11 Thing to Know About Direct Mail [Free Quick Guide Included] | Clarke Inc. Creative Marketing & Print Communication
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11 Thing to Know About Direct Mail [Free Quick Guide Included]

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By Victor Clarke – Clarke, Inc. is the world’s largest purveyor of epic marketing truth for small business.  We offer our clients practical common sense ideas.  If you want the pretty boys we’re not it.

A strong direct mail response rate requires an experienced direct mail printer, a vetted mailing list, and a tempting call-to-action.  Add to that equation a plan for response follow-through and you’ll close more business. Remember, marketing brings them to your door, but it’s your team at the point of sale which closes it.

Use this handy “Quick Guide: Planning and Executing a Direct Mail Campaign” to determine if your direct mail printer is experienced, your mailing list is vetted and you have a great call-to-action.

We experience a lot of things in our daily living without spending any time thinking about how it came together. For example, the pencil is a very sophisticated writing implement used all around the world. Its components and construction are unique, yet to us the tool is so easy to use and familiar, we think it’s simple.

For direct mail campaigns, a lot is happening behind a printer’s green curtain, but the results appear perfectly natural. Here are some of the levers a direct mail printer pulls.


A printer helps the marketer select the best paper stock for their mailer. They know how the paper performs in the mail, what consumers like to see, and the best suppliers and prices. Coatings, finishes, thickness, weight, and reflectancy impact cost, production processes, and most importantly what your potential customers think.

The type of paper used in a mailer may seem inconsequential (paper is paper), but it’s one of the many things that eventually adds up to a complete mailer. Oh, and it is the plate on which your marketing is delivered.

When working with a direct mail printer, you don’t have to think about where to get the right paper for your mailer. They’ve already solved that problem.


When most people think of printing, they think of digital printing. Probably because it’s standard for office printers. But that’s not a printer’s world entirely.

Yes, professional printers use digital printing machines to deliver quick or small orders. However, offset printing is their go-to system because of the quality that is possible with it. This type of printing is also more cost-effective for large runs.

We will assume at this point none of your killer direct mail campaigns will be printed entirely in black. The options for color in offset printing are many. It uses a four color process (CYMK) which reproduces a full spectrum of 3000 colors using tiny dots of ink printed from different angles.

There are circumstances where a very specific color cannot be reproduced with process inks, and that’s when custom printing options (metallic, scratch and sniff, UV coatings, glow in the dark ink) are factored into the production.

Besides the cost of paper, ink, and production, size and weight is a big factor in the price of postage. A traditional printer can’t talk to you about postage, but a direct mail printer will help you find the right balance between design and budget from start to finish.


It’s super easy to place a stamp on a standard envelope and drop it in the mail box, but not when this activity is multiplied by hundreds or thousands. Direct mail houses have perfected the process of sorting, stuffing, stamping and all the other socially acceptable S words that are part of direct marketing. More on this shortly.

You need an advocate on your side that will let you know what’s possible both in printing and in mailing. The last thing you want to do is generate a swift looking mail campaign and find it doesn’t meet the post office’s parameters for Every Door Direct Mailer (EDDM), or non-profit rate, letter rate, postcard rate, etc.

Netflix is a good example of special cases. They had to create a unique arrangement with the post office to deliver DVDs using their red sleeve. Certainly, that’s not a situation likely for you, but it does demonstrate that if you don’t abide by the USPS rules, you could be up a creek. Your direct mail printer and/or their partnering mail house will have the latest specifications from the USPS already in play.

Direct mail printers are motivated to help you succeed. If they help you deliver a nice ROI on a campaign, they know you’ll do it again. Repeat business for them is golden because they understand your customers, what your business delivers. The job gets done faster and better when using base-line data collected from prior campaigns.

Their modern data processing systems can bridge the marketing gap between you and your customers using variable data. This means one mailer can be customized in multiple ways for each recipient. For example, if the mail is to be delivered to a woman, the featured image portrays a woman, and vice versa for a man. It makes the piece more relevant to the recipient.

