailed view. The imagery focuses on “romanticizing” the product and is aimed at intense fans of the machines. In this case the art, says Lamprecht, “is purely about the product’s aesthetics and sex appeal.”

Appearance-related industries also benefit from pronounced artistry, says Joy Gendusa, founder and CEO of PostcardMania, a direct mail marketing company in Clearwater, Fla. Among those industries: dentists, day spas, art galleries, plastic surgeons, high-end landscaping, salons and home improvement companies. “Any time you are selling beauty, you have to have a beautiful card,” she says.

Some high-end services companies may benefit from beauty as well, but for different reasons. Tammy Mangan, director of marketing for Sterne Kessler Goldstein & Fox PLLC, an intellectual property law firm in Washington, D.C., says, “We’ve made superior design a part of our normal course of business because we believe it defines and reinforces our brand.” She adds that by using inventive imagery the firm aims to mirror the creativity of its clients, which are often tech companies.

Corbis’ Cole notes that for some health care and financial services companies, lifestyle images, showing people conveying emotions or connecting with friends and loved ones, can engage customers and help them identify with the product or service.

But for other financial planners, physical therapists, cleaning services, plumbing, appliances and other services firms, gorgeous design may be counterproductive. In these industries, humor tends to be more effective, says Gendusa, who has produced over 688 million postcards with around 70,000 designs over the past 10 years. In addition, she says that anyone trying to reach a financially conservative or low-income audience should be especially wary of coming across as slick or snobbish.

“Gilding the lily is one of the pitfalls of direct mail,” contends Steve Goebel, the creative director for MassMedia Inc., which is based in Las Vegas. “If you focus too much on the art and not enough on the call to action, you’re just making art for art’s sake. There’s a place for that.”

Of course, if you manage to make that great art relevant to your message, the place for your mailer just might be on someone’s office wall.


Get Onboard: A Checklist to Help New Hires Succeed

A checklist to help your new hires succeed

Click here to download the Employee Onboarding Checklist.

“Companies with the best teams set people up for success from the beginning,” says Victoria Downing, president of Remodelers Advantage and a REMODELING columnist, who developed and uses this form with new hires.

The checklist (abbreviated here) is part of an “on-boarding system” that helps immerse new employees into the company’s culture and offers short-term goals to be used as benchmarks for performance.

“When someone’s new, there’s so much to learn,” Downing says. At Remodelers Advantage, the process starts immediately — with a welcome sign, a workstation set up with all the equipment a new employee will need, and meetings scheduled with other employees. “We want new hires to know they’re part of the company, part of the future,” Downing says.

Checklist information is reiterated at weekly meetings, and job expectations and goals are taken into consideration at bonus time. —Stacey Freed, senior editor, REMODELING.

Download the full checklist.

More REMODELING articles about hiring:

Hire Power: A New Process for Interviewing Potential Hires

Test of Time: New-Hire Probationary Period

A Test for Assessing Skill Levels of Carpenter Job Candidates

Open Arms

Welcome the new hire and discuss with him or her the history of the company and its core values and mission. Let him know why these things are important and what they mean to you as an individual. The first part of this checklist may take several days to complete.

Who’s in Charge

Each step is overseen by a particular person, e.g., the “Company/Department Overview” is done by the president. “We schedule time for new employees to spend time with each of us in the office going over what they do and how they contribute to the company’s success,” Downing says.

Baby Steps

Downing breaks down the on-boarding process into weekly increments to avoid overwhelming a new employee and to help them succeed by offering them small goals to accomplish. The on-boarding process could take several months, based on the complexity of the job.


Once you’ve discussed a task and the employee has a chance to try it out, follow up to find out how they did. “If they start on Monday … by the next Monday you should have another meeting. The department manager might ask: What did you like best? What did you learn? If I asked you to find “X” online, could you find it?

Run through scenarios with them. If a new hire can’t do what you want them to do in the weeks you set out for them, it’s clear they’re not the right person for the job.

Set It Up

Discuss specific goals for performing the job in question. Tell new hires about meetings they will be expected to attend. Break the information into what’s expected after 30, 60, and 90 days and even longer-term.

Rules Rule

Victoria Downing mails an employee handbook to new hires and asks them to read it before they arrive the first day. Then she goes through it all with them. She also walks new hires through the company’s SOPs and tests them afterward. “This is all just the beginning of really getting started,” she says.

5 Tips to Bring New Life to Your Social Profiles


social media how toWhen was the last time you updated your social media profiles?


Are they starting to feel drab or dated?


Your social profiles may be in dire need of a refresh!


And are you sharing the types of updates tailored to the latest platform designs and suited for today’s social media marketing?


With recent changes to major platforms, you may be missing out on using some of the cool new options.


