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Direct Mail Copy for Skimmers, Swimmers and Divers

Direct response copywriting is a combination of art and science. There are thoughtful reasons behind the techniques, phrases and structure of the copy used in different media, as well as the way it’s formatted.

It all begins with knowing that people consume information in different ways and that copy will be seen by very different types of readers. Take direct mail for instance. There are three audiences — skimmers, swimmers and divers.

  1. Skimmers do just that — they skim a package very quickly to find out if it’s relevant or interesting to them. They only read the headlines and call-outs.
  2. Swimmers take slightly more interest, looking deeper at more of your package, taking in headlines and call-outs, but also focusing on the bolded, bulleted and underlined portions of the package and the P.S.
  3. Divers will read everything … the entire letter as well any inserts or brochures in the package.

When developing direct mail copy, it’s best to write with all three audiences in mind. The goal will be to give skimmers and swimmers quick access to the information they want and need to make a decision, while at the same time giving the divers as much information as possible so they, too, will take action.

Here are a few quick tips to make your direct mail copy readable to all three audiences:

  1. For all three audiences, make sure your call to action is clear, concise and compelling. Highlight the most critical information one might need to make a decision. “Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar if received by the deadline.”
  2. Use formatting techniques to draw readers’ eyes to specific text. This includes judicious use of bolding, underlining, italics and even the occasional ALL CAPS. In addition, you can:
    • Include hand drawn double parentheses to emphasize key points.
    • Place brief, handwritten notes in the margins or use call-outs and pull quotes.
    • Use short bulleted lists containing a few powerful need and/or impact statements.
    • Use ellipses … to draw the reader from one sentence or thought to the next one.
    • Break pages in the middle of a paragraph using a cliffhanger approach.
    • Use em-dashes to visually separate brief—yet powerful—sound bites within a sentence.
  3. Section headers are a great way to quickly move a donor through your copy. Headlines serve four important purposes: They grab the reader’s attention, deliver a standalone message, provide a break from lots of successive paragraphs as well as add a clear transition to the next key point. Headers propel the reader forward.
  4. Be sure to answer WIIFM. Appeal to the donor’s self-interest by answering the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) question. Write from the reader’s point of view and be sure to tell them the tangible or intangible benefits they will receive by responding.
  5. Remember … white space is a good thing. We’ve all received letters that were so dense, they were visually uninviting. Make sure your text is approachable and doesn’t overwhelm your readers. Skimmers and swimmers will be particularly put off by too much copy with no eye breaks.
  6. Make sure you demonstrate impact. There are many formulas in our industry that can help you evaluate whether or not your copy is hitting the mark. A few commonly used approaches are: Problem-Agitate-Solve (PAS), Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA), and Picture-Promise-Prove-Push (4Ps), and more. (Some helpful links are provided at the end of this article.) Whichever you choose, make sure you make your reader the hero of your story by putting them at the center of the solution. Use urgency whenever possible to encourage them to take quick action.

These are just a few simple, best practices that can help generate better results. Your readers consume information in different ways. That’s why it’s in your best interest to appeal to skimmers, swimmers and divers alike. What techniques do you use to make your copy compelling and easy to read?

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Julie Dixon is vice president of Creative Services at CDR Fundraising Group. She can be reached at or (301) 858-1500.