Writing Effective Brochures: What Goes Where?

If a brochure is ineffective, it's rarely the fault of an awkward phrase or unexciting adjective. Most paper-based brochures that fail, fail right in the planning stages. This article presents one method of organizing information for a three-panel (2-fold) 8 ½ by 11 brochure. The principles are broad guidelines, not a formula carved in stone, but they will help you to create more powerful brochures...

First Impressions

Unlike some brochure styles, an 8 ½ X 11 3-panel brochure clearly has one panel that's meant to be the front. So what belongs on this front panel?

The sole function of the front panel is to capture the reader's interest in your product/service. To do this, the front panel must briefly state the reader's need and state (or imply) your company's solution to that need and willingness to solve it. In other words, the front panel should present the main benefit or "value proposition" to the reader of buying your product/service.

This information is best presented as a simple headline or, occasionally, in a very brief paragraph. Here are some examples:

If You've Searched the City High and Low for Yellow Widgets, Come to Widgetland.

Tired of Cooking? Royal Pizza Delivers

Massage: It's a Health Benefit We'd Like to Rub In
The best accompaniment to this encapsulated message is a well-chosen graphic that illustrates the benefit.

Avoid Front Page Clutter

The front panel isn't the place to wow them with details, or flood them with company contact information—it's the time to catch their eye with what you've got to offer. In most cases, your front panel should only contain:

the main benefit/value proposition
a reinforcing graphic
your company name and logo
your web address and phone number
Your value proposition should be in much larger type than your contact information (name, logo, phone, web address). Why? Because very few people pick up a brochure and think, "Wow—a brochure by Widget Inc. Gotta read it!" Instead, they think, "Wow—yellow widgets! Been looking all over for those!"

It's the value proposition, not your company name, that makes people want to read your brochure. So it makes sense that you should provide an eye-catching value proposition set in larger type than the other page elements. The exception is for impulse purchases like telephone-order food—on these brochures the phone number should also be in large type, to help create an urge in the reader to pick up the phone and "get fed now!"

Putting more detailed company contact information (address, fax, etc.) on the front of the brochure is generally a mistake. At this point, people aren't interested in who you are, but in what you have to offer. Adding detailed contact information on the front panel only dilutes the impact of your value proposition. Putting address information up front can also discourage a potential customer who might have been willing, after reading your brochure, to overlook a distance factor.

To recap, the purpose of the front panel is to pique the reader's interest with a specific value proposition. After reading the front panel, the reader should be able to answer two questions:

what is this brochure about?
what's in it for me?

Inside Facing Panel

When you open the brochure, the panel most people will read next is the panel lying immediately under the front page leaf (if you unfold the brochure, this will be the leftmost column of the back page). On this page, you should elaborate on the value proposition. Give details about the need and how you propose to fill it. Get people thinking "Yeah, this is talking to me. "

Once people have decided they might need you, they'll be more likely to fully open up the brochure. On the three inside panels, set out the details of your products/services and how they will meet the reader's needs. Use whatever mixture of text and graphics will get the job done, but remember: it's not about you, it's about them. Concentrate on what they will get out of it.

Back Panel

The last panel you need to fill is the center back panel. On it, put your detailed company contact information (address, phone, fax, e-mail, pager numbers, etc.). The reason for placing this information on the back panel is that your contact data is the element of the brochure that's least likely to prompt a sale, so you put it in the least visually accessible spot. If your brochure has piqued the reader's interest, they'll turn it over to find out how to contact your company.

If you plan to put a mission statement on your brochure, it belongs on the back panel as well. Your mission statement may clinch the sale, but only after your products/services and their benefits have interested the reader.

The basic principles above will help you get your brochure organized. Now we'll look at some common layout problems and how to solve them.

Problem #1: Detachable Registration Forms

In brochures that are used to publicize specific events, it's common to include a detachable registration form. The main thing to remember with this type of brochure is that once the form is detached and submitted, the brochure will be missing whatever information was on the back of the form. In a worst-case scenario, the missing information can be things like:

directions to the event

lists of what to bring or prepare
event schedules
If you've set up the brochure as described in part 1 of this article, then the information on the back of the registration form will either be the detailed description of benefits to the reader, or some of your product/service information. Not good information to lose!

There are three ways to eliminate, or at least reduce, information loss when using detachable registration forms:

switch to an 8 ½ X 14 3-fold brochure and use the extra panel for the form. This leaves the original brochure essentially intact, while still providing a registration form.
rearrange the information to minimize the amount of information on the back of the form. A good approach is to use the back of the form for graphics that will support the purpose of the brochure while they're there, but not be missed when they're gone.
create your brochure as you normally would, then add a separate insert with the registration form on it. After the form is sent, the brochure remains intact.
Problem #2: The Pages Look Empty

What if your brochure looks sparse and empty? What can you do to fill it out?

First, see if there's more you can say. Are there additional benefits of using your product or service? Can you give more product details?

If there's really nothing more to say, here are some suggestions for filling up the page:

set the headers and body type one or two points larger
use the white space as a canvas to create emphasis. Do this by increasing the relative size of the headers and grouping related items together attractively.
use additional graphics or color blocks, If you add graphics, try to keep them relevant to the product or service. To use up even more space, add captions describing the graphics. (Adding captions is a good idea anyway. Studies show that the captions that accompany graphics get read about 4-5 times more often than body text does.)

Problem #3: The Pages Look Crowded

It's harder to make a crowded page look good than to fill up an empty one. Some tips for organizing a crowded page:

can you cut out some of the text? Tell them less about you, while keeping information on the benefits to them.
try point-form instead of full sentences. Not only is it easier to scan, it can save you space.
reduce the size of non-key text. Items like your company address and privacy policy can be reduced to a smaller than normal point size.
use color and font size/weight to relate key items by repetition. When space is scarce, you don't have the luxury of physically grouping items to suggest relationships, so do it with fonts and color instead.

Problem #4: Some Information Just Doesn't Fit

Most of the brochure comes together nicely, but there are one or two points that just won't fit into the overall flow. You know the information is important, but you just can't see how to work it in without distorting things. When this happens, using a sidebar may solve your problem.


You deliver training seminars and your brochure focuses on the benefits to the user of taking your training. Yet you sense that the potential customer will also want to know about your ability to deliver the goods. A sidebar listing your qualifications as a seminar leader will provide the information without interrupting the flow of the main text.

You sell vacation packages. Your brochure has concentrated on your current special offering: cruises to the Bahamas. Yet, you want to make the reader aware of other products you offer. The solution is to include a sidebar to touch on your other services. Putting the text in a different color helps reinforce the idea that the information is separate and distinct.

You have a powerful and unique selling point that you want to really stand out. You can achieve this by putting the information in a sidebar and really presenting it, using color and graphics placement for emphasis.

One last tip for making sure your brochure is effective: put it away for a week and then read it while pretending it came from a stranger or a competitor. What's missing? What's not properly explained? When testing your brochure this way, pay attention to your first impressions—they will often show you what needs correcting.

You can also ask semi-strangers to read your brochure, then give their impressions of your business. Be cautious of asking close friends to critique your brochure; friends are often reluctant to hurt you by pointing out problems.

B.J. Michaels, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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