Direct Mail and Marketing Tips


USPS Direct Mail Success Tips

Direct Mail Success Tips From the U.S. Postal Service (via PR Newswire)

Generate Leads, Guarantee Results Augmented reality is the next big thing for direct mail. WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Direct mail spending rose to $21 billion in 2011. Up 2.9 percent from 2010, according to the Magna Advertising Group, direct mail is one of the largest advertising…

Postal Service Losses of $3.2 Billion in Second Quarter Underscore the Need for Legislative Changes

Postal Service Losses of $3.2 Billion in Second Quarter Underscore the Need for Legislative Changes (via PR Newswire)

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Postal Service ended its second quarter (Jan. 1 – March 31) with a net loss of $3.2 billion, compared to a net loss of $2.2 billion for the same period last year.  Despite ongoing management actions that have grown and improved efficiency,…

The US Postal Service Delivers

Last week we were contacted by a client about sending a wedding invitation. The vast majority of the jobs that we produce for customers at Zairmail include printing and mailing. In fact, all of our published prices on the website are quoted including processing, printing, addressing, and postage. This client asked us to review the invitation and make sure that the layout would work through the mail.

The client had decided to use a double postcard (two postcards, connected together at one edge, then folded and tabbed). This style of postcard allows the sender to include a reply card and still get low postcard postage rates. In this case, the reply card was an RSVP for the wedding. There were two great pictures of the young couple on the front two panels, the text for the formal invitation on the inside of the panel with the address on the outside, and then a reply card. The choices on the reply card were: “Count me in”, “Count me in with a guest”, or “No I cannot make it, I am a horrible person…”. Just this response card alone was humorous enough to warrant a personal phone call.

As commercial mailers we have to comply with many postal service rules — many more than you would think. In fact, we got into this business long ago coming from the technology industry. I still remember my partner saying at that time, “well, it is only mail, how hard can it be?” It turns out that it is quite a bit harder than it looks.

The USPS has rules for just about everything: size of the mail piece, where the indicia (postal permit) is placed, where the address is placed, what kind of a barcode is used, postage amount based on density of mail to specific locations, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. When we produce mail, we need to run the addresses through the coding accuracy support system (CASS) to assure the address exists, the national change of address database (NCOA) to identify movers, and use an intelligent mail barcode (IMB) so the mail can be tracked. We have to produce the mail, sort it, place it in trays by destination, and then label each tray, and submit the job with the proper paper work to our local business mail entry unit (BMEU). At that point, if we have done anything wrong, the USPS can refuse the job and we are right back to square one — with a pile of mail we can’t use.

One of the advantages of using a service like Zairmail is that we take care of all these details for you and assure that you can still get the very best prices and delivery speeds. We have already invested in the software and equipment and we have more than a decade of experience. So, we make it really fast and easy for our mailers, no matter how painful and complicated the mailing process is for us.

The clients’ card had a ski scene on the front with the address space integrated into it. We discussed the need to leave a clear space for the address and the bar code so that automated USPS equipment could read it. She said that they were planning to use white stick-on address labels. I explained that we could mail the postcard invitation too and it would save the time of putting on labels and postage; plus she might also pay less in postage.

I also explained that the double postcard would need tabs to keep it closed so that it did not jam automated USPS processing equipment. She said they would find some tabs there locally or maybe even use tape. Of course, this would never do at our facility, but then it occurred to me that they were planning to fold, address, and stamp these postcards and drop them right into a local mail box. They would NOT be under the watchful eye of the BMEU. They would not be rejected.

In fact, this reminded me a of a whimsical research project done over 10 years ago now. The results are still just as valid as they were at the time. The researchers tried mailing a helium balloon, a ski, an unwrapped animal bone, and a long list of other objects with remarkable success. You can read the whole article here.

When I was young quite a few people made fun of the performance of the USPS. Today the USPS is one of the most efficient delivery services in the world. The USPS delivers over 40% of the mail volume in the world. They have just under 600,000 workers and a fleet of over 200,000 vehicles (the largest civilian fleet in the world). They deliver six days a week to every household and business in America. Oh, and for local mail (sent from your city to someone else in your city) we are seeing next day delivery times of over 90% — and all it takes is a $.44 stamp — even less if you use Zairmail. This is one of the last great bargains in the civilized world.

We talked some more about the wedding invitation and postal requirements. However, at some point I said, “You know, if you put a stamp on the invitations and put them in the mailbox I’m confident that the USPS will get them there. With all the items our researchers above put through the mail I’m pretty sure the USPS can handle your postcard no matter what you do to it!” I wished her congratulations again on the big event. I assured her that if we were located closer I would also be happy to attend — definitely don’t want to be a “horrible person”! :)

We did produce the invitations and we sent them to the client for printing and mailing. Of course, we would always recommend a service like Zairmail to save time and money. But, I’m confident that either way, the USPS will deliver!

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

Test for Success

Marketing in any form is not an exact science. However, “test marketing” will allow us to take some of the guesswork out of the process. This is especially true with direct mail marketing because our success is ROI-driven – which is easily to measure.

Historically the additional cost and time involved could make it infeasible to test in advance with all but the most strategic promotions or campaigns. Of course, for most small and medium enterprises every dollar spent on marketing is critical. Today, with the existence of online mail-on-demand tools, it is fast, easy, and extremely inexpensive, to test various messages, offers, and packages; find a winning formula; and then turn up the volume on some larger campaigns.

