Direct mail might seem outdated given the array of online marketing channels such as email, social media, paid search, and display ads. But direct mail has unique value as a marketing tool because consumers are more likely to trust direct mail offers, and it has a longer shelf life than digital marketing.

However, executing direct mail successfully can be challenging. This guide will walk you through the choices at every step in the direct mail process, from goals to list selection to letter design to type of postage to results tracking.

Step 1 – Decide on your goals and your offer

What are you selling or offering in your direct mail campaign? Setting clear goals will make every successive step of your direct mail campaign easier. Using SMART goals is a handy way to ensure that you are starting your direct mail project off on the right foot:

  • Specific – Your direct mail campaign should have a clear and specific goal such as “Sell 100 widgets at $9.99 each by end of month.”
  • Measurable – You’ll need to be able to measure whether or not the campaign sold those 100 widgets at $9.99.
  • Achievable – Keep your goals grounded in reality. You can stretch a bit, but don’t make your goals unreasonably optimistic.
  • Relevant – The purpose of the campaign should be relevant to the overall success of the organization.
  • Time bound – The goal needs to have an end date so that you know whether or not you’ve achieved success.

Some examples of typical types of goals for a direct mail campaign are:

  • Sell __ products or services in your soft period.
  • Generate __ leads for __ service within 4 weeks.
  • Fund-raise __ dollars for a cause during the month of July.
  • Upgrade __ existing customers into a loyalty program within the discount time period.
  • Re-engage inactive customers: have __ of them visit your site for a summertime giveaway.


Step 2 – Decide on your list

The success of your direct mail will depend in large part on the quality and relevance of your list. You may have heard of Edward Mayer, who developed the 40-20-20 rule for successful direct mail:

  • 40% of success is based on selecting the right list
  • 20% of success is based on having the right message and offer
  • 20% of success is based on excellent creative


Identifying the right list for your offer, and also identifying the people who should not see your offer, is critical. In addition to identifying the right recipients of your offer you’ll need to determine how many pieces you need to mail in order to achieve your goals.

On average, direct mail campaigns are considered successful if you achieve a 1% conversion rate, meaning that 1% of recipients will buy your product or become a lead or respond in some other way. In very rough terms, if your goal is to sell 100 widgets, you’ll need a list of 10,000. However, 1% is simply a broad average. Your direct mail campaign may perform significantly better or worse and you’ll need to establish your own benchmarks as you track the success of your mailings.

List Types

There are two basic types of lists: your own list or a purchased list. We’ll review the pros and cons of each type of list below.

Your own list – If you have a list of current customers, lapsed customers or prospects, this is a great option for direct mail. The people in your own list are already familiar with your company’s products and services. Thus, your own list will usually yield the best results when selling products or services or when fund-raising. Plus, the use of your own list is free. There are several issues to be aware of when using your own list:

Segmentation/selection – Most companies have their customer records stored in a business software database or customer relationship management (CRM) software. You’ll need to export from this database and segment the list to select the right recipients for the goal of your campaign. Some options for segmentation might include:

  • Geography – Is your offer most relevant to recipients in a particular area? Consider selecting your list based on city, state, zip code, or country. You might also want to select (or suppress) based on whether the address is an apartment, PO Box, or in a retirement home.
  • Recency – You may have customer or prospect records going back 10 years or more, but the older the records are, the less likely it is that they will to respond to an offer. Consider limiting your list to your most recent customers and extend back only as far as needed to get the list size you need. You can also test small selections of older records to see if there is hidden potential in these records.
  • Lifetime value – Is your offer relevant to people (or businesses) who are high-spenders or low-spenders? A list of high-spenders might be appropriate for a rewards program offer. A list of low-spenders might be appropriate for a discount offer.
  • Frequency – Is your offer appropriate for people who have purchased from you occasionally, or frequently? This type of segmentation would be appropriate if you are sending a loyalty program offer, for example.
  • Type of purchase – Many businesses have customer records that can be segmented by purchase type. For example, a parts supplier might have customers who purchased plumbing parts and those who purchased electrical parts. These are different types of customers who will need different offers specifically for the products they use.
  • Suppressions – You’ll need to ensure that your list doesn’t contain records that shouldn’t be there, so you may need to create a suppression list from your business database. For example, if your business is a hotel and you are sending out an offer for a weekend getaway, you’ll want to suppress customers who already have a reservation for that weekend. Your mailing fulfillment company will be able to remove from your mailing list any records that match to your suppression list.