Planning these variations, and considering what might resonate with your potential customers, is exactly what a direct mail printer can do for you. Consider the epic fail of mailers by Target. They used data to determine who might be pregnant and sent them baby oriented promotions (free formula, coupons, etc.) This became controversial when recipients didn’t want knowledge of their pregnancy made known to family. Sometimes tech can make things a little creepy when poorly wielded.

Knowing what’s possible through technology and combining it with good old fashion marketing sense will result in a successful campaign. If mailers aren’t your strong suit as a business professional or entrepreneur, that’s okay. The right direct mail printer is available to help you win.

Direct Mail Production

Getting the mailer you want produced and delivered within budget is every marketer’s primary goal. If you understand the basic process of producing mailers, it can help you communicate what’s important to your printer. Here are a couple of aspects to consider.

Printers are best at thinking about a final product in terms of its layout. If you’ve fiddled much with copiers, say duplex printing and collating, then you get the basic idea of how many dimensions are at play. Now multiply that for a printer that’s organizing a custom three-piece mailer with variable data. It’s nothing you want to venture into on your own.

Your direct mail printer has various machines with capabilities that have to be precisely arranged for each run. Besides the type of printing (offset, digital, web), there is cutting, folding, stapling, tabbing, inserting, stitching, binding, and sealing to name a few. The machines they use significantly reduce manual labor, increase quality, and reduce the number of errors.

Also, a trained printing team must move each part of the mailer-in-progress to the next station and execute quality checks every step of the way. They ensure the personalized letters are inserted into the correct personalized envelopes. And that the envelopes are sorted as the postal service requires upon receipt.


Discuss with your printer how to best arrange content to maximize the impact of the reader’s experience. Do you want graphics to extend to the edge of the paper? If the paper is folded, what is in the fold or do we avoid bending images and content.

Brochures are an excellent example of complex layouts. The typical tri-fold presents a third of a page at a time while another third is still visible. A Z-fold opens so that two-thirds of the page is fully visible before the final third.

You can put marketing copy on the exterior of an envelope, front and back. Also, consider what it’s like when removing documents from the envelope, or opening the sealed edges. What is seen first, then second, etc. is it the insert or something on the backside of the letter?

Throughout planning and proofing, focus on how a recipient would feel during the experience of opening and reading the mail piece. Is it curiosity, interest, confirmation, or skepticism, concern, and potentially turned-off? Get some feedback on the proofs from trusted, non-stakeholders. Discover their first impressions.


You must have a plan for postage in place before production. It impacts the timeliness of delivery and how much it will cost.

The size of the mailer, the selected recipients (saturation or targeted) and geographical spread are factors in what you’ll spend on postage. You goal is not to reach a large audience, but a significant audience. One that will resonate with what your business offers.


These printed “stamps” or markings on your letter include information such as type of service, post office drop location, and permit number.  An indicia is a good way to go with larger mailers. Unlike stamps, you can use exact postage that comes with a discount for volume.

However, an indicia is not cheap or an overnight request. In most cases you’ll want to work with a direct mail printer who already has their own indicia so you don’t have to fiddle with it.

It’s critical to talk this through with your printer to make sure your mail campaign fits the requirements of using an indicia. The rules stated by the USPS change periodically, so the past doesn’t always represent what you can do now.

The USPS also issues special savings or price breaks for certain types of mail campaigns and organizations. For example, if you incorporate a multi-sensory experience in the mail piece, or you are a certified non-profit organization. However, their guidelines are very strict and not for the faint of heart to first understand and then abide.

One time we had a mailer rejected by the USPS for the discounted postage because we used the not-for-profits well-accepted acronym, SBCV for Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. We had to change it to the full name to comply.

Unfortunately, policies are not consistently reinforced across post offices and people. A direct mail printer with an established relationship to their local post offices knows how to avoid these major headaches.