When should you test? Well, the general rule of thumb is “test early, and test often”. Even when you have a winner, an “old reliable” that always produces predictable results; we should continue to look for ways to improve even further. Plus, all marketing campaigns have a natural life-cycle. When the environment changes, and the returns start to trail off, we need to be ready with the next winner long before we are in the hole.

This is the general rule of thumb. There are also some specific situations that always warrant at test:

  • Falling response rates or an unacceptably high cost per lead
  • Change in the target market or expanding into new markets
  • Adjustments to product, price, terms, or channel strategy
  • Unproven or fresh creative, messaging, or offers
  • New product introduction

A direct mail package consists of three key elements: the list, the offer, and the creative. Thus, each element provides an opportunity for tuning and testing.

Test Mailing List

The mailing list is a crucial step in the element of your direct mail campaign. In fact, when we assign weights to these ingredients for a successful direct mail campaign, the rule of thumb is 70% is the list, 20% is the offer, and the remainder is creative.

Industry experience tells us that when we put the right offer, in front of the right prospect, good things happen. On the other hand, the most amazing offer in the world, in the hands of the wrong person, will not make the phones ring or keep the lights on.

So, if the list is so important, this begs the question, what is the best type of list? Look at your own in house mailing list. What are the characteristics of that list? What do your customers look like? What are their common characteristics? Unless you are a brand new company, or you are expanding into a new market, this should provide a blueprint for new lists when you start looking outside.

There are more than 50,000 lists out there – available from a wide variety of sources. The main categories of lists are compiled lists, response lists, subscription lists, and controlled lists. Choosing the right one – with its corresponding benefits and features – has the potential to make or break your campaign. Here is a little more detail on each category:

  • Compiled lists are databases collected from a variety of directories, credit files, and other resources. They are generated for marketing purposes, updated regularly, and give broad coverage of the market, including basic demographics. These lists work best for broad offers and are available at our website (
  • In some cases we may have products that can only be purchased by clients with minimum qualifications (like a mortgage loan that requires a FICO score of 620 or greater). In this case we may choose a special form of compiled list known as credit scored data. The reason for this is that the majority of the cost in a direct mail campaign is not the data, or the mail piece, it is the postage. So we donÂ’t want to fork over the postage to reach a prospect we canÂ’t possibly close.Credit scored data usually comes from one of the big three credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion) or their licensed agents. There are special rules regarding who can use credit scored data, the type of offers, and opt-out messaging. In the case where we have specific minimum criteria, and we canÂ’t use credit score data, a middle ground can be modeled credit score data. This is less expensive than credit scored data, and easier to access, but much less reliable.
  • Response lists are generated from another companyÂ’s sales records. They can include data about what was purchased, the price, the date of purchase, and frequency. However, response lists are often less complete, and depending on the purchase procedure, may not include the name and title of the purchaser – which would make them much less useful for direct mail. In addition, response lists may not be updated as frequently as other types of lists. Of course, we donÂ’t want to spend our precious postage funds on prospects who arenÂ’t there either!
  • Subscription lists have the advantage of compiling recipients who are proven readers, having subscribed to a specific publication and, therefore demonstrating their interest in a given industry or field. They tend to have fewer bad addresses (because the list is validated every time a publication is delivered) and can provide a targeted audience; however, they may not provide complete demographics. Sometimes data is also available on historical purchases which are compiled from the sales results of advertisers in the publication.
  • The result of free magazine subscriptions offered to qualified subscribers who agree to provide detailed demographic information about their companies and purchasing authorities, controlled circulation lists are, as a rule, very niche-oriented. They offer rich demographics and are highly selectable, but may cover only a portion of your entire target market. Often the demographics, although rich, are not as accurate as we find in compiled lists.

As stated before, the mailing list is the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of any direct mail campaign, so it should be selected carefully. Direct mailers can greatly reduce costs and improve response rates by using a more recently updated list. Lists are like produce, they do suffer from spoilage, and they need to be constantly refreshed – high quality compiled lists are updated constantly.

Vary Your Offer

The second most influential factor in determining the success of a direct mail campaign is the offer – what customers who respond can expect and how it is presented. Mailers should make sure that they understand what the recipients want and the value proposition they can offer. In fact, the offer needs to be created with the specific needs of the list in mind. Some general tips to improve your offer are:

  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Offer something unique and valuable – impossible to resist.
  • Reduce the level of risk as low as possible possibly. This can include incorporating elements such as a “no cost trial”, a “money back guarantee”, or testimonials.
  • Have a deadline for responses (impending event) – donÂ’t leave it open ended. The sooner you can get the client to respond, the more likely you will be to close a sale.
  • Stress benefits rather than features. Then tie your offer to the most compelling benefit. This is covered in more detail in other articles here.

Some offer elements worth testing, include price points, quantity of volume discounts, the way you state your offer (e.g. “save 50 percent” versus “purchase for half price”), and the method of response.

Experiment With Your Mail Package (Creative)

When considering your mail package, begin with the customer-facing piece first, or you could miss out on a valuable selling opportunity. A consumerÂ’s interaction with the typical direct mail piece is like their interaction with a door-to-door salesman. The key is to “get their attention and interest before the door is slammed in your face.” The average person spends three to five seconds deciding whether to act on your direct mail piece (or toss it), so start selling immediately.

