Direct Mail Copywriting To Teachers

In true direct marketing tradition, we begin this article with a disclaimer. No one can teach you how to write. Whether writing is a talent or a skill is beyond me, except to say it’s likely a little of both. But, as guitar pickers say to colleagues who want to learn a tune, “I can’t teach ya…but I can show ya.”

First let’s address the question of grammar and usage when writing to teachers because it’s an exception to the usual rule. Conventional wisdom around direct mail copywriting to most markets is “keep in mind, this isn’t the Great American Novel. It’s writing for dollars. Ms. Grundy or Sister Mary Elizabeth won’t be around to rap your knuckles if you split an infinitive. And if your copy reads more clearly that way, go ahead and split it! Not sure which punctuation is best after a statement? Use an “em” dash—like that—and to heck with it.”

But what if you’re writing to Ms. Grundy or Sister Mary Elizabeth? Ah, now that’s another matter! Like the professional proofreader who was unable to read the daily newspaper—he had to compulsively “proof” it—teachers are in a similar spot. They’re much more sensitive than most to grammatical mistakes, errors in punctuation, and so forth. So, while you still want your copy to flow, you probably don’t want to take quite as many liberties in writing to teachers as you might with a general consumer letter.

The point of grammatical license in sales copy is that you want your writing to be crystal clear to the reader, whatever it takes. You want the reader to move smoothly from the outer envelope teaser to the order form (or telephone, or Web site). Any major interruption in the reader’s train of thought, such as an awkward phrase or sentence, even if grammatically correct, and chances are you’ll be derailed. So copywriters sometimes overlook strict grammatical rules in phrasing and punctuation if it makes the point more clearly or emphatically. In writing to teachers, however, that same tactic could well cause the distraction!

Good copywriting also has a rhythm that helps move the reader along. Alliterations in text, short statements and comments, use of contractions (“you’ll” instead of “you will,” for example), use of italics for emphasis (sparingly!), and rising and falling inflections, all contribute to a sort of iambic pentameter for copy that makes reading more of a pleasure, and less of a chore.

Headlines and Teacher Benefits

The first thing to consider in your letter or brochure is the headline. The headline is critical in determining the success of a mailing piece. It focuses readers’ attention on one quick benefit or promise (or two) and gives them a reason to spend their valuable time reading this material. Put more forcefully, it’s what determines whether readers will or will not spend time reading your material! If the headline doesn’t make it, you don’t make it.

Headlines also help close out other random thoughts and provide a context for what is about to follow. As to length, worry more about whether your headline has captured the essence of your product than about its length, although shorter is better.

Unlike most consumer direct marketing targets, teachers have two primary interests: (1) themselves, and (2) their students.

For themselves, teachers mostly want products that make their lives easier. Curricula and aids that make it easier to teach. Beyond that, what they want most is for students to respond positively to the material. If you can make either or both of those claims, you should at least get a hearing.

As much as possible, you should position benefits headlines in terms of the students, as in, “XYZ software makes mathematics come alive for your students…” and/or in terms of the teacher’s job, as in, “…and makes teaching, class preparation, and research a joyful new experience for you!”

This assumes you’re mailing directly to teachers. But what if you’re mailing principals or district administrators? Then the benefit headline can be made in terms of their teachers, like this one for a K-6 substance abuse curriculum: “Help your teachers respond to students’ fears, concern and confusion over alcohol and drugs, their use and misuse!”

Even a catalog has—or should have—headlines at the top of a page or at the introduction of a particular product category. For example, “A biography program that provides role models for students.” Then, in a product subhead, “Invite Abraham Lincoln, Cochise, and JFK into your classroom!”

Sell Benefits, and List Features

Like everyone else, teachers tune in to station WIFM—”What’s In It For Me?” Benefits are far more significant to us than dry features. Benefits get past the mind’s gatekeepers with greater reliability than do features and all the other image flotsam and message jetsam that bombard us every day.

However, don’t leave out the features—they often provide the basis for the more argument justification a buyer can use to justify a purchase instead of acknowledging the emotional appeal of the benefits.

For example, in the catalog copy example above, the heading, “A biography program that provides role models for students” is the benefit: providing role models for students is what the product will do for you—or them. In the subhead, “Invite Abraham Lincoln, Cochise, and JFK into your classroom!” Abe, Cochise and JFK are the features.

Another way to think of it is that features are expressed in the language of the seller (a sports car’s air suspension), while benefits are expressed in the language of the buyer(a smoother ride). The great Roman orator, Cicero, who knew a thing or two about persuasion, said:

“If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words.”

Or as a copy chief I once worked with put it, “Tell me about my lawn, not your grass seed.” That remains about as succinct a way to remember the differences between features and benefits as I know.

Starting to Write

Begin writing your package at the beginning—with the envelope teaser—because that synthesizes the major benefit and often flags the offer in a single phrase. Then rough out the headline on the letter and on the brochure, so that those key messages are coordinated to project a common theme, but not in the same words.

Next, write the opening. “I am writing to you about…” or “I want you to know about…” are not openings. The reader, frankly, doesn’t care what you want. She cares about herself (albeit as a teacher with a desire to help students). Direct mail is almost universally written in the second person with “I” and “we” used as sparingly as possible.

Most letters and brochures succeed or fail in their first sentence. The surest way to lose is to begin talking about yourself and your organization.

Going back to the XYZ software example, consider the following opening:

“For you as a teacher, XYZ software is like having a team of crack assistants at your side. One to prepare your lecture notes, another to create overheads, a third to write your exams, plus a tireless researcher who never even stops for coffee.”

