Dimensional Mail with a Sustainable Twist

Direct mail can be an excellent way to promote your business because it is highly targeted, trackable, more likely to command your prospect’s undivided attention than many other forms of advertising, and can be relatively inexpensive to implement. Done right, it can also be extremely effective, especially when mailed to customers you’ve already established a relationship with.

Some Green marketers are hesitant to use direct mail because of the solid waste involved. Fortunately, there are ways to make direct mail more sustainable. I will highlight some of these in a future article. Today, though, I want to discuss one direct mail trick that pretty consistently increases response rates
— and profits
— from direct mail campaigns.

Overcoming the “First Big Challenge” in direct mail

Unless you are using postcards, one of the biggest hurdles you are likely to face when using direct mail is simply getting your mailing opened.

Even the best sales letter in the world won’t have a chance of working if it never makes it in front of the prospect’s face. On the other hand, even if the prospect doesn’t respond to a mailing, the act of opening it up and reading the contents at least exposes him to your message. This may influence a later decision to purchase from you. If so, it’s still valuable as advertising. Anything you can do in increase your open rate not only increases your chances for immediate profit, it also decreases the waste factor represented by unopened mail.

Lumpy envelopes get opened

There are many things you can do to encourage your prospect to open your piece. Some of these include using unusual envelope sizes or colors, hand-addressing the envelopes, using “live” stamps instead of bulk insignias, and using “teaser” copy on the envelope to encourage your prospect to open it. But one of the most effective techniques is known as “lumpy,” “dimensional,” or “3D” mail.

Have you ever received a piece of mail that had some sort of object in the envelope? It’s pretty hard not to open, isn’t it? Three dimensional objects (including packages as well as lumpy items sealed in envelopes) pique the prospect’s curiosity and increase open rates. Another advantage is that other envelopes also tend to slide off them, so they are likely to end up on top of your prospect’s pile of mail.

Creating an effective lumpy mail campaign

It’s best to tie your objects in to your promotion in some logical way. For instance, if you’re having a promotion centered around a holiday, you might want to include objects associated with that holiday. (Say, a small dreidel for a Hannukah promotion.)

Telling a story about your object and why you’re sending it to your prospect is also a great way to engage their interest. Or you can treat the object like a coupon that can be exchanged for an offer or reward.

Coming up with sustainable 3-D mail ideas

Finding objects to include in your lumpy mail promotions is easy. Companies such as Oriental Trading Company and 3Dmailresults.com offer many options for inexpensive and interesting mailable items to spice up your promotions. However, the vast majority of these objects are unacceptable from a sustainability point of view. Most are made from plastic or other unsustainable materials. They are not compostable or biodegradable, and therefore pose a waste disposal problem and threaten the integrity of our environment. And many of them serve no real purpose other than boosting your open rate, so are not likely to be reused.

Clearly, if we wish to honor our own values and avoid alienating our eco-conscious customers, we need to avoid such objects. Ideally, the 3-D objects we include in our mailings need to fall within these guidelines:

1. They should be made of materials whose production places minimal stress on the environment.

2. Their disposal should not degrade the environment: they should be compostable, recyclable, and/or reusable.

3. They should offer enough value to their recipients that they will be used or passed along. (An exception might be natural objects such as acorns which can simply be returned to Nature.)

Following are some ideas for eco-friendly objects you can use in your next 3-D mail campaign, as well as sample concepts for working them into your promotions.

Natural objects:

Nuts—”I must be nuts to be offering discounts this deep” “Are high heating bills driving you nuts?” “Let’s get cracking on a solution!”

Acorn—”Mighty oaks from tiny acorns” —could work for insurance, any kind of investment.

Pine cones, leaves—Marquette, Michigan home improvement contractors The Window Store once sent a mailing to existing customers promoting their gutter cleaning services. Along with the sales letter, they included a handful of pine needles and leaves raked from an employee’s back yard. The letter was extremely successful, bringing in enough business to keep their crews busy for several weeks.

Seashell—Shells are a beautiful gift from Nature; use them to emphasize your company’s respect for the environment. Be sure to pack them carefully using biodegradable material such as starch based packing peanuts.

Shark tooth—”Eat your competition alive!” (Or, if your business has been around a long time or you’re selling a product that’s been successful for decades, make an analogy to the shark. Most of the critters that evolved at the same time as sharks are long gone, but sharks are still supremely successful creatures – you can’t really improve on their design.)

Fossil—”Still using fossil fuel?” or “Don’t let outdated [technology, etc,] make you look like a fossil.”

Flower seed packet—Great tie-in if you’re representing a product that helps businesses (or consumer savings) grow.

Live bamboo plant—Plants are another great choice for a growth theme, or for healthy living (plants are their own little air purifiers.) Or call it a “desktop meditation garden” and let people know your product will save them so much time they’ll now have time to relax.