When testing different mail packages, you can experiment with the package type (e.g. postcard, letter, self-mailer, snap-pack, “lumpy” mail, or others) In addition test the use of stamps versus indicia (printed postal permit). Even the use of pre-canceled stamps or stamps with different designs could produce a noticeable lift in response. We could also test a hand-written vs. typed recipient address.

If you are using a letter package, then you can test outside logos versus blind (no return address) envelope; single window vs. double window vs. close-face envelope; along with any teaser copy that is added to the outside. The inside of the mail package should be tested as well. The following suggestions apply the body of direct mail letters and solicitations:

  • Use a strong lead. Recipients will likely scan the letter before deciding whether to read it, so seize this important opportunity to capture their attention.
  • State your offer at the beginning and the end of your letter. Reinforce what youÂ’re asking the recipient to do and why they should do it.
  • Keep the letter short and simple. A maximum of two pages should be used and avoid busy graphics. One page is even better if the message is powerful.
  • Highlight the solutions you can offer. Appeal to the recipientÂ’s problems and daily challenges and offer a way to ease their “pain”.
  • Use solid facts. Back up your claims with proof in the form of guarantees and testimonials.
  • Make it easy to respond. Close with a call to action and make it as easy as possible for the customer to respond to you. Now. This can include a response card, a toll free number, or even a PURL (personal URL) tied to a website.
  • Test different letter styles, graphic elements, and techniques. Experiment with different elements of your letter including use of color, signatures, personalization, bullets, aggressive versus non-aggressive tone, etc., to determine what combination of factors will pull the best.

Seasonality, Timing, and Frequency

When are your customers doing budgets? Will the mailing hit at the end of a quarter, when they have little money to spend? Is it best to market your product or service before or after the holidays? If youÂ’re marketing to trade show attendees, how far out from the event do you market? Is it best to send e-mail before or after the direct mail piece to alert recipients of its arrival?

The effects of such factors generally vary by market, and are worth testing to determine the best approach for your product or service as they could have a significant effect on the response rate.

General Rules of Testing

There are several basic rules of testing to ensure success:

  • Test one variable at a time. If you change too many elements, and there is a change in response, it can be hard to tell exactly which change is responsible.
  • Test against a control. Without a “benchmark” we canÂ’t tell if our responses are rising, falling, or about the same.
  • Make sure the test and control batches mail at the same time to avoid any inconsistencies with timing.
  • Randomize the list to assure that there are no geographic or socio-economic skew – unless, of course you are testing messages for a new geography or audience.
  • Test sufficient quantities to get a meaningful response.
  • Track your results EVERY single time that you mail.
  • Test and test AGAIN. Your are never done!

When you find a piece that works, then ride it as long as you can; but continue to test, so that you are ready to catch the next wave when it arrives. Markets, customers, and moods are always changing…

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

4 Ingredients of Mail That Sells

There are as many different sales theories and techniques as there are products to sell. However, there is one simple formula that we have had great success with over the years – AIDA – which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. This technique works just as well in an ad campaign, sales presentation, or even more importantly, a successful direct mail campaign. Let’s take it from there…

1. Attention

If you know what your customers want, it’s not hard to get their attention. Just think about the biggest benefit your product or service can provide and dramatize it. We are talking about “benefits” not just product features.

A gardener or landscaper, for instance, can get attention by mailing a pair of sun glasses and sun tan lotion – because clients will have more time to relax. An auto mechanic could send out a free gas card – just a small sample of the savings a well tuned automobile can generate. A company that converts paper files to electronic documents could send a file folder with a single CD – on that CD are thousands of pictures of file folders overflowing; or maybe even a link to a funny movie about some unfortunate sole getting buried in paper.

Words, too, can be powerful attention-grabbers. There’s nothing wrong with a big, bold headline that says something as simple as “Save Big in January.” Or as provocative as “Save Your Back-side.” Both could sell snowblowers, but from different points of view.

Just be careful not to get too clever. A professional writer may know how to begin with “Think small.” Your beginning, however, will be much more successful if you get right to the point: “Image how much time you would save if your SPAM email dropped to zero?”

2. Interest

Now that youÂ’ve got a customerÂ’s attention, donÂ’t disappoint. Hold their interest with important, relevant details about what youÂ’re selling.

If you’ve used the “Save Big in January” or “Save Your Back-side” headline, show a picture snow and the snow blower on your postcard or letter. Or at least write a very clear, bold statement that you are talking about a snow blower.

Short, simple sentences keep a reader’s interest best. As does believable, everyday language. Readers, for instance, tend to tune out clichTs like “We are committed to providing the ultimate in quality and service.” Be concrete. Instead try saying, “We have hundreds of satisfied customers. If you’re not happy with our service for any reason, we’ll give you your money back.” It gives a specific example and shows that you mean it!

3. Desire

This is where you really excite the customer for what youÂ’re selling. ItÂ’s giving your customer an opportunity to imagine what itÂ’s like to own and use your product.

You can build desire with a beautiful picture of a new ski jacket worn by someone having a great time. Or you could use a detailed description of how the microfibers adjust to your body temperature, keeping you warm on the lift, and cool on the slopes (technical sale). Or you could use both. The beauty of direct mail is you don’t have to guess – test them both.

