When it comes to direct-mail postcard marketing success, which is more important: design or copy? This is a debate worth exploring, as all of us have seen poorly-designed postcards with great copywriting and well-designed postcards with poor copy. In a perfect world, your postcards will feature outstanding design and copy, but if you’re on a limited budget you might be forced to choose between hiring a designer or a copywriter. Which should you choose?

Consider the 40-40-20 rule

The 40-40-20 rule of direct-mail marketing states that:

  • 40 percent of your success is dependent on the quality of your mailing list
  • 40 percent is dependent on your offer
  • 20 percent is dependent on everything else

If those figures are universally true, then it seems slapping your offer (“Save 20% on product XYZ!”) in 12-point black Times New Roman on a white postcard would be sufficient; but if it were, companies wouldn’t continually invest in copywriters and designers. They wouldn’t have to!

I think the 40-40-20 rule is a bit misleading because, as stated, it minimizes the importance good design and copy. You might think the “offer” represents copywriting, but it doesn’t – your offer is simply a statement. Copywriting refines that statement and incorporates supporting evidence to bolster it, make it meaningful to customers, and ultimately influence response.

The real role of design and copy in direct-mail marketing

So if design and copy are relegated to the 20 percent of “everything else,” why bother in the first place? Good design helps set the tone of your marketing pieces. It can showcase products and happy customers, and visually depict customer benefits. Good copy reinforces those benefits, helps create desire for your products and services, and can motivate more response.

Those are all excellent goals for any direct mailer, but if they’re not nearly as important as delivering a great offer to a targeted audience then it seems their impact might be minimal. The debate isn’t design VS copy, because they work together to create desire and influence action. It’s whether the additional investment is worth the return in the first place.

All of these points omit one critical factor: a great offer is meaningless, even if delivered to a well-targeted audience, unless it’s noticed. That’s the real role of great design and copy.

It’s so easy to toss a postcard aside with barely a glance, or to sift unopened sales letters directly into the recycled bin. The offer might be there, but your audience never notices unless you incorporate compelling design and copy into your direct-mail marketing materials.

A powerful headline that conveys a critical benefit and a can’t-be-missed offer with a time-limited call to action is a great start. Wrap that headline in a bold, colorful font and augment it with an attention-getting, unique image, and your audience will take pause. They’ll read your postcard or sales letter. They’ll be drawn into your benefits, and they’ll take action: they will become customers.

Where to invest your marketing dollars?

Ideally, you’ll hire both a designer and a copywriter, who will work together to craft a compelling direct-mailer that gets noticed and maximizes ROI. If you’re tight on your budget, you still have options, including:

  • You can use well-designed direct-mailer templates
  • You can study competitors’ direct-mailers, and direct mailers from other industries, and “steal” their ideas (every copywriter has a swipe file just for this purpose)
  • You can hire design students who need to fill their portfolios for pennies on the dollar compared to seasoned pros
  • You can learn direct-mail copywriting skills to apply them on your own

There should never be a debate on whether to invest in good design or copy; both are equally important and intertwined. Ignore the 40-40-20 rule: design and copy influence far more than 20 percent of your success. Without them, the 40 percent attributed to your offer will never be realized, because customers will never get around to reading it.