Fundamentals of Effective Direct Mail Campaigns and Why They Still Work

Jun 08, 2023

Fundamentals of Effective Direct Mail Campaigns

Digital is king for today’s direct marketers. Or is it? Based on the findings of its annual direct marketing survey, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) reported that while marketing professionals certainly make use of modern technology in their direct marketing efforts, traditional methods, such as sending messages in letter-sized envelopes via the U.S. Post Office can be remarkably effective. According to ANA’s survey, those who direct mailed a letter-sized envelope reported 112% ROI, ahead of SMS (102% ROI) and email marketing (93% ROI). Other direct mail formats that performed well included postcards, dimensional mail, and oversized envelopes, all of which exceeded 90% ROI.


“This important study demonstrates that traditional forms of direct marketing continue to be powerful engines for accelerating brand growth,” said ANA CEO Bob Liodice.

Indeed, direct mail campaigns can be an integral component of a larger overall marketing strategy. But generating measurable results and ROI doesn’t just happen by stuffing and stamping envelopes and dropping them at the post office. Effective direct mail relies on adherence to proven fundamentals. Let’s explore what goes into making a great direct mail campaign, what it can do for you, and why it matters for your overall marketing success.


Why direct mail marketing?

In today’s heavily digital environment, why should you use direct mail marketing? To begin with, some of the inherent features of direct mail are what lead to the high ROI rates revealed in ANA’s survey. Like the fact that the mail format facilitates quality time with your customer – one study found people spend an average of 25 minutes with direct mail versus two seconds with an email.

Importantly, direct mail marketing can augment your current digital strategy and reinforce existing messaging used online and in email and social media. Studies have found the addition of direct mail to existing campaigns yields much stronger results than without it. You can also expand your reach by adding direct mail to your marketing toolkit, which can help you find incremental audiences that aren’t readily identified in digital marketing.

Components of a direct mail campaign

Let’s dive a little deeper into the core components of a direct mail campaign.

The creative (mail piece or mailer)

Is it a postcard? Letter? Self-mailer? Great mail piece design needs to be eye catching, uncluttered and benefit-rich. It should be in line with your corporate identity. And most importantly, your mail piece needs to lead your audience to a specific goal or call to action (CTA). The CTA is one of the most important elements of the direct mail piece.


Who are you sending the mail piece to? Your audience is dependent on your marketing goal. Is this a win-back offer to lapsed customers? Are you sending this to prospective customers? Or is it a cross-sell offer to your very best customers?

For instance, if your goal is to mine your current customer file, you could add a direct mail series to lapsed customers.

If your goal is prospecting, you have a lot of options depending on your business structure. There’s Every Door Direct Mail® (EDDM®) by the US Postal Service which offers bulk mail postage rates and is a cost-effective option when you want to cover a specific geographic area. For instance, you might consider EDDM to reach nearby prospects and customers when promoting the grand opening of a new franchise restaurant, bank branch or other brick-and-mortar business. With EDDM, you can draw a virtual circle based on mail carrier routes in a specific area. Each mail recipient on the carrier route gets a mail piece. The benefits are significantly lower postage costs and 100% coverage in the target area.

However, if your product or service caters to a specific audience, you can prospect with targeted lists based on demographics, prior purchases, consumer intent, and even custom models that utilize hundreds of variables. A simple example is marketing a service that only pertains to parents. In this case you can select to only mail households that include the presence of children. Targeting improves response rates and reduces waste, which is more environmentally friendly and lowers cost.


How do you plan to entice your target audience? What products or services are you featuring? What is the CTA? Is this offer exclusive to those who act or respond first? Does it have a time-limit? Take the time to carefully consider your offer. Make sure it’s easy to understand and very easy to respond to. Make the offer fool proof. If the customer has to think about it, you’ve likely already lost them. If you’re able, test multiple offers like, Free gift with purchase, Free shipping, or Free trial. The results may surprise you, which means the test will pay off by guiding you to the offer that is likely to yield the greatest success.