The key to building desire is to focus on benefits, not features. A feature tells you what the product has, like a “hyper-fast Internet connection.” Benefits, on the other hand, tell you how that feature improves your life. A hyper-fast Internet connection lets you “listen to music on the Internet without jarring pauses, and lets you get more work done in less time.”

4. Action

Now that you’ve got people’s attention, interest and desire, don’t forget to ask for the order. It’s not enough to say, “Buy now.” Give a compelling reason to visit your store or call your company immediately.

For instance, “We only have 25 of these amazing ski jackets in stock.  They will be gone in a week. Don’t get left out in the cold!” compels action. So does “This offer expires November 23.” Professional mailers have noticed that they get more responses when they put an expiration date on the offer.

This technique is often referred to as an “impending event”. As time passes the motivation fades and customers are less likely to buy. Motivate action now while the offer is still fresh and desire is high.

You can even apply this urgency to a service business: “Avoid IRS penalties and fines, call before February 15th for a tax preparation appointment.”

Just be clear. And be direct.

When AIDA is a formula, not an opera

When asked what he thought was the greatest slogan he’d ever seen, an advertising industry luminary is reputed to have responded, “Farm-Fresh Eggs Sold Here.”

Cutting through the serenity of a backcountry road, the sign demands your attention. If your favorite breakfasts come in sunny-side-up and scrambled varieties, “farm-fresh eggs” provokes your interest and fills you with desire. Meanwhile, the words “sold here” command you to stop the car and take action. To buy.

In five short words, farm-fresh eggs sold here, captures the four-part formula for postcards, letters, self-mailers, and snap-packs that sell.

1) Attention
2) Interest
3) Desire
4) Action

USPS authorized affiliate ZairmailThis article was adapted from Simple Formulas, a series of publications offered by the United States Postal Service, and sponsored by Zairmail.  Zairmail is the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a direct mail piece, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, the next day, for 50% less. Check out the website and the affiliate program at

Zairmaiil is powered by Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

Select the Right Mailing List for Direct Mail

There are three key elements to every direct marketing campaign: the list, the offer, and the creative. Experts seem to agree that the single most important element is the list. In fact, the rule we generally use when planning campaigns is: 70% list, 20% offer, and 10% creative. It is ironic, because most mailers and agencies in particular spend most of their time on the creative and very little on the list.

With any campaign it is important to first understand what you want to accomplish. Two common goals are to (a) convince existing customers to buy more or more frequently (loyalty programs), or (b) find new customers and convince them to purchase for the first time (sales prospecting).

Loyalty Programs:

The value to your business of any particular customer is known as lifetime customer value (LCV) – this represents the sum of all purchases that customer will make from your business over the lifetime of the customer (with your business). Actually, the value of an existing customer can expand well beyond this level when we consider word of mouth referrals from existing customers. It is almost always easier to convince an existing customer to buy more of your products or services, assuming that you are doing a good job of servicing their needs, then to acquire new customers.

Loyalty programs seek to maximize LCV by building an ongoing rapport with existing customers. Here are just a couple of examples of this idea:

• A local realtor sends out a monthly newsletter with local property value trends and local community information (sports scores, recipes, even calendars).

• A neighborhood quick oil change shop sends out a reminder postcard with a discount coupon when each customer’s next oil change is due.

• A retail store sends out an invitation for an “exclusive” private sale event twice a year that is only for its’ loyal customers.

• A restaurant sends out a happy birthday postcard to customers on their birthday that includes a coupon for a free dessert (complete with candles).

• The list goes on…

A successful program of this nature requires that we know who our customers are. Most businesses keep a list of current customers – this is called a “house list”. The most basic list will include a name and contact information (e.g. address, phone number, email address, etc.). However, the more detailed information that is available the more useful the list will be. Detailed customer information helps us craft timely and relevant messages that build stronger offers and relationships.

Given the importance of repeat purchases, and the role that loyalty programs can play in driving those sales, it is important to collect and store information on existing customers. This is pretty straight-forward for businesses that require a complete work-order or invoice for every customer. Other types of retailers might need a little more creativity. Consider the “loyalty card” that your local grocer offers; or a weekly free lunch drawing for clients willing to drop their business card in a fishbowl at a restaurant. These types of techniques allow a business to inexpensively compile a customer list and sometimes even gather buying habits and preferences as well.

When building this type of list be sure that it is “opt-in”. This means to let your customers know that you will be sending them information periodically. This is especially important for tools such as email where customer complaints can get your messages blocked or even result in stiff fines in cases of extreme abuse. Most customers participate willingly if they know that you are going to send them information or offers that are relevant to them. Remember the whole idea is to nurture customer relationships to build your business – don’t abuse your customers trust with spam or communication that is too frequent.

No matter what type of business you are in, building an accurate and detailed house list is essential for maximizing lifetime customer value. As we will see, it is also an important first step in driving new sales.

Sales Prospecting:

Even if you have the most loyal customers in the world there is a natural attrition that occurs. In fact, this attrition may not be the fault of your product or service at all – customers move, customers die, lifestyles change, and so do personal preferences. The bottom line is that prospecting for new sales is an essential part of maintaining business health and stability.

One of the most effective tools available for sales prospecting is direct mail. According to the Direct Marketing Association, on average, direct mail returns ten dollars for every dollar invested. However, as noted earlier, the most pivotal element to direct marketing success is having the right list.

