Compelling copywriting from National Geographic (without hype)

I’m on a bit of a swipe file hunt at the moment, and the latest acquisitions are a couple of brilliant pieces of short copy from the National Geographic Society asking me to renew my magazine subscription.

Since signing up last year I have happily received a free fleece (one size fits all, sex appeal definitely not included) as well as a variety of impressive knowledge. I know how to work out the temperature by counting cricket chirps, theories of how the Easter Island statues “walked” into position and have enjoyed rich photography of wildlife and landscapes from places I can barely pronounce.

Over the last month I received a couple of reminders to renew my subscription and I was impressed with the simple, straight-talking, but persuasive copywriting crammed into an elegant, understated direct mail package.

When you’re inundated with glossy leaflets, brochures and inserts trying to get you to buy something, it was refreshing to receive a pared down, reserved but no less compelling package. I want to share this with you because copywriting gets a bad rap for being over the top and hyped up and I do my best to teach businesses that copywriting and content marketing doesn’t have to be this way.

This is an example of how you can create a direct mail package without hype that connects perfectly with the customer.

Make your packaging stand out and relevant


Living in the UK, the US packaging caught my eye, but there were other reasons that made me want to open the envelope rather than kill its chances of results by binning it:

  • It didn’t look like junk mail
  • It was a small envelope more akin to correspondence than advertising mail
  • It had “National Geographic” written on it. As a subscriber, this was immediately relevant
  • The “important” messages made me think this was newsworthy and relating to my subscription

I also like that both packages are designed slightly differently. That lets National Geographic consider the impact of different packaging on open and return rates.

Now once I opened the letters, they continue to work hard while being subtle and simple.

Think carefully about what to include
Here’s what I received in the first letter:

  • Letter
  • Special offer summary slip
  • Return envelope
  • Response form

It’s a simple package which includes a letter explaining why they’re writing to me and what they want me to do, a response form and envelope, and a clever little insert that is smaller than the other pieces and states very simply what the special offer is and the benefits of taking them up on that offer.

Use proven copywriting techniques


The letter opens by getting straight to the point and telling me my membership is “Due to expire soon.” It’s followed by a clear call to action and also gives me a reason to take this action.

But by posting your renewal now, you can be sure you won’t miss a single issue of National Geographic Magazine”

I’m also given a reason as to why my subscription can be kept low if I take prompt action:

Renewing today helps us keep your membership fee low by eliminating the expense of sending you additional renewal notices.

What National Geographic does really well, is hit you with a lot of clear benefits in a very short space of time:

  • The best magazine possible while keeping membership fees within the family budget
  • Full-colour, double-sides map supplements in select issues throughout the year
  • Lavish use of colour photographs

There is also a strong value reminder as the letter challenges me to compare the price of other magazines.

No simply means not yet

I didn’t respond to the first letter because I knew my subscription didn’t run out for a few months yet, and thought they might send me another reminder. I was also curious to see what they would send as the first one was so well done.

I wasn’t disappointed. I received another letter a few weeks later with even stronger copywriting techniques included.


Have a read through the letter, and see how the writer:

  • Engages my attention by asking a relevant questions
  • Encourages an emotional response by painting a vivid image of my first experience with the magazine
  • Introduces the problem and reinforces the urgent reason I should subscriber now
  • Makes the price seem a drop in the ocean considering the value I receive by highlighting benefits in bullet points
  • Appeals to my interest in famous personalities who I may admire and be interested in
  • Provides a simple and clear call to action

Everything in this relatively short direct mail sales letter is deliberate and carefully thought out. Just recently a lot of people have been asking me how long a sales letter should be.This is proof that you don’t have to write long-winded sales letters or pad them out, especially when you have a warm audience and low price point.

But this is where the direct mail package is really compelling:

Include a strong offer that is simple to redeem

Even if I don’t read the letter straight away, I’m likely to take notice of the special offer slip in the first package which tells me in clear, simple terms that I can save £15 and get a year’s subscription for only £19. They do more than just tell me that though, they increase the perceived value of the offer by reminding me that it is the equivalent of receiving 5 issues free.

As someone who is a subscriber of the magazine and obviously enjoys it, this is a great way to talk about the price in the sales letter.

You need to have a compelling offer to encourage prospects to buy or get in touch. Copywriting is powerful and persuasive, but if you can craft a strong offer that would be a no-brainer for your audience, writing that copy is going to be a lot easier than if what you have is a hard sell.

Your offer should also be easy to accept. I’ve been surprised at how many online businesses still don’t have online ordering, or registration processes. You might hope that your customers are fanatical enough to jump through hoops (and being hard to reach does increase your perceived value) but when your goal is high response rates, it has to be super simple for customers to buy or get in touch.

The forms couldn’t be easier to complete. They require me to simply write down my credit card number and expiry date, and sign it. That’s it. They include an envelope and I just have to pop to the post office and get it delivered. Alternatively, I can renew online – even easier.

Will I renew my subscription? The form is in the envelope ready to go, though I’m secretly hoping they give me one more subscription reminder to add to my swipe file!

Hopefully this helps you think about how you can use similar techniques in your copywriting and direct mail packages. I’d love to know what you think about the letters in the comments below. Would they have worked for you? Or would you need more reasons to subscribe? Let me know!


  1. says

    Thanks for sharing and explaining in good detail everything, also getting the actual “letter” helps a lot. Copywriting is not just putting words together and this has helped me a lot.


    • harrisonamy says

      You’re welcome Danny! It does make a difference seeing examples of copy in real life. Makes the theory stick a bit more when you can see how it’s used practically. Glad it helps :-)

  2. says

    Hi Amy

    It’s true about not going overkill with the packaging, because subconsciously, I think I’m not the only one who associates over colourful envelopes with annoying junk mail. It’s more serious, and reminds me again of Gary Halbert’s famous waste paper bin story.

    Thanks for sharing and including photos of the letters.


    • harrisonamy says

      Thanks for commenting Gemma. Nothing says “straight to bin” for me more than sleek, shiny glossy envelopes and designs. :-)

  3. says

    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for sharing this direct mail example. There is a definite ‘tone’ to the writing that sounds confident and authoritative, like a teacher who is ‘disappointed’ in you. How do they do that? It’s definitely one for the swipe file.

    • harrisonamy says

      I love your description of this. I think one of the stengths in this letter is making specific and descriptive points rather than simply telling the reader that it will be “amazing” or “fantastic.” They spell out what there is to be enjoyed in simple language without treating the audience as idiots. I think readers appreciate that level of respect.


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