This is the last piece of the puzzle. When should you contact the recipient? Often the content of the offer will dictate when the piece should be mailed. If the offer is promoting a date associated with it, you’ll need to be in mailboxes (also known as the in-home date) early enough to allow your audience enough time to respond during the offer period. For instance, if you’re mailing a postcard to current customers to promote a discount on seasonal lawn care services, you’ll need to reach the recipients with enough time before the discount period begins to generate a response, but not so much time that they forget you mailed them and fail to act.  

While timing is the last element on this list, it’s wise to start planning your direct mail campaign with when you want the piece in-home to achieve your goal. This date, will dictate the rest of your marketing production schedule.

Each of these components needs to work together to produce a winning direct mail campaign. However, the most important element is your audience. You can have a beautifully written and arranged mail piece, with an incredible offer, mailed at precisely the right time, but it won’t produce results if it’s mailed to an audience that doesn’t need what you’re providing. Time spent on audience development will pay off in the long run.

Test time!

Pencils down! No, not that kind of test. Just like with email and other digital marketing methods, you should always be testing something in each direct mail campaign. Test offers, as I mentioned earlier, along with creative versions, mail lists and timing. Is there a lift when you send direct mail to customers who have also recently opened an email from you? Or should these customers be suppressed and not mailed? Measure the results. Pick a winner and test something else! A robust testing strategy enables you to improve your overall results and adapt your marketing to address changing conditions.

It's important to build testing into the campaign development process. All too often, tests are added at the last minute. Not only does this limit what you can do, this methodology is a breeding ground for errors. A test that’s executed incorrectly may provide inaccurate data and lead you in the wrong direction. Make each direct marketing campaign work harder by including a well thought out and executed test.

Campaign execution

There are two main pathways or processes to build a direct mail campaign. The first is the self-contained traditional campaign. The second is an automated process that continuously mails customers or prospects as they qualify to be mailed. Each campaign type has advantages and use cases.

Self-contained campaign

In a traditional campaign, mail is sent to a single list or set of lists a specific number of times. Often each individual is mailed only once, but there also are many applications where a multi-touch tactic could be employed. In this scenario you build your creative and offer and marry that with your mail list. Your list goes through a clean-up/hygiene process and is presorted for the best postal rates. Everything is printed and sent to the post office for delivery. You can build your campaign for immediate delivery or schedule a time that works best for you.

Multi-touch and automated campaigns

If a multi-touch campaign is desired, decide your mailing interval and choose if new creative will be used for each subsequent mail drop. If the mailings are spaced closely together or you don’t need to eliminate any contacts from subsequent mailings, you can choose to print all drops at the same time and hold the appropriate mail pieces for later mail dates. This strategy can help minimize print costs since all set-up is done once. However, if you want to add/drop names from your campaign, printing each job separately within a campaign makes more sense.

Automated campaigns, also called trigger or drip campaigns, are built in a similar manner to traditional campaigns with one distinction: the mailing list is generated frequently based on specific time-bound criteria.

A good example of an automated campaign is mailing new movers. If your product or service appeals to this audience, timing may be very important. In this case you can opt to mail prospects identified as new movers on a weekly basis. In this type of campaign, you set everything up in advance and build a process to mail the newly qualified names at a specific interval.

The main advantage of an automated campaign is that it can run indefinitely and ensures your offer is in the mailbox of your audience in a tightly controlled manner. This can in turn produce a steady stream of orders, appointments, donations or inquiries.

Execution considerations for distributed organizations

For industries with widely distributed sales channels – banking, insurance, franchise, etc. – you should give consideration to the involvement of your local channels in campaign execution. Of course, you could simply choose to do a corporate-level campaign. But if your mailers require local-level customization or the campaign needs to be funded at the local level, a marketing resource management system is critical to simplify the customization and payment process. In addition, “set-it-and-forget-it” campaign automation can be especially effective and efficient for corporate marketers who want to make marketing as easy as possible for their local frontline associates.