If you are prospecting for new customers you will probably not have their names. But, names of qualified prospects are available through list brokers – or directly from online service providers such as Zairmail (

However, in order to acquire a direct mail list, it is essential to know who we are targeting first. One way to get some insight is to scan through our house list and see what common traits our existing customers share. Factors such as geographic location, age, income, gender, and other demographic variables will allow us to compile a typical customer profile. Since these clients have already found value in our products or services, then it is a good bet that other clients with a similar profile will also value what we have to offer too.

In some cases, we may not have enough in-house information to create this profile or we are expanding our reach to new types of prospects. In these cases we will have to start with a mock profile and then run some smaller experiments to gauge interest. When there is any doubt in direct response we always just run some smaller “test” campaigns just to be sure.

There are two main types of lists that can be purchased: compiled lists and response lists.

Compiled mailing lists are comprised of information from public records and sources such as the phone book, courthouse records, bankruptcy filings, mortgage deed records and more. On the other hand, response mailing lists consist of individuals who have responded to an offer either through the mail, phone, television, or through other means of mass communication, or receive regular communication from a specific sender (e.g. a magazine subscription list, a catalog mailing list, etc.).

These types of lists are a little different – each has a set of unique characteristics that determine when it is the best tool to use. The key to success is to understand when it is most appropriate to use each kind.

Compiled list are ideal for those businesses with a well-defined market when we understand the specific demographics of customers. For instance, imagine a business that is trying to reach single adults, over 40 years of age, with an income greater than $50,000 year, located within a five mail radius of a specific retail store; or a homeowner with an FHA or VA loan, with a credit score greater than 640, and an interest rate greater than 6%. These types of lists are readily available using compiled data.

This is great news if you understand the demographic profile of your customers since compiled lists are generally less expensive than response lists – costing between $40 and $70 (credit scored data generally costs more) per thousand versus $90 to $125 per thousand for response lists.

On the other hand, response lists are the best choice if you need to cover an entire market of prospects with similar characteristics. For example, if you are looking for Harley Davidson enthusiasts, or offering continuing education for Certified Public Accountant in the state of Oregon, there are lists available from publications that serve these markets. Often information is even available on how frequently readers respond to offers they receive. Response lists, especially among those who are shown to respond, can produce higher response rates – thus justifying the higher price.

One other issue to consider is deliverability. The bulk of the cost in any direct mail campaign is not in the list or the print, but in the postage (60% – 70%). So, we need to make sure that the data is not only well targeted but deliverable as well. In order to improve accuracy direct mail services like Zairmail ( run every list through two processes. First, lists are run through the USPS coding accuracy support system (CASS) to assure that each address actually exists. Second, lists are run through the USPS national change of address database (NCOA) to redirect mail for movers.

Even with these extra steps there are going to be some addresses that are undeliverable in every list – this number will increase as the list ages. One other benefit of response lists is since there is a regular ongoing correspondence, deliverability rates are often higher, but this needs to be weighed against the higher cost as well. The other rule here is that lists should be refreshed often to maximize deliverability.

Both types of lists are not always available for all audiences. So a little research may be required to determine what is available for your target market.

Once the correct type of list is determined the next step is to decide how many names are required. This comes back to your direct mail marketing plan. First, decide how many responses you need.

The answer is not as simple as “as many as possible”. Consider how many responses your business can handle. If the goal is to have customers respond by telephone, and we only have one person to answer the calls, then we probably don’t want 10,000 prospects responding at once. In general, the further we get from the initial point of contact with prospects before connecting with them, the less likely they are to buy. Thus, we only want as many prospects as we can service at any given moment in time. If there is limited capacity it would make more sense to use several smaller campaigns rather than one large one.

Similarly, if you have a restaurant that only has seats for 100; it doesn’t make sense to attract 1,000 new customers to your doorstep on a specific night. Another simple rule of marketing is that it is ten times easier to get a new customer to try your business the first time, then it is to get them to try it “again” if they have a bad experience the last time; plan to acquire only as many customers as you can service – and serve them well. In the long-run this is a far more powerful plan.

With your target in mind just work backwards. For example, if you are trying to attract 100 new customers, and you believe that 2% will respond to the promotion, of those 50% will buy, then you will need 10,000 names (10,000 * 2% * 50% = 100). Response rates will vary depending upon the accuracy of the list and attractiveness of the offer. Direct mail professionals often use a 2% response rate as the benchmark for a successful campaign. However, much higher response rates are possible with a targeted list and an attractive offer.

When using a response list the vendor can often provide you with target counts. These may or may not be enough to meet your goals. You may need to combine several response lists to get the list counts that are required.

With compiled lists the trick is to configure the demographic selects appropriately to produce the size list required. For example, if you need 10,000 names, and you request all the females within ten miles of your business, and the initial list count is 100,000 names, then you may have to tighten your search criteria –possibly by adding another select (e.g. income level or age). In a similar fashion, the demographic criteria can be relaxed slightly if the name count is not high enough.

In addition, this is not a strictly compiled or response list decision. If both are available, and the counts are sufficient, then it may be appropriate to do some small test mailings to determine which produces the best results for your business. Whatever type of list you choose, it is always best to do a small test mailing to a particular list, hone your message, and then mail to the larger list.