Small rocks or pebbles—”Help is just a stone’s throw away.”

Office supplies:

Eraser—”Wipe away your troubles” (could work with a microfiber or organic cleaning cloth as well.)

Pen/pencil—These are tried and true promotional items when imprinted with your company’s name. Promotional pens and pencils are available now in a number of eco-friendly choices, including bamboo, corn starch, and recycled paper. Pens and pencils make great practical promotional items because they’re almost guaranteed to get used, and frequently get passed from person to person. Make full use of them by including an involvement device in your package for which they’ll need a writing implement.

Pencil sharpener—”Let’s sharpen your advantage.”

Flash drive (USB stick)—Load it with your promotional materials. “Flashy” packaging your prospects are guaranteed to appreciate, and actually use. Flash drives are available in recycled plastic and even bamboo.

Sticky note pad (recycled)—Everyone uses these and they often get passed around. Print some up with your logo and URL. Make sure you indicate some reason to visit your website or call (white papers are great for this)
— but leave plenty of room for notes!


Fair trade coffee—”Wake up to [your favorite benefit]!”

Organic tea bag—or how about two? You could do a “Two for Tea” promotion or fundraiser, using the tea bags as tickets to your event. The tea bag then gets redeemed for a prize; the extra bag lets them get their friends in on the fun, encouraging referral business. (Extra points for snide copy related to Tea Baggers!)

Organic nuts—”My wife (husband, kids, boss, dog, etc.) think(s) I’m nuts (to offer prices this low, etc.)” or “High heating bills driving you nuts?” or “Let’s get cracking on a solution!”

Organic candy—”For the sweetest savings of the year…”

Fortune Cookies (probably best sent in a box)—Fortune cookies have insanely high open rates, and you can order them with custom messages. And did you know you can now even get organic fortune cookies? Why not have your prospects break theirs open to find out which one of several free gifts or discount offers they win? (The message then becomes a coupon.)

Other items:

Marbles—”The boss is losing his marbles (to be offering a deal like this!)”

Pressure gauge—”Feeling pressured?” or “Take the pressure out of _____.” It’s not biodegradable but it’s a useful tool that won’t get thrown away.

Origami—From lotus flowers to sailing ships, no matter what you’d like to represent in your mailing, somebody’s probably made an origami version of it. These folded paper objects are beautiful, intriguing and much more eco-friendly than plastic objects. True, they may not be readily available commercially, but most origami pieces are quick to make and if your mailing is small you should be able to find someone willing to earn a few bucks for folding paper into pretty shapes. (My eleven year old daughter comes to mind!) 😉

Wooden/bamboo spoon—”Stir yourself up some savings.”

Coin—You’ve probably received mailings that had a penny or other coin glued to the sales letter, perhaps visible behind a window in the envelope. They’re effective because no one wants to throw away money, so you can almost guarantee it’ll get opened. Just make sure you have a killer headline to draw them in once they’ve ripped it open!

Balloons (biodegradable)—If you’re sending birthday greetings to your customers, good for you! Make them even more special by including balloons. Or use the balloons to spread the news of your company’s “birthday” or the birthday of a famous person related to your industry (link it to a sale or promotion, of course.)

Candle—A candle would make a great involvement device, especially for a nonprofit. For example, you could ask them to light the candle on a certain night to show their support for a cause – then visit your website to pledge that they’ll do so (and hopefully make a donation, too!)

Switchplate—If you offer energy-saving services, consider printing up switchplates with your logo and a “Turn out the lights to save energy” message for your customers to use at the workplace or in their garage, basement or attic. You could include them as a courtesy gift with your direct mail promotion, or send them as a thank-you to recent customers, along with a survey for gathering feedback and testimonials. For added effect, include an inexpensive insulating switchplate sealer, too.

Book—Who would throw away a book? Especially one that addresses their needs or interests. Books make terrific lumpy mail additions. For maximum impact, send them one you’ve authored (or co-authored) yourself. It’s best if you can subtly weave persuasion into your book along with useful information
— and include a bio page with your contact information at the end. This could well be the most powerful sales tool you ever lay hands on. (If you’re not into writing, no worries. Just hand your ideas over to a ghostwriter
— like yours truly!) 🙂

As with any promotion, when you send a 3-D mailing just make sure to keep it targeted, relevant, clear and focused. And if you’re planning a large mailing, be sure to test it on a small portion of your list first (500 names is ideal for a test run.) Good luck, and have fun!

Anne Michelsen is a freelance copywriter who helps companies achieve their sustainability and profitability goals through effective written communication. Request a copy of her upcoming white paper, “Engaging an Apathetic Audience: How Sustainable Business can Accelerate Change” at her website, GreenInkCopywriting.com.