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Despite the increasing trends toward all things digital, there’s a reason that marketers still love direct mail: It converts. According to the Association of National Advertising Managers, direct mail response rates have remained in the 9 percent range for house lists and roughly 5 percent for prospects. Comparatively, email response rates to have tended to hover around 1 percent on average. Some other stats on direct mail:

  • 42 percent of recipients open or scan the mail they get
  • Direct mail recipients purchase (and actually spend) 28 percent more than those who don’t receive direct mail
  • 73 percent of Americans surveyed say they would prefer to receive direct mail as they can open it at their convenience

The bottom line is that direct mail likely needs to be part of your arsenal of marketing channels. As such, we’ve provided five rules below that we follow to help our clients build successful direct mail campaigns.

The 5 Direct Mail Design Rules

Rule No. 1: Choose a format that best fits your audience and the engagement behavior you need.

  • Product Catalogs: Great for showcasing a variety of products and even conference offerings, catalogs typically use high-quality paper and visuals.
  • Postcards: Cost-efficient, Used for a variety of messages
  • Full Dress Mailers: Used to make customers aware of a product or service, let them evaluate it, and also respond with a form to send back
  • Folded Self-Mailers: Similar to a postcard, it’s one-sheet that’s folded into a letter or envelope size
  • Envelope Mailers: A standard direct mail type, used for frequent fliers or points programs, bills, credit transfers, etc…
  • Periodicals: Aside from the content in the magazine itself
  • Booklets

Rule No. 2: Customize the design and layout for the mailer type with a focus on interactivity.

One of the reasons direct mail performs so well is that, contrary to popular belief, it’s interactive. After all, recipients open it, they flip through it, they find an offer, then they send it back through the mail, bring it into the store, or, in the case of a gift, they try it on or use it. This means it has to be designed in such a way that maximizes that type of response, and, in turn, increases the connection to your products or services. A few areas to consider as you consider design and layout are: fonts and typesetting, images, hierarchy, and grids

  • Fonts and typesetting: It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a website, an email, or direct mail, you’ll want to employ a font that is consistent (ideally across all those mediums) and not vary from it. As with any typesetting, make sure to also use the most common type of alignment: flush left, ragged right, which will help readability.
  • Images: If you think about what your eye is usually drawn to first when opening any direct mail, it likely goes to the images before anything else. In that instant, the recipient has to connect emotionally with the visual otherwise they may not even look at the rest of the insert. Any good direct mail piece should tell a story that guides people through the stages of establishing relevancy, understanding the offering, and taking action.

Rule No. 3: For copy, use an engagement trigger.

Much of the art of successful direct mail involves the copy. There are certainly a number of techniques to make recipients: a.) Open and engage with your direct mail; and; b.) Take action. The psychology behind why people engage with some offers and not others is relatively well established, so it’s best not to try to reinvent the wheel. Typically, when it involves engaging with direct mail, in particular, many of the triggers are emotional or psychological ones. Marketers will use:

  • Guilt. “Veterans sacrificed for you. Will you sacrifice for them? Also, here’s a set of return address labels we’re giving you free.”
  • Greed. “We’ll show you how to make $1 million in six months. Get started with a free course.”
  • Exclusivity. “We’re only offering this to a handful of individuals….”
  • Anger. “Don’t let (X political party) dominate the debate…”
  • Fear. “Do you know what’s in your water?”
  • Envy. “You too could be vacationing on this tropical island right now…”
  • Discounts. “Get 25 percent off”
  • Scarcity. “Get 25 percent off only this month. And then it’s gone!”

Rule No. 4: The quality of the paper should match your target audience and goals.

The paper you select is a critical element in the appearance and the “feel” of your direct mail, especially in terms of the overall messaging goal for your audience. For example, you may want to convey that your product exudes a certain “luxurious” quality; or you may want to inform people about a discount on an everyday product. The three things to consider here are the finish, weight, and opacity of your paper:

  • Finish. Finish refers to the texture and appearance of the paper. Generally, there are five options here when it comes to finish:
    • Coated – a waxy finish that can be shiny or matte on one side or both
    • Uncoated – paper that is untreated with an unreflective surface
    • Wove – a smooth, but uncoated surface
    • Laid – paper that is manufactured with textured lines
    • Linen – similar to a laid finish, but in this case, the paper has textured lines that are finer and more consistent.
  • Weight. The weight of paper refers to its thickness and is measured in pounds, so the higher the number, the thicker the paper. Different types of paper stock will each have different weights. Here are three common examples:
    • Cover paper: These stocks tend to be heavier in weight and are more rigid and harder to fold
    • Bond paper: Used for letters, bond paper needs to be a weight that can run through, say, a standard laser printer.
    • Text paper: Often used for publications, sell sheets, or letters, text paper is generally lightweight and comes in an array of sizes.
  • Opacity. The opacity of paper is determined by its thickness and ink absorbency. Opacity is critical to consider, as it will certainly affect whether or not the ink bleeds through to the other side of the page. If a paper is not opaque enough, images or text printed on one side may show through on the other side of the page.

Rule No. 5: Pay attention to the orientation, aspect ratio, and other USPS postage guidelines.

As a marketer, it always helps if you pay attention to smaller details, especially when they can add up to a big price tag. A few things that can certainly affect what you ultimately pay include:

  • Aspect ratio: Especially with letter-sized mail, you’ll want to make sure your piece is produced in the right size and shape to be processed by a machine. That’s where calculating the aspect ratio comes in, which is the length of your piece divided by its height. If that number is between 1.3 and 2.5, then your piece is machinable – assuming it meets the standard weight, thickness, address placement, and enclosure requirements. You can end up paying up to 40 percent more if your aspect ratio doesn’t meet the machinable requirements.
  • Fold placement: The way you design any direct mail piece matters greatly when it comes to cost. Much of that has to do with the fold placement. For example, looking at the mailing panel, the right edge will be the side that leads through the machine. If it’s a vertical piece, that means this leading right edge must be closed, as it needs to be on the fold. If it’s a horizontal piece, the closed edge must be below and parallel to the mailing address. Forgetting to factor in fold placement when designing your piece can mean a loss of thousands of dollars, so it’s important you keep it in mind!
  • Address placement and orientation: Where your address placement is, including its orientation on the page, determines whether or not your piece is machinable – and hence, how much you’re charged. (Note: It also may affect scanning accuracy.) Different classes of mail have different requirements for the orientation of the mailing address. For example, for USPS letter-size mail, the mailing address should be parallel to the long dimension of your mailing piece.
  • Barcode placement: The barcode (that series of long and short lines that represent the ZIP codes & the ZIP+4 codes) can be important to consider as well. A barcode contains a lot of information: who mailed a letter, where it is, and when it was received. With the use of USPS services or tracking software, this code can help you synchronize marketing campaigns, acquire data, and verify specific delivery dates. On letters, the barcode can be placed in the address block – or also in what’s known as the “barcode clear zone.” For USPS Flats, the barcode can be placed anywhere on the address side, but make sure to keep it at least 1/8th of an inch from any edge. Using barcodes tends to have more accurate delivery. In fact, you’ll save roughly 3 percent by using one.


At MOSAIC, we have experience helping organizations, associations, and large companies with their direct mail collateral. Because we’re an end-to-end service provider, we can help you with all the aspects that we outlined above. Contact us for more information about direct mail or any of our other design, production, or printing services.

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