In conclusion, direct mail is the most powerful advertising medium available, especially for acquiring new customers. But, in order to maximize sales results we need to make sure that we are talking to the right audience and that means having the right mailing list. We know that if we put the right offer in front of the right prospect good things will happen. Follow these simple tips to make sure that you are talking to the right audience when making your killer offer.

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

Measure Direct Mail Results Using Return-On-Investment (ROI)

New customer acquisition is a critical factor in a companyÂ’s growth, and requires even more forethought and strategic action when the economy is sluggish. Tight marketing budgets and cost management are the game plan when sales are slow. Even in these circumstances direct mail can play a pivotal role in finding and keeping customers.

Direct mail is the most cost-effective way to bring in new customers. According to a study by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) direct mail averages $10 in sales for every $1 invested. In another study by Pitney Bowes they found that direct mail generated a higher percentage of sales than Internet advertising, TV, or radio. History has shown that direct mail, when used correctly, is the most effective advertising medium available.

Of course, the only way to gauge if your campaign makes sense is to measure the costs and revenues associated with it. The value of a campaign is typically measured as return-on investment – ROI for short. Other common metrics such as cost/piece or cost/lead are helpful but will not provide the bottom line insight that ROI provides. In addition, the most telling analysis comes not just from measuring purchases from the current campaign; but also takes into account all the follow-on orders for that customer.

By the way, this type of ROI analysis does not just apply to direct mail. This type of analysis applies to all advertising campaigns (online or offline). In fact, with some small tweaks the same technique can also be used to evaluate the relative attractiveness of almost any business investment.

The calculation of ROI is a relatively simple process given some basic information. You will find an example here in this article. You can also download a spreadsheet that you can customize at
Direct Mail ROI Calculation Example

We start with the size of the campaign. In our example we assume that we are mailing out 1,000 pieces. We will deal with the topic of selecting the right size for a mailing in a future issue. However, for “this” analysis it really doesn’t matter how large the campaign is – the math will work the same regardless of volume.

The next step of the process is to determine the cost for the campaign. This is usually just calculated as (cost per piece) x (number of pieces). In this case we are running a postcard campaign with a cost per piece of $.35. If there were design costs required to create the postcard, then we would need to include those in the total cost as well. In this case we are starting with one of the “free” postcard templates provided by Zairmail ( so nothing additional is required.

With that said, if we have to pay for design work, and we expect to use the postcard for multiple campaigns, then we can amortize the amount over the total number of campaigns and include that in our calculation. In other words, if we paid $200 to have a postcard designed, and we expect to use it for 20 campaigns of 1,000 pieces each, then we will need to add $.01 (calculated as $200/(20*1,000)) to the price of each card.

In fact, in order to be accurate, we should include ALL costs associated with production. So, we need to include the cost of paper, ink, labels, stamps, and even the labor of the person who actually produced it. Of course, with an online mailing service like Zairmail, all of these costs are already included in the price and you get to take advantage of digital print-on-demand, combined Zairmail volume, postal discounts, and extensive automation at every step to drive down costs and deliver a professional quality product fast.

To continue with our example, 1,000 postcards at a price of $.35/piece give us a total cost for this campaign of $350. The next step is to determine how many responses we can expect from this campaign.

This is one of the most difficult elements to estimate without a test. The industry standard we usually use for direct mail when we are uncertain is 2%. However, response rates can vary widely depending on industry and offer. It is not uncommon to see response rates that are 0.2% in the credit card industry, 0.7% in mortgage banking, or rates as high as 25% or 30% for some specific non-profit campaigns. We usually start with an estimate and then we refine this over time as we gain more experience with a specific piece.

This highlights one other critical point. When using direct mail it is extremely important to “track” response rates. Tracking response rates allows us to calculate a true ROI and it also allows us to tune a campaign over time. Online mailing providers like Zairmail can provide tools for tracking results at little or no additional cost if you don’t already have them.

The other number we need to estimate is the conversion rate. Think of it this way, no matter how good your product or service is, not every person who responds will buy from you – even though they should! Perhaps they are just kicking the tires (doing research), they don’t have the budget today, or they have already made up their mind on another solution. We need to take these non-buyers into account in our formula.

In this case, we assume that 2% of the postcard recipients will call, and 25% of the people that call will actually buy our product or service. As outlined above, we usually start with an estimate and refine it with our actual experience (gathered over time).

The next element to consider is the sales price of what we are offering. Still, we need to dig a little deeper than this and also look at our cost of goods sold. The cost of goods sold is the total cost associated with delivering each product or service we sell. In general, costs that do not vary with the level of sales (fixed costs) should not be included. These costs will be incurred even if we have no sales at all.

We are looking for the added cost we incur based on the sale of the product or service. To provide a more concrete example, if we were re-selling a widget that we bought from Acme Manufacturing for $100 to our customers for $500, then our revenues on a single product sale would be $500, our cost of goods sold would be $100, and our gross margin would be $400. This latter number, gross margin, is the one that we really use to calculate the ROI from the direct mail campaign – this is the cash we generate from every sale.

In our example we are assuming a sales price of $500 and a cost of goods sold of $250 giving us a gross margin of $250. With some campaigns we actually expect to sell the customer more than one product or service. In that case we would use an average sales price (ASP) and then estimate the cost of goods sold for that basket of goods; but the rest of the calculation remains exactly the same.

