REPLY TO ALL: Are Emails Equivalent to the ‘Envelopes’ of Direct Mail?

Do digital marketers view the function of the email similarly to that of the outer envelope in snail mail? Essentially, intrigue folks to click to the order page (open the envelope) as quickly as possible? —J.P.

The Voices of Email had this advice:

Chip House: I think that using the simile of direct mail is helpful when trying to understand the critical components of a successful email. To answer the question directly, however, I don’t equate the email itself to the outside of the envelope. Also, I don’t believe that the sole purpose is to drive to the inside of the envelope—or to drive a click to a web page. These are both critical pieces of email, but not the complete package.

First of all, I see the outside of the envelope as the “from” address and the subject line. These items are most often seen by the end-user. Optimizing these “envelope fields” really is the most critical item to get your email opened. In the days of preview panes and image blocking, however, optimizing the top portion of your email with alt tags, HTML call-to-action copy, etc. is also necessary if you want the recipient to spend more than 3 seconds on your message.

Second, once the email is opened, certainly getting the recipient to click through to the order page quickly is the goal of many retailers. Others in publishing, or B2B marketers, may choose a more “curriculum-based” approach where they are educating via their emails, adding value and creating ongoing interest. These types of communications don’t target a quick reaction, but rather seek to create a more educated customer/subscriber—one that chooses to pick your business over your competitors’ for the long haul.

Jeanniey Mullen: This is an awesome question! For those of us in the digital space, who also have years of experience in the “old school” world of direct marketing, the similarities are quite interesting. A great example of this is what is known in the direct mail world as the “Johnson Box.” I was going to write more about what a Johnson box is, and how it relates to email—but good, old Wikipedia does a phenomenal job—so check it out here.

The Johnson Box is just one example of how traditional direct mail successes are reused in email. If I were new to email and wasn’t sure how to succeed, I would find the best direct marketer I know and take them for coffee—they could teach you a trick or two that could be applied to email and give your campaign a competitive advantage.

Chad White: While in most cases retail emails do act like the envelope for the landing page, they don’t always. For instance, Saks Fifth Avenue sends their New York subscribers an email once a month highlighting in-store events at their flagship Fifth Avenue store, and sends subscribers reminders to tune in to playoff games. In those cases, the email is like the letter rather than the envelope. This is probably the best way to think of email when the action prompted by the email takes place offline or in another channel.

Have some good advice that we missed? Please add a comment and take part in the conversation.

Have a question for the Voices of Email? Email Chad your question at and we’ll REPLY TO ALL by posting the answers so everyone can benefit.

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One thought on “REPLY TO ALL: Are Emails Equivalent to the ‘Envelopes’ of Direct Mail?

  1. I’m writing from the UK and it may be that our marketing has taken a different line here from that in the US. But I think many UK firms would agree that you have to go back a step and think about the way in which the recipient sees the world and the receipt of email both literally and emotionally.

    Since many people use Outlook Express to view their emails, they are as likely to see the start of the message as they are the from and subject lines.

    Now if a person gets mountains of email he/she will then focus on the from and subject line, but flick across to the opening of the text sometimes. People who receive less will flick across the other way.

    Which means the from and subject lines must be in accord with the opening of the text – and that takes us back to the issue of the headline – which is what all direct mailers talk about all day long.

    So it is a unified three fold concept – who the email is seen to be from, what is in the subject line, and what the headline of the email says in the body of the text.


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