How to Use the Psychology of Persuasion In Your Direct Mail Marketing

February 7, 2013 Brian Watson

the psychology of direct mail marketingYou don’t need a PhD in cognitive psychology to create an effective direct mail piece.

As a marketer or small business owner, you probably have a good head start on the stuff that makes great campaigns: a valuable product or service, a good understanding of target markets and buyer personas, sticky messaging, and a solid brand perspective.

But a few research-backed insights probably wouldn’t hurt either. 

After all, there’s a lot of valuable data out there.  And sometimes the difference between a winning strategy and one that falls flat boils down to a few subtle – but shrewd - tweaks.  A new font type here; a stronger offer there; a little personalization everywhere – stuff like that.

But, then again, there’s a lot of valuable data out there.  And combing through it all for direct response marketing nuggets can be a pretty big challenge.

To make things a little more manageable, I’ve collected some of my favorite psychology-derived mail marketing tips and tricks in this post.  So read on for ideas that won’t qualify you for an advanced degree, but might just help you create a few really compelling print and mail campaigns.

Make It Simple

Laziness is hardwired deep into our nature.  That’s not a slight; it’s simple biology. 

Effort – whether it’s physical or mental – takes up energy.  It’s a physiological cost. 

And because energy is a valuable biological resource, humans often end up taking the path of least resistance without consciously considering the alternatives.

This phenomenon is behind the Law of Least Effort, which states that if there’s more than one way of completing a goal, then people will typically go with the least demanding option.

We can overcome it with a little motivation.  But that takes a deliberate decision.  And it can be even more difficult if we’re stressed, or tired, or hungry, or preoccupied. 

The human brain likes to believe what’s seems right and familiar, or what it’s seen before. (An idea known as “cognitive ease”).  Which is why, in most cases, the simplest option wins.


Use direct mail response channels that are really easy to access and complete.  Web landing pages should have short URLs and forms with as few fields as you can get away while still satisfying your objectives.  Promo codes in plain English work better than random numbers and letters.  And lengthy options like response cards should be used sparingly.

Use clear language and short sentences.  Reading and understanding long, wordy copy takes effort.  That adds to cognitive strain and makes it difficult to connect with your audience.  And studies show that overly complex language is counter-productive: people actually judge the author to be less intelligent.

Make it legible. The more your message stands out from the background, the more believable it is. So use black instead of gray or lighter color shades; a familiar font family; and maximize contrast with bold type for important words or phrases.

Make it memorable. Your customers are more likely to respond favorably to a direct mail piece if the message seems familiar.  Use core ideas, repetition and stories to help your direct mail marketing create a top-of-mind connection with customers.

Make It Persuasive

You might be thinking: isn’t all marketing about persuasion?  To which I'd reply: well, yes. 

But persuasiveness is an especially important element of direct mail because it's such a brutally split-second medium.

There’s no such thing as a captive direct mail audience.  People quickly scan a piece to determine its worth.  If it doesn’t grab their attention then they won’t spend a lot of time on it (which is a charitable way of saying it’ll likely end up at the bottom of a wastebasket).

That means you have a very small, very finite window to connect with current and potential customers.  So if persuasion isn’t built-in to your direct mail solution, it’s not likely to be a resounding success.

Fortunately, persuasion is a popular topic among cognitive psychologists.  And there’s a wealth of data available to help you put together a print and mail campaign that connects with consumers and gets results.


Provide a free-sample, special gift or trial offer.  Reciprocity is a powerful social construct.  In response to a friendly action, people tend to be much more open and cooperative.  And it doesn’t have to be particularly impressive or expensive.  For example, surveys that include a dollar “reward” outperform those that don’t.  And waitresses who smile more receive larger tips.

Use the customer’s name on the piece.  It’s easy, affordable and effective: research shows that brain activity increases when a person hears or sees their name.  That alone might be enough to grab a few seconds of precious attention to further connect with customers.

People respond strongly to centers of influence and authority.  So use badges, awards and certifications that add credence to your message.

Incorporate multiple customer testimonials or impressive sales figures (e.g. “one million satisfied customers”).  People assume that if a lot of people are doing something, there should be a good reason why.  That tendency is called Social Proof.  And it has some profound effects on behavior: people find shows with “canned laughter” funnier (even if they might think it’s personally annoying) and people are more likely to view a book favorably if they hear five positive reviews read by five different synthesized voices rather than the same reviews read by just one voice.

Use stories to create a connection.  Stories have uncommon value in helping people understand, react and remember.  Research shows that attitudes formed by experience resonate more - and stories help provide customers that feeling of actual experience.

True to economic theory, scarcity creates an impression of heightened demand that increases interest.  So use a time or quantity constraint - like “closeout sale” or “good for a limited time only” - in your offer.

Make It Repetitive

Repetition in marketing is nothing new.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not still a smart technique for boosting response. 

Repeating a phrase, product or brand name throughout your marketing helps increase stickiness and top-of-mind awareness.  Likewise, repeated exposure to the same (or slightly different) message gradually increases likeability over time. 

Remember: the more people are exposed to something, the more they like it. Psychologist Robert Zajonc called that tendency the Mere Exposure Effect. 

In an innovative study, Zajonc created a list of nonsense words that ran as ads on the front page of several local student newspapers every day for a few weeks. Then he sent our follow-up questionnaires to the papers’ readers asking if each word meant something bad or good.

The verdict: words that were repeated as ads many times were judged more positively than those that appeared only once or twice. 

Repetition creates an aura of trust; and trust creates positive associations. 


Refine your product/service benefits into clear, concise keywords and phrases that can be easily repeated throughout the copy in your direct mail piece (and related marketing).

Develop an offer that lets consumers try before they buy.  Repeated exposure to your product not only reinforces the value it provides, it also creates fluency that can lead to liking and preference.

Create a sense of familiarity and trust by following-up on the initial direct mail piece with additional mailers and cross-media marketing.

But don’t overdo it: studies have shown that too much exposure to a message can result in a negative perception.  If you don’t get results after 3-5 touches, test out a new direct mail solution.

Do you have other cool psychological studies that have inspired your marketing strategy?  Share them in the comments section below!

Learn more about how personalized, targeted, relevant direct mail marketing can boost campaign response and conversion.  Register for your free, online seminar today.

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