The last step in a successful direct mail marketing campaign is developing understanding. How did the campaign do overall? Did it meet its objectives? Did some of the audience outperform other parts of the audience? Should I mail more next time, or should I cut back? What were the test results? Is there a clear winner? Will this help improve results for the next campaign? What should I test next time? These are the types of questions that good reporting will help answer.

To support your reporting, you need relevant metrics and intelligence. Just like email, direct mail campaigns are trackable. There are many methodologies for attributing responses like tracking offer usage, coupon redemption, phone # or URL tracking. However, meaningful campaign reporting is not just about calls and clicks. Marketing channels today are very integrated and, while often complementary, understanding customer behavior is paramount to building better marketing programs. For this reason, matchback response analysis provides the most accurate picture.

For instance, a customer may see an email or direct mail piece which prompts them to Google your company. In this case, should Google get credit for driving the sale? No – the marketing vehicle that drove the individual to seek more information should get all or at least part of the credit for the resulting sale. Without this basic understanding, you cannot determine the success of your program or how to move forward.

So, what exactly is the matchback process? While the internal mechanics can be complex, in general, it is as simple as comparing the responder file to the mailed file. If a response matches a mailed record, the response is attributed to that source. Responses are aggregated and reported back based on pre-assigned categories. Each mailed record is assigned to one or multiple categories.

For instance, your existing customers may be defined by the attributes of their last purchase, overall sales, if they’ve recently opened an email, and which test group they were assigned to. Each of these attributes is summarized to determine how this audience is performing. This allows the marketer to decide if similar names should be mailed again in the future or if they should be handled differently going forward. Ultimately, reporting allows you to build upon success and continuously improve your results.

Conclusion - Turning a direct mail campaign into a successful direct marketing program!

Developing a successful direct mail marketing program begins with building a successful direct mail campaign. A program needs to be well thought out and executed. Testing and results provide you with direction to make future campaigns even stronger. As your campaigns grow in scale and frequency, so does your overall direct marketing program. Marketing costs are reduced per piece as your mailing size increases. The use of a marketing resource management system helps keep your messaging consistent while easily allowing for customization to create relevance in local markets. Apply these direct mail fundamentals, and you could be on your way to enjoying triple-digit ROI from your direct mail campaigns.


1. How much does it cost to do a direct mail campaign?

Direct mail costs depend on a variety of factors including mail volume and format. The larger the mailing, the lower the cost per piece, because the fixed expenses are spread over more pieces. However, the total cost increases because the overall volume is higher. Best practices would be to: 1) test mail an audience you think will work and 2) review your results and increase/expand where it’s appropriate. This is important as mailing more reduces the cost per piece, but starting small limits your risk and allows you to adjust your offer and creative as you work to maximize response.


2. Do direct mail campaigns work?

Yes, direct mail works. Over 72 billion pieces of direct mail were mailed in 2022. To understand how it’s working it’s important to test and track campaigns.


3. What is a direct mail campaign?

A direct mail campaign consists of an offer mailed to an audience to elicit a specific response. A collection of direct mail campaigns is a direct mail program. Direct mail programs support ongoing organizational goals.


4. What is an example of direct mail?

Direct mail is any solicitation mailed directly to a recipient. It can take many forms, including letters, postcards, self-mailers, catalogs and even packages. Great direct mail design is eye catching, uncluttered and benefit-rich.


5. What are environmentally sustainable practices with regards to direct mail?

There are several actions you can take to make your direct mail program more environmentally sustainable. Use recycled paper and ink. Get better at targeting your audience which increases response and lowers cost too. Test smaller formats, like postcards, which use less paper and ink and often have the added benefit of lower cost.

Data-Driven Campaign Design

Chris Doherty

Learn how Vya can help simplify local marketing through our marketing resource management systems, campaign execution services, and print expertise.

Tags: manufacturing marketing, marketing campaign, direct mail marketing, MRM, Continuity Campaigns, Insurance Marketing, marketing resource management, financial services marketing, franchise marketing

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