Purchased lists – Using your own list is a great way to boost sales and saves you the expense of using a purchased list. However, your own list is not the right choice if you want to develop new leads and sell to new customers. For that, you’ll need a purchased list. There are three basic types of purchased lists:

  1. Response lists – These lists include people who have responded to other company’s offers. Examples include magazine subscriber lists, membership organization lists, and customer lists from other companies. These lists are generally business-to-consumer (B2C).
  2. Compiled lists – These lists are built from a combination of publicly available data and proprietary data. Sources may include: government records, property/deed records, credit card records, or telephone directories. These lists can be B2C or business-to-business (B2B).
  3. Every Door Direct Mailing (EDDM) – This is a US Postal Service bulk mail list service. With EDDM, every address within the carrier routes you select will receive your direct mail offer. Carrier routes can be selected based on US Census demographic data. EDDM is only for B2C mailings and you do not actually receive a copy of the list.

There are many selection options available for both B2B and B2C purchased lists.

  • Examples of common B2B list selection options:
    • Industry type (e.g. trucking, pharmaceutical, agriculture, education)
    • Private, public or non-profit company
    • Sales volume
    • Years in business
    • First year in business
    • Woman, minority, or veteran owned
    • Headquarters location
    • Number of employees
    • Square footage
  • Examples of common B2C list selection options:
    • Age
    • Income or wealth
    • Number of children
    • Marital status
    • Home ownership
    • Ethnicity
    • Voter party preference
    • Education
    • Occupation
    • Veteran
    • New mover
    • Life stage (e.g. empty nester, single parent, recently divorced)
    • Life style (e.g. organic buyer, sports fan, wine drinker)
    • Mail responders to other brands (e.g. magazines commonly sell their subscriber lists)

One final decision you’ll need to make is whether to rent or buy the list. Generally, renting is the most common option and is less expensive than purchasing. You’ll have use of the list for a defined number of mailings for a defined time period. Don’t think you can cheat! The list will be seeded with names and addresses of people who work at the list company. This allows them to track how often you actually use the rented list.

Buying a list isn’t always an option and isn’t always the best approach. Only buy a list if you have identified a very specific audience that remains constant over time, and to which you would want to send multiple of direct mail offers.

Once you’ve finalized your list, the next step is ensuring that your list is clean and ready to mail.


Step 3 – Clean your list

If you are using your own list, your customer address records will probably have errors. These errors can stem from several sources:

  • Incorrect names/addresses – If your customer data has been manually entered by your customer service agents it will contain spelling errors. Sometimes customer service agents may even use address fields to make notes and these notes can then show up on your labels if not cleaned. This can even happen when customers enter their own name/address information.
  • Incomplete addresses – Addresses may be missing components such as the apartment number, the suite number, or a prefix such as “West” or a suffix such as “Drive”.
  • Inconsistent addresses – You may find that some addresses will have “Street” and some will have “St” or “St.”
  • Change of address – An address may have been correct for a customer when it was first entered into your customer database, but the customer may have moved since then and the mail forwarding order may have expired.
  • Duplicate names/addresses – You may find that a single customer appears in your database many times and with slight variations in spelling. Or, you may find that an address appears multiple times in your database, but with different names over time as people have moved in and out of that address. Duplicate addresses will need to be removed, and the surviving address will need to have the correct name associated with it.
  • Deceased customers – You may have the names of deceased people in your database. You will want to either correct the name or eliminate the name entirely and replace it with a slug value.

Because of the data quality issues mentioned above, it is essential that you have your list processed by a printer/mailer who is experienced in using USPS software such as BBC Mail Manager™ to ensure that your mailing list is correctly cleaned and ready to mail. If you are using a purchased list that is already CASS™ certified, you don’t need to have it processed any further. But if it isn’t, then it too will need to be processed. In addition, with purchased lists you’ll want your printer/mailer to remove any records you already hold in your customer database, or remove records that are on your suppression list.

Mailers who are experienced with US Postal Service regulations will process your list to clean it, update addresses, and sort it. This type of processing will save you postage expense, reduce waste, and speed your mailing’s delivery time. Some of the processes that can be run on your list include:

  • CASS™ (Coding Accuracy Support System) Certification – Your printer/mailer should be licensed to CASS™ certify your list. The printer/mailer will compare the addresses in your list to the US Postal Service’s master list of 30 million US addresses. There will be a small fee to perform this service but it is worth it because it reduces the waste associated with undeliverable mail.
  • NCOA™ (National Change of Address)– Roughly 40 million people in the US move each year and complete a voluntary Change of Address (COA) form with the US Post Office. This COA information is stored in the NCOA database for 48 months. Your mailing list will be compared to the NCOA database and any movers that are found will have their addresses updated. This processing reduces mailing waste.
  • DPV® (Delivery Point Verification)– This process validates Zip+4 to ensure a fully deliverable list. This process also identifies military addresses and high rise addresses.
  • DSF(Delivery Sequence File) – This process helps ensure maximum postage discounts by adding a walk sequence and carrier route to your list. DSF also identifies address type, such as residential, business, educational or seasonal. And, DSF identifies delivery type, such as curb-side mailbox, door-slot, neighborhood delivery and collection box unit (NDCBU).
  • RDI™ (Residential Delivery Indicator) – If you are doing a B2C mailing you’ll want RDI™ processing applied to ensure that all addresses in your list are residential, not business. Applying RDI™ processing can reduce mail surcharges because your list will be certified as 100% residential.