Every door direct mail is quickly replacing traditional direct mail postage as the premier direct mail option for local businesses. Unlike a traditional mailer, you don’t need a list. With EDDM all you need to know is the regions you want to target with your mailer, then the postal service will track it for you.

No permit is required to do this mailing, just select a carrier route using the EDDM mapping tool and your mail will go to your targeted neighborhoods. You can get your mail piece launched speedily, which is perfect for businesses that need to quickly generate foot traffic in a short time period.

EDDM is also ideal for start-ups and non-profit organizations who wish to spend less on their direct mail campaign but get the word out.

The huge downsides to EDDM are no additional targeting options, and it is very impersonal. The mail piece says “To Resident”. What do you do with mail not addressed specifically to you?

Getting it to the Post Office

Delivery to the post office is one activity you’ll want to leave to your direct mail printer. They take it to the bulk mail facility loading dock. And the paperwork has to be submitted electronically ahead of time or it will not be accepted.

The post office tests a mail piece (using a machine called MERLIN) to make sure it meets agreed upon specifications.

They will not accept the mailer if MERLIN fails the piece, the paperwork is wrong, or you do not have enough cash in your post office account.

What a Direct Mail Printer Needs From You

If you want to see progress, all team members in a project must deliver on their responsibilities. Delays are often related to poor communication or unclear expectations (I thought you were going to take care of that!). The more you can minimize this, the better.

Your printer manages his team and machines for efficiency. That’s how they reduce errors and increase utilization. If they have all the pieces in place, the magic can begin.

You, on the other hand, probably don’t have a standard process for direct mail campaigns. Perhaps marketing is your second or even third hat. You’ll want to proceed with intention when working with your direct mail printer. Don’t hope things will work out on their own. Ask questions so it’s abundantly clear what you need to do.

Once the final product is understood – goals, paper stock, ink, design, layout, list, postage, anticipated ROI – look at the action steps to pull it together. Put the associated tasks in a timeline, working backwards from when the mailer hits the mailboxes to your very next step after the immediate conversation.

After the Campaign Has Launched

Now it’s time to see if all your hard work will pay off. Remember, this isn’t a gamble or try-and-see form of marketing.  If you downloaded the Quick Guide: Planning and Executing a Direct Mail Campaign, set reasonable goals, did your homework, and accurately calculated the ROI, there shouldn’t be any major surprises. That’s what good marketing is; predictable and routine.

With the mailer out the door, activate your data collection plan for measuring performance. Perhaps it’s counting the number of coupons redeemed, or the number of inbound phone calls generated on a specific phone line.

For accurate quantitative results of direct mail, consider the actual cost per response (CPR). Calculate CPR by dividing the total cost of the direct mail campaign by the number of replies. You can quickly judge if the overall strategy is working.

Carefully observe the follow-up process for the leads or activity the marketing generates. Are the inquiries handled as effectively as possible? Was the team prepared for what came through the door?

When you see positive outcomes, record that along with challenges or opportunities witnessed. Include these in a report that recaps the results of the campaign. It’s important to build historical data so you don’t repeat problems from the past, and so you can leverage what possible in the future for direct mail and your company.

Let’s hear your thoughts.  Send them to us using the handy form below and we’ll share you ideas with our readers.

Related Topics

How to Plan for Solid Direct Mail Response Rates

When to Send Direct Mail Thorugh the Post Office or Your Printer

How to Lift Your Online Marketing Results with –OMG– Direct Mail

Victor Clarke

Victor began a 30+ year career in sales and marketing with Xerox Corporation following his graduation from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has sold copiers, word processing systems, computers, print, mail and graphic design. In addition, he advanced from a street wise sales person, to the Director of Federal, State, Local and Education Sales, to the owner of his own company. He has been the owner of Clarke, Inc. for 20+ years evolving it from a dedicated print shop to an inbound and outbound marketing firm. We deliver epic marketing truth every day for our clients. We provide real solutions for real businesses. If you want the marketing pretty boys, we’re not it.

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