Now we are in a position to start looking at returns. We can multiply the total pieces sent by the response rate to estimate the total responses we expect. Then we multiply this number by the conversion rate to estimate the total number of sales. Then we multiply the total number of sales by the gross margin to give us the return (cash generated) from the campaign.

In our example, we show a pretty healthy return, but that is not the end of the good news. We can also take into account repeat purchases – the gift that keeps on giving. We know that if we do a good job and deliver real value then customers will continue to come back and purchase from us. If we don’t incur any additional marketing expense for these sales then we can include them in our ROI calculation.

How far in the future should we look when making this estimate? Of course, there are different opinions on this. Some experts would argue that we should only consider a relatively short period of time such as a year. Others suggest that we should take into account the entire expected (business) lifetime of this customer – no matter how long. The right answer depends on your comfort zone, but we would suggest including the future that is relatively certain. The farther out in the future that you go the more uncertain cash flows become – even if you deliver an awesome product or service.

In our example, we have assumed that the customer will order a total of six times from us over the next 24 months. When we multiply this by our initial gross margin from the campaign ($1,250 x 6) this provides a lifetime value for the campaign of $7,500.

This finally brings us to the bottom line: ROI. The actual calculation at this point is fairly simple. It is really just a ratio (fraction) that consists of the return from the campaign in the numerator and the cost in the denominator. In our example, the return from the campaign is the lifetime value of $7,500, minus the $350 we spent on the campaign, divided by the same $350 we spent on the campaign, or 2,043% return. That is a pretty healthy return on a $350 investment; especially when you consider that the same money put in a savings account today might earn only 1%.

Of course, interest rates are very low by historical standards right now, but weÂ’ve never seen returns of over 2,000%! This helps illustrate the real power of direct mail.

In general, direct response campaigns (direct mail or any other medium) are ROI-driven. We can start out by determining if a campaign makes sense using estimates, then we can run a small test to make sure our numbers pan out, and tune them over time. When we come up with a formula that works we can really step on the gas and ramp up the profits!

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

Writing Letters that Sell

We see a lot of sales letters are Zairmail – A LOT.  As you can imagine, not all of them are created equal.  Some of them produce a flood of responses and sales – planting a big smile on the face of the sender and leading to advance planning for their next Caribbean vacation.  Others sputter.  And, honestly, there are some that land right in between.

Of course, we all want that next “home run” direct mail campaign (or marketing promotion).

So, how do we get there?  Clearly the standard business letter writing techniques do not apply.  If they did then all our direct mail campaigns would be knocking the ball out of the park.

One of the reasons it is so hard is that there are no hard and fast RULES.  There are sites on the Internet that claim they can give you a winning “form” sales letter.  There was probably a time when that was even possible. 

I attended a class 20 years ago where we were instructed that a “complete” direct mail letter was composed of a 4-6 page letter with a bold call to action (repeated over and over).  They also talked about a number of tricks that could be used to increase response rates: include a PS, maybe even a PSS, a “Johnson” box, and even a “lift” letter – some of these might still work.  They had a complete cook book that would allow anyone to build a winning sales letter.  Well, that was the story…

But, the fact remains that times have changed.  People are busy.  They don’t have time to pore over a 6 page letter – and they won’t.  You have about 30 seconds to get their attention and get them to respond (this is true for email too).  If a letter is too long or too much work to read it will go right in the trash.  If it looks interesting, maybe it won’t go directly to the circular file, it may go into the “save it, but look at it later” pile.  So, tell me, what eventually happens to the pearls that end up in the “come back to it later” pile at your home or business?

In fact, many of the most successful letter campaigns that we see these days are based on a simple one page letter with a powerful offer and a strong call to action.  The recipient is directed to a toll free number or a personalized website (PURL).  The cost is low and with a well targeted mailing list the results can be outstanding.

While there are no concrete RULES, there are some guidelines that can help us.  Our friend Joe Robson at gives us the following basic structure.

THE HEADLINE: grabs the reader’s attention.
THE SUBHEAD: re-enforces the main heading.
ILLUSTRATION or PHOTO: emphasizes the headline benefit.
THE BODY COPY: starts with a compelling paragraph that leads the reader in to the next section.
FURTHER PARAGRAPHS: support and reinforce the benefits of the offer.
PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH (try saying this 10 times really fast!): warns the reader of the consequences of missing out on the offer.
FINAL PARAGRAPH: stimulates response. CALL to ACTION (extremely important!).
COMPANY LOGO: (almost) ALWAYS goes at the end.

Joe said it best as “Grab Attention, Stimulate Interest, Build up Desire, Urge the reader into Action!”

We know this sales formula as AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action).  By the way, this formula is not just for sales letters.  It works very well for promotional campaigns, presentations, and toe-to-toe sales calls as well.  First, grab the attention of the audience, stimulate their interest, create a desire to buy “your” offering, and then urge them into action.

The first step is to figure out exactly what you are selling.  What do you want your audience to do?  Do you want them to buy your product, donate to your charity, or call their Congressman?  We need to be very clear about the outcome that we want.

