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The Anatomy of a Successful Direct Mail Campaign

Christine Hadfield

Despite the prevalence of new and growing forms of online advertising, direct mail campaigns are still an effective way to reach customers. In fact, according to a Direct Marketing Association study, the typical response rate to direct mail campaigns is in the 3% range, a far greater success rate than the .12% response rate for email.

When directed towards a large number of people, your results can be significant. However, good results don’t necessarily come easy. Your business will need to have a well-laid-out plan to effectively run a campaign using direct mail. By following these steps, you can maximize your direct mail campaign results.

Determine your goals and make a plan

What does your business hope to accomplish with your direct mail campaign? Formulate some exact goals at the outset of your project, such as “Goal: have 200 customers redeem our coupon in-store”. When you’re working from a tangible list of goals and expectations, the rest of your planning will be more focused towards meeting these goals.

Take the time to lay out your plans after determining your overall goals. Answer some of the important questions before you start – for instance, who exactly are you marketing to? Know your target audience so you can effectively market towards them.

You’ll want to create a target list or purchase a list as well as control how many people are going to receive your advertisement (you want to avoid too many respondents as well as too few). When your plans are well laid out before you start the rest of the process and you have a clear target audience in mind, you’ll save a good deal of time as well as money.

  • Letter package. The most common form of direct mail is a letter package. As the name suggests, the package consists of a letter, a letter or brochure with product information, an order form, and an outer envelope. Some can be made to look as though they are hand-written on stationary, or may include a personal note. Other marketers may stamp the envelope so it looks official or create a sense of urgency by marking the envelope “Express” or “High Priority.”
  • Self-mailer. Self-mailers are very versatile and have many uses. They are similar to letter packages, but they don’t contain an external envelope – the are usually folded and secured with a gummed sticker. Some of the types of self-mailers include the Slim Jim (an elegant mailer that ranges in size from 6 x 10 to 111/2 inches), the Magalog (an 8” x 11” catalog that is made to look like an actual magazine), and a Digest (a small 6” x 9” booklet that is easy to read). The post office does have rules about sizes and which direction the mail panel opens, so make sure your self-mailer falls within the guidelines.  
  • Postcard. This is the least expensive direct mail format. They are similar to self-mailers but they contain less sales copy. Postcards are also appealing because it is easy to see the offer at a glance – prospects don’t need to open an envelope or catalog.
  • CD mailers. Dimensional mail is essentially a package containing promotional materials. Dimensional mail is best for niche audiences, such as executives or other professionals who have assistants who screen their mail. This format has a higher open rate, but is best when used for targeting a small audience. There is a higher mailing cost associated with dimensional mail, but it’s an effective way to get attention and responses.
  • Shock-and-awe package. These elaborate packages are usually sent to customers who already use your products or have requested information from your company. The packages should contain a wide variety of branded products that will excite the recipient – you want them to think of you every time they drink out of that branded coffee mug or glance at that branded calendar. If you have the budget and want to delight a prospect or customer, engage their interest, and build loyalty, this type of format may be right for you.

Determine Cost

Draw up an estimate of costs before you move forward. Costs may include things like postage, printing, graphics, and the hiring of additional workers if needed. Also, take the time to search out the best deals now rather than scrambling at the last minute.

Keep in mind that determining cost is a vital part of your direct mail campaign. Without a plan, you could quickly become over budget and over stressed. Figure out what costs you expect to incur and your process will go much more smoothly.

Create a Schedule

Set up a realistic schedule for your campaign. How soon do you want everything ready, and are your goals achievable in your ideal time frame? Talk to your graphics team and the printing place to get good estimates. Know that you may need to adjust your expectations as changes and unforeseen events occur.

All in all, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of how long your process will take, from preliminary planning to printer’s office, before your campaign is underway. Working with deadlines in mind will make your campaign more productive.

Have a Clear Message

You want your message to stand out from other pieces of mail that people will receive. Your advertisement needs to catch the reader’s attention quickly. Interesting colors and graphics, provocative taglines, and/or envelopes of a different size or shape than what’s normal can all help your message get noticed.

Avoid lengthy or confusing wording.  Keep your message simple, clear, and interesting, and you’ll have the best chance of holding the attention of potential customers.

Make sure your “call to action” is clear on your pieces of mail. Potential customers should easily see how to respond. Do you want them to call you, come in to your business, or perhaps visit your website? By letting people know the benefits of responding, you’ll provide incentive for them to take action.

Evaluate your Campaign

After your mail has finally been sent out, the job isn’t done. You’ll want to evaluate the response your campaign brought so you can refine your technique. Are you meeting all your goals? What are some improvements you could make to achieve greater success? Adjust your methods as needed and use your improved plans in your next direct mail campaign.

Remember, a follow up to an original campaign can be an effective marketing technique. Direct mailing campaigns can be a very effective form of marketing, but you’ll need to put in time to achieve maximum effectiveness. Execute a well-thought-out plan, and you’ll see better results.

Rachel Africh, CMO of, is an expert on targeted marketing tactics and generating quality customer leads that convert into sales industry professionals.

Image Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images
Christine Hadfield Contributing Writer