To freshen up your social media profiles and take advantage of the latest updates, implement any of the following five ideas.


#1: Optimize Your Google+ Profile for the Platform’s New Design


Google+ social profiles were recently redesigned. This represents a great opportunity to freshen up your Google+ profile and review your Google+ content strategy!


new google plus design

The new Google+ design features 1, 2 or 3 columns of content, depending on the device being used.




Here are a few tweaks you can make to spice up your new Google+ profile.


Add a new high-resolution cover image. The current Google+ design standards require an image that’s at least 480×270 pixels. However, since these images can be blown up for much larger display sizes in some browsers, this is a great opportunity to update your profile with a new high-resolution photo.


Add larger media to the items you post. Some picture and video “cards” (Google-speak for the individual items that appear in the stream) display across multiple columns, giving users greater exposure to them. While visitors can’t control which items appear wider than others, you can increase your odds of having your content featured by changing the size of the images and videos you share to be at least 480×270 pixels.


Here’s an example from HubSpot:


full width google plus

This image demonstrates what a full-width card looks like in the new Google+.


Add images to every post. The new Google+ design is all about visual content, so give Google what it wants by adding pictures or video files to every update you post. Visuals are a great way to make your profile appear more lively and engaging.


You’ll be taking advantage of the new features available with the new Google+ design and your profile will stand out above the others.


#2: Add Media to Your LinkedIn Profile


In December of last year, LinkedIn started rolling out the ability to add photos, videos and other types of rich media to profiles. But few eligible users are currently taking advantage of this opportunity!


If you’re serious about adding punch to both your personal and professional social profiles, adding media to your LinkedIn profile is an easy way to do it.


To see if you have access to these features, log into your profile and click the pencil icon found in the Edit Profile area of your Summary, Expertise and Experience sections. If you see a small icon labeled “Add Media,” you’ll be able to add rich media to create a freshened up professional profile on LinkedIn.


linkedin feature

Note – LinkedIn is still rolling out this feature. If you don’t have access yet, be patient!


You’ll want to add some relevant rich media elements to your LinkedIn profile to look good and stand out.


#3: Add a Header Graphic to Your Twitter Feed


Twitter profile headers have been available for quite a while, though the large number of plain grey rectangles still evident on user profiles indicates that this feature hasn’t yet been widely adopted.


To give your Twitter profile a quick graphic boost, create a custom header that communicates your personality or your brand’s messaging. Here’s an example of a fun header graphic.


coca cola twitter header

Coca Cola’s Twitter header combines images and popular brand iconography.


If you’d like to create your own Twitter header to freshen up your profile, check out the free Twitter Header Creator tool.


Make sure you’re Twitter profile page looks good and add an engaging header image.


#4: Upgrade to the “New Look” on Pinterest


Social media users have noted that Google+’s latest redesign makes it look more like Pinterest. And Pinterest has moved forward with its own redesign. Its new design features simplified navigation, larger “pins” and enhanced social sharing tools – elements that are bound to please users.


What’s interesting, though, is that instead of rolling out the new look to all users, it’s currently offered on an opt-in basis. To gain access to these features, you’ll need to click the Get it Now button that appears at the top of your profile upon login.


pinterest get it now button

To view Pinterest’s new look, click the red Get it Now button that appears upon login.


Because updating only changes the way your profile looks to you, why bother taking this step, and how does it allow you to freshen up your own profile?


What’s special about the site’s redesign is how easy it makes the discovery of new Pinterest boards and pinners. By upgrading to the new look, you’ll be able to form new connections and source even more interesting pins, making your own profile a more interesting resource for your followers.


You’ll want to update your Pinterest experience by adopting the new design.


#5: Use Twitter Vines to Bring New Life to Your Account


One final way to freshen up your social profiles is to introduce Vine videos to your Twitter feed.


Vine videos are quick, looping videos that consist of six seconds maximum of video and audio content. As an example, take the popular “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” Vine – a recent viral success:


vine video of ryan gosling

This popular Vine shows how effective six seconds of film can be in connecting with your audience.


Making Vine videos doesn’t require much time or money, as six seconds isn’t nearly enough time to develop a complex storyline or plot.


Create your own Vine video as a fast and easy way to freshen up your Twitter feed and engage your audience with visual content.


Your Turn


Use these five creative ways to make your social profiles more appealing today. Social interaction will continue to evolve around your social profiles, so remember to keep an eye open for the next design changes and new ways to share engaging content.


What do you think? Can you think of any other ways to freshen up a boring, out-of-date social profile? Share your tips and recommendations in the comments below!


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About the Author, Eric Siu

Eric Siu is an entrepreneur and internet marketer based in Los Angeles. He co-runs Storemapper, a store locator widget for e-commerce stores and other businesses. Other posts by