With that in mind, we need to understand the benefits that we offer – NOT just features.  So, we could talk about the fact that a new vehicle gets 30 MPG – a 50% improvement over the old model – that is the feature; but, the benefit is that we have 50% more money to spend on family and fun.  Explore your offering and all the benefits it has to offer.  Make a list.  Now which of those are the most powerful?  Which ones really sell?  Test them with family and friends.  Rank them in priority.

The top ones are the ones that we should feature.  But, there is one more consideration.  What are the alternatives?  Can another solution offer the same benefits easier or cheaper?

We are talking broadly about competing “solutions”.  These are other ways to solve the customer’s problem that may or may not be a similar type of product.  So, for example, Hallmark’s biggest competitor on Mother’s Day is not another greeting card company – it is the telephone!  Imagine how easy it is just to give Mom a jingle (especially in this age of unlimited calling plans and free online calling) and let her know how much you really care rather than buying a card.

We need to think about this broadly and strategically.  We want to feature the benefits that sell the best, the most compelling; but we also want to push hard on those that we can deliver better than anyone else.  This is our unique selling proposition.  This should be the foundation of our offer.

The offer is the key to a powerful letter, because this is what will lead to a response.  Experience tells us that when we put the right offer in front of the right person good things happen!

Another quick tip – be concrete and specific with your offer.  Use specific facts and figures to boost credibility.  Don’t just say “save big”; say something more like “save 50% today”.  But, be honest, we are building relationships that can gather even more momentum over time – we don’t want to promote anything that we can’t deliver.

One final step that is often neglected is to anticipate objections.  Create a list of the most common reasons why people would not consider your solution.  What barriers are standing in their way?  Be brutally honest, don’t pull any punches – you know your customers won’t.

We need to recognize these objections “in advance” and create messaging that overcomes them (concisely) before they ever become an issue.  By the end of your letter there should be absolutely no doubt that the benefits you offer are compelling, no other solution is as attractive, and there is nothing standing in the way.

All your prospects have to do is respond.  The clouds will open, the sun will shine brightly, and heavenly music will play.  Who would want to pass on that?

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.

10 Tips to Improve Direct Mail Results

1. Create a Powerful Offer

To professional mailers it’s the oldest trick in the book: a discount, free gift, or rebate – an offer that is just too amazing to pass up.  Good offers are so powerful that most professional mailers use them right in the headline of the letter.  Also, make sure the offer has an expiration date.  Time and again, it’s been proven that more people respond to an offer when there’s a deadline or an impending event.

2. Emphasize benefits, not features

Features are what the product has.  Benefits are what it can do for you.  The “5-horsepower engine” in a power lawn mower is a feature.  The ability to mow down an overgrown lawn in half the time and spend more time on the links – is a benefit.  If you have an important, valuable benefit, you may even want to put this in the headline instead of an offer.

3. Make it personal

A flower shop sends birthday and anniversary reminders to its customers.  A shoe store tells a customer that a new line of pumps, similar to what she always wears, just came in.  If you are sending out an offer for the first time then make sure to include the name of the recipient.  These efforts help build a personal rapport with the customer – and your customers wants personal service. 

4. Learn what works

Don’t start out by using your entire budget on a single campaign.  Instead, break your campaign into several smaller pieces.  Test different lists, offers, and benefits.  This is fast and easy with the automated online direct mail tools available today.  Compare the results.  Use what works and continue to tune.  Once you have a piece that works then you can ramp up the size of your campaigns.

5. Try other response vehicles

Customers want to respond in the way that they want – not always in the way that you want.  Allow them to respond in any way they want.  You can lead them to a primary response tool, like the phone, but don’t cut off communication because that’s not their favorite touch point.  Insert a business reply card, give them a website address, or even try out some PURL’s.  Be as easy to contact as possible.

6. Test new offers often

Consumers, like markets, change over time.  Don’t get stuck in a rut and watch response rates slowly dwindle over time.  Try to anticipate changes in your markets before they happen and be aware of new benefits that you can offer.  Then test often to see if something new gets traction.  There should always be a small slice of your direct mail budget set aside to experiment with new offers and approaches.

7. Add a free gift to the envelope

It doesn’t have to be a big gift.  Consider a pen or a magnet.  Adding these items to a mailing makes the envelope a little heavier and the recipient a little more curious.  In can also invoke a sense of reciprocity – customers want to give back to those who do something special for them.

8. Make the call

Get lists with phone numbers and make the call.  Follow-up phone calls can double response rates in some cases.  Plus, if you have an amazing offer, you wouldn’t want your clients to miss out, right?  Do them a favor and make sure that you remind them with a personal call (when practical).

9. Leverage current events

Include messages that call out the season or recognize special events.  When you reference the Super Bowl in January or the hot summer weather in July you can connect with your customers and help build a sense of community.  This will help you stand out from all the vanilla; you are just an address to me, “form” letters that people receive every day.

10. Call your customers to action

Don’t say “Amazing Offers You Don’t Want to Miss.”  Say, “Call Today and Make These Offers Yours.”  Always include a “call to action” in every direct response message.

Wilson Zehr was the original founder of Zairmail, the fastest and easiest way to send direct (postal) mail right from your desktop. Upload a document, select a list, approve an online proof, and you are in the mail, tomorrow or the next day, for 50% less. Zairmail pioneered this concept working with the USPS in 1999. Check out the website and the affiliate program at Wilson is currently CEO of Cendix ( the leading provider of Web-to-print solutions that increase sales both online and offline.







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