Tutorial 38: how to set up a creative sample file

When I’m faced with the challenge of creating a new mailing package, I usually follow either one or two different procedures.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
January 22, 2019

Some days I try to visualise the final product before I begin any writing – the length of the letter, the general look of the mailing piece and the reply device, etc. This stops me from coming up with wild, creative packages that may have little relevance to the realities of budget or production.

On the other hand, some days I like to start with a mailing piece based entirely on the subject matter and mood of the copy.

But, regardless of which method I follow, I find that I benefit from working almost every day in my creative sample file.

Here’s how you can develop such a file for yourself.

1. To begin, contact 10 friends and neighbours who understand you strange interest in mail, and ask them to save for you all the nonprofit mailings they receive.

Ask them to carefully slit open the top of the envelopes and replace the contents into the envelope exactly as the piece came in the mail.

2. Then, select 20 nonprofit organisations, 10 similar to your organisation and 10 at random. Send each organisation a small gift.

3. Write to 25 additional nonprofit organisations and request information about their work. Be sure and select organisations that are not presently sending you their appeals and, if possible, organisations that are not mailing to your 10 friends.

4. Purchase items from 10 different mail order companies, so you will become an active customer on mail order lists.

5. Clip 25 commercial coupons from magazines and ask for information about products, books, clothing, etc. This will put you on several commercial inquiry mailing lists.

Then, if you follow the above suggestions, you will be receiving a steady flow of direct mail pieces, because your name is being rented, traded, exchanged and used by perhaps a hundred other direct response companies.

You have started a cycle that will perpetuate itself forever, or until you are dead, whichever comes first.

6. Before your mail pile stacks up too high, you will need to get your files organised. I prefer an open bookshelf type of system, because then I can see exactly what letters are in each cubbyhole.

I find that once I put a package into a closed file, I rarely ever go back to the file to look at it again. But if the mail piece is out, staring me in the face, I am forced to deal with it – either to study it or perhaps eventually throw it away.

I have several types of headings that are constantly being changed, subdivided, discarded, etc, according to my emerging interests, the type of clients I work wit and the development of creative direct mail techniques around the country:

Reply devices.

Reply envelopes.

Carrier envelopes.



Long letters.

Short letters.

Handwritten letters.

Computer letters.

Complete packages.

Large mailings.

Small packages.

Strange packages.

Also, I have a series of categories for various types of mailings. For example:

Religious packages.

Premium packages (i.e. there’s a gift inside).

Political packages.

Ecology packages.

Major donor packages.

Upgrading packages.

Renewal packages.

Overseas appeals.

Animal appeals.



Children’s homes.

And on and on and on.

I usually have a section for the samples from about 20 various organisations that I have a particular interest in, or organisations that I think are doing an unusually good job at creating direct mail.

And then I have a series of categories for various commercial mailers that use formats that can be adapted to nonprofit mailings.

I like to go up to my sample shelves and just browse around, because I always have a stack of mailing pieces that I haven’t yet sorted or put onto the shelves.

And as I put a particular sample into a category, I discover that perhaps an older sample I thought was good is somewhat out-of-date, so I will pull it out and throw it away without any great qualms or regret about jeopardising the filing system.

In fact, I don’t think of this as being a filing system at all. Some of the samples I keep for years and years because I think that someday I can use the concept. Other samples I throw out after a few months, because the concept just doesn’t get me excited.

Finally, I always have a stack of samples on my work table that I call the ‘hot file’. These are ideas that strike me as being so exciting and relevant that I can’t stand the idea of even putting these on a shelf. I must have them out on the table where they can capture my attention each day.

For myself, I find that the very act of reading direct mail stimulates my creative energies ... like jump-starting a battery on a cold morning.

Organise your creative energy. You’ll have lots of fun.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen_Chapman.jpg#asset:8990:urlGwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance to these tutorials here.

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