Seven Strategies to Get Your Catalog Opened

Here’s a depressing stat: About 80% of catalogs received in the mail get thrown away without so much as a peek inside the cover. So after all the planning, list segmentation, careful consideration of product mix and offers, design and costs, a vast majority of catalogs go directly to the recycle bin. Ouch.

Considering the amount of time, resources and money that goes into getting a catalog into the mail, this statistic is totally unacceptable. How do you think your catalog covers would stack up against that number? A few questions for you and your team to consider:

  • Do our covers have stopping power and visually stand out in our cluttered world?
  • Do our covers promise a solution to a challenge or need that our customers have?
  • Do we use at least five out of the seven techniques detailed below that compel or invite readers to open our catalogs?

If you’ve answered “no” or even a timid “maybe” to any of these questions, it’s time for you to invest in the two most critical pages of your catalog — your front and back covers.

These two pages are so powerful because they may represent your one and only shot at getting a sale. Covers are what customers and prospects see first; it’s your first opportunity to invite them into your brand and entice them into a purchase decision.

Before you begin designing your next catalog campaign, assemble your creative team and discuss the following seven considerations.

  1. Who are you and why does it matter?

    Presenting your logo (large and at the top), tagline and visuals quickly lets readers know who you are, but do they know why they should care? Your tagline should be benefit oriented, keeping customers’ needs in mind.

    But your logo and tagline cannot carry the full load. Consider other techniques that might engage the reader on an emotional level with a visual “tug” or an editorial headline.

    Whatever technique you use, it should speak to the emotional “takeaway” customers receive when doing business with your brand. As Martin Lindstrom writes in Buyology, 87% of purchasing decisions are made from an emotional as opposed to a rational impulse, so don’t miss an opportunity to make that emotional connection.

  2. Be bold

    As consumers, our information-overloaded brains have been conditioned to filter out large amounts of the information and images we’re presented with every day. Our brains are hardwired to notice what is unique or different and, subsequently, to process that information at a deeper level.

    That’s why you must stand out from the clutter in the mailbox. Your catalog should present a strong, compelling visual with either attention-grabbing colors or an unusual crop or angle.

    Covers with one strong image — be it a lifestyle photo or a hero product shot — will get noticed before a grouping of products every time. This doesn’t mean you must limit your front cover to showing only one product — insets (smaller product shots) can work well as long as you include one strong image that grabs attention.

  3. Be necessary! Provide timely and relevant solutions

    What needs of your customers are you uniquely suited to fulfill? Many catalogers now use magazine-style callouts on their covers that entice readers with the promise of the solutions they’ll find inside.

    But you must understand what customers are looking for and which products can fulfill their needs. An example of a solution-driven statement might be “Tantalizing swimsuits that slenderize your waist — see inside.” Or it may be thematic, such as “Watering solutions for your summer garden-see pages XX.” These statements should be easy to read and always include an inside page reference.

  4. Product is everything!

    Yes, it’s challenging to choose products for your covers that are both attention-grabbing and exactly what customers are looking for. After all, it’s impossible to know what every customer is interested in. But your product picks for the cover have to be on the mark.

    How do you go about choosing the right products? Think of your front and back covers as a small collection of products that represent your only opportunity at getting a sale. Here are a few tips on selecting cover products:

    • Always look to your proven product and category winners in terms of profits and, more important, “demand.” Choose products that most people are looking for.

      Your sales data is an invaluable guide in what your customers want. Begin the process by thinking in terms of best-selling categories that support your brand, and then choose best-selling products within those categories. For products that include multiple options, always choose the most popular option in terms of color, design and so on.

    • For every product presented, include a benefit statement and an inside page reference. Never include just a product name that means nothing to the consumer.

      For instance, it’s not just a “fleece jacket,” it’s “fleece guaranteed to keep the cold out, see page XX.” Inside page references are like a call to action — you should always use them.

    • Be careful not to choose “cool” products that don’t accurately represent your brand. While cool might get recipients inside, it’s more important to be on brand if you want to land a sale.

    • Consider exclusive products. It’s been proven that exclusivity works in direct marketing. The more exclusive, the better: Just be sure to call out this fact!

  5. Never be ashamed of offers

    Many offers don’t work simply because they don’t get noticed. We create offers to change a behavior, but it won’t work if they are not LOUD.

    There’s something to the old adage: If your art director isn’t screaming, you’re not pushing your offer hard enough. Customers love offers, so don’t be afraid to use them prominently and often. Use cover promotions as an opportunity to push readers inside with a page reference.

    Always think of your offer as adding value to the customer experience. Free shipping has become a standard offer because it works, but for some consumers, it’s becoming commonplace and even expected.

    So while free shipping may remain your best offer, consider tweaking it a bit with either copy or an additional benefit. An example might be, “Save money with FREE SHIPPING” or “Send your gift with FREE SHIPPING.”

    British videos and gifts cataloger BBC America has upped the ante by offering free lifetime shipping to customers who meet certain lifetime purchase thresholds. Its catalog covers tout “Free Shipping for Life!” Now that’s an offer with stopping power.

    One more point on offers. Don’t subscribe to the narrow definition that an offer is only about “dollars off” or “free shipping.” What else can you give readers if they are not yet ready to buy?

    A few catalogers have begun offering free content in exchange for an email address. For example, one apparel brand offered a free downloadable “Dressing to Flatter Your Shape” guide in exchange for an email address. This gives the merchant the ability to track engagement and remarket with an email campaign.

    This is especially exciting if a prospect responds to your “soft offer” but is not yet ready to buy. You have already paid for the name, and this technique allows you to engage later on.

  6. Your back cover (the other front cover)

    While all seven strategies apply to both front and back covers, keep in mind that back covers deserve their own special set of considerations. Due to the way mail is handled by the mail carrier (folded around letter-size mail), back covers are often the first page customers see.

    Critical back cover elements include your contact information, your logo and your tagline. And just as with the front cover, you should use an editorial headline that speaks to the emotional benefit of your brand.

    Most important, the back cover is a huge opportunity to showcase a variety of price points and categories. For example, a catalog mailing in the gift-giving season must be particularly mindful of a carefully selected variety of price points that represent what customers seek.

    On your back covers always, always promise more — drive them inside the catalog to see the rest of a category or more product options, such as “For more craftsman style doorknobs, see pages XX.” And with every product depiction, be sure to include a caption that promises a solution or a benefit.

  7. Finally, always consider a test!

    Last but certainly not least: Consider testing your creative presentation. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could learn what type of design drives response every time you mail?

    It’s too important to leave it to guesswork, and testing covers is inexpensive to manage. Consider testing factors that are meaningful and will give you the most actionable information.

    In other words, test overall presentation options that you’ll be able to apply to a large variety of covers. Do this before you drill down to testing on the product level: lifestyle cover vs. product cover; product with inset vs. product without inset; on model vs. off model. (Product testing is riskier because those products might not be available or desired in the future.)

    Think outside the box and test concepts that stretch your idea of what a traditional cover should look like. Ask yourself about what is working for your online efforts. Can you create the same “ad” on your cover?

    For example, Cyberswim has had success with its online “Real Life Makeover” ads. While it’s not a conventional approach, the swimwear mailer tested the same ad on the front of its catalog mailing to prospects. If you are seeing success in any area of your business, think in terms of how it might be treated on a cover.

    Your front and back catalog covers are a delicate balance of a broad assortment of factors — and it takes time, careful consideration and diligent testing to find the right mix that speaks most directly to your target audience. So be sure to give these two pages more time and consideration than any other pages within your catalog.

Lois Brayfield ( is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.