Or how about this, for Internet monitoring software depicted as a friendly Labrador retriever named BESS:

“Wouldn’t you like to give your students the opportunity to travel all over the world, to visit famous libraries and museums, to get research information right from the experts and even correspond directly with our government leaders? Now you can, safely and conveniently, with BESS at each student’s side.”

“Give your students _______” (Fill in the blank) is a key phrase in selling to teachers.

Finally, it’s a good idea to write the order form immediately, because that spells out, succinctly, what you’ll be asking the prospect to do when you’ve convinced him or her that he or she can’t survive another day (happily and successfully) without your product.

Sell the Offer—and Date It

In direct mail, you sell the offer, not the product. The free trial, the no-risk 30-day preview with money-back guarantee, the limited-time, half-off deal, the free premium.
It’s much easier to sell a 30-day trial or a free examination than it is to sell the product itself. You’ll discuss payment terms later.

You support the offer basically with benefits, product information, and “reason why” persuasions, urging the prospect to “act now!” You support that in turn with testimonials, research, and/or test results (“classroom tested!”), and then wrap it all in a credible guarantee and a call to action (i.e., ask for the order!).

You’ll want to date your offer. An expiration date (4-6 weeks from the drop date is best) helps to keep your mailing from going up between the lamp and the tape dispenser for “later.” It’s also helpful to “merchandise” the offer by referring to it at several points throughout the letter. For example, “When you send for your free demo (30-day no-risk trial, etc.) you’ll quickly see…”

Sell Copy

From the offer preview, get right into the benefits your reader will realize when she tests, previews, and examines your product. In consumer direct mail you stay in second person throughout the letter. With a teacher, however, you also want to frequently reference “your students” to remind her that she’s really buying this for them, not herself. You’re talking to her (one person, not a group or market) and about her (not you), and so you talk about your company and your product only in terms of what they will do for her and/or her students.

Use Subheads to Introduce New Thoughts

You want to avoid eye-glazing, mind-numbing, wall-to-wall copy, so use subheads to introduce new thoughts and to move from one part of the letter to the next.

Write in short sentences.

And short paragraphs.

Present a list of benefits or features in list form,

• Each item
• Preceded by
• A bullet

instead of in a linear paragraph.

Use words of one syllable as much as possible. The New York Times is written to a ninth grade level, for clarity. Your reader is trying to quickly extract the key information he needs, often by just scanning your letter. Which is another good reason to use subheads…bulleted lists…and…ellipses.

The Guarantee

Mitigating risk is an essential function of successful direct mail. No one wants to make a mistake. Especially not an expensive mistake. Relieve that fear with your guarantee. By law you must refund legitimate requests up to 30 days anyway, so why not make a virtue of necessity? Some worry that a guarantee might somehow cast doubt on the product. But the guarantee speaks not to your product, but to you as an honest and fair businessperson your prospect can trust.

Still, try to avoid the rather abrupt “Money Back Guarantee” or “Full Refund If Not Satisfied” kind of thing. That’s negative. A Free (or Risk-Free or No-Risk) 30-day Trial is the same thing, expressed in positive terms. “Examine it, try it, use it for a full 30 days without risk.” That’s an invitation, not a warning.

The Call to Action

Even after all that, you can’t assume the reader will do what you want her to do, right away. But that’s what she must do. So spell it out. Ask for the order! Does she detach and complete a reply card, call a toll-free number, complete a questionnaire, check a box, punch out a token? What? Is there a postpaid or self-addressed reply envelope to use?

Ask her to do all this right now because that expiration date will be here before she knows it. Because she really wants to try this, but if she lets it go till “later,” she’ll forget.

The P.S.

Punctuate the call to action with the signature, then add a P.S. After the headline and first sentence, the P.S. commands the highest readership in the letter. Use that important space to repeat a key benefit, or add a twist or another idea to something you’ve already said. Also, repeat your call to action here, in slightly different words.

Interactive Copy

In direct mail you want to use words that invite the prospect into the world of your product. Words that help her imagine herself using the product or that project the results of using the product in the classroom.

  • Learn, discover, try, explore, test, find. These are words that invite the reader into our proposition and set the stage for action.
  • Free, new, now, announcing. These are words that promise something new. Why is every packaged product on the market “new and improved?” Because people are naturally drawn to the latest and newest.
  • In addition…furthermore…what’s more…. These are phrases, sometimes called the “bucket brigade,” that help move the reader smoothly from paragraph to paragraph to order form.

The Last Word

Having said all that, copy and creative are only about 10% to 20% of the success of a direct mail campaign. The list and the offer do the heavy lifting at 40% each.

Well-written copy will always enhance the results of any offer, but the right offer to the right list at the right time will likely survive even mediocre copy. On the other hand, if you brought Claude Hopkins back from the dead he could not save the wrong offer to the wrong list. Always test your lists and offers first, before you put additional time and money into testing copy and format.

Further, all copy and creative is a compromise with time. Some top writers agonize over every word and phrase and revise, revise, revise through sleepless nights, while others do a first draft, polish it once or twice, and let it go—often because with the press of deadlines and a heavy workflow they have no choice. Which you are will depend on who you are, and nothing said here will change it.

Good luck.

About the Author:
George Duncan is an award-winning direct mail writer and consultant, frequently numbered among the top direct mail copywriters in the country. He started Duncan Direct Associates in 1976, providing a full range of direct marketing services to a national roster of publishers, software developers, and marketers of business-to-business and consumer products and services. He is the author of Streetwise Direct Marketing, published by Adams Media. He can be reached at, or (603) 924-3121.

Recommended Reading
The Copywriter’s Handbook, Updated Edition, by Robert W. Bly,
Henry Holt
On the Art of Writing Copy, 2nd Edition, by Hershell Gordon Lewis,
American Management Association (AMACOM)
Words That Sell, by Richard Bayan, Caddylak Publishing

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