Once you have completed your list selection and list processing, the next step is deciding on the right type of mailing for your campaign. There is a wide variety of mailing options from postcards to letters to packages. We will touch on the most common options below.


Step 4 – Choose the right mail piece size

Choosing the right size mail piece for your direct mail campaign may involve trial and error. It is a best practice to A/B test sending the same offer to a randomly split list, with part of the list getting one size piece (e.g. a postcard) and the other half of the list getting a different size piece (e.g. a letter). Doing A/B testing will allow you to find the type of mail piece that works best with your audience. The basic size options for direct mail are as follows:

  • Postcards – Postcards are an affordable approach to direct mail and can be effective with a simple offer and design. An advantage of postcards is that the recipient does not need to open an envelope to see your offer. But, postcards may not feel as important to recipients as a letter. USPS size postcard size requirements are here.
  • Letters and flats – Letters and flats (larger letters) have the advantage of looking more substantial and important than a postcard. You can print designs and teasers on the envelopes to encourage recipients to open it. Another advantage of letters and flats is that you can insert multiple sheets in the envelope, or you can insert a reply envelope for tracking responses. The ability to mail multiple sheets in one envelope can be especially important if you have a complex offer to convey. A final advantage of letters and flats is privacy. If you are printing personal data in your message you will definitely need to use a letter or flat. USPS specifications on letter sizes are here and specs for flats are here.

If you send a letter or flat you will also need to consider your envelopes. Your choices will include options such as no window, single window, double-window, and embossed. Windowed envelopes place requirements on the letter design so that the address information shows up clearly. You’ll also need to consider the weight and color and quality of the envelope paper. As with other decisions, ideally you will undertake some A/B testing to determine which envelopes prompt the best response for your audience.

  • Folded self-mailer – Folded self-mailers combine some of the attributes of letters and postcards. The design/offer is evident right away (like a postcard) but the interior is private (like a letter). Folded self-mailers generally come in three sizes: two panel (9” x 12”), three panel (9” x 18”) and four panel (9” x 24”). An advantage of a folded self-mailer is that the folding breaks up the design into separate sections, which can help make the information easy for the recipient to scan and understand. Generally, folded self-mailers are printed on glossy paper which can enhance the look of your piece.
  • D-card (or DAL card) – D-cards are a way to get maximum cost savings of shared direct mail, but with the presence of a stand-alone piece in the mailbox. D-cards are mailed with another qualifying piece (like a magazine) but are not inserted in the magazine.


Step 5 – Design considerations

There are as many design options as there are designers and no two designers will approach a design challenge the same way. Below we have listed a few considerations for designers of your direct mail campaign.

  • Letter style vs. graphic style – If your direct mail campaign will be a letter in an envelope the two basic design options are letter style or graphic style. Letter style means that the offer will be text-based, while graphic style will use images and short bits of copy. Which style to use may depend on your company’s branding. For example, if your company is a “serious” engineering firm doing a B2B mailing then a letter style might be more appropriate to your brand. But if your business is a resort beachfront hotel then a graphic style with fabulous photography might be a more on-brand approach.
  • Paper type and weight – As with the letter vs. graphic style choice, your paper choice may be determined by your design and your brand. The engineering firm mentioned above might want to use plain white copy paper, or perhaps a more impressive 70 lb. text or 24 lb. bond paper. The hotel mentioned above should print their beautiful photos on glossy paper for maximum visual impact.
  • Personalization – If you are sending a letter and if you are confident of the quality of the names in your list, it is always preferable to personalize with “Dear _____”. However, nothing looks worse than incorrect personalization so only personalize if you are fully confident in the quality of your list.
  • Variable data – There are endless ways to tailor the content of your direct mail based on the attributes of your list. For example, your letter can print an X% discount for people in certain zip codes, but a Z% discount for people in other zip codes. You can add attributes to your list to drive further variation. For example, if you are a parts supplier you can include in your list a field named “Purchase Type” that shows whether the person purchased electrician supplies or HVAC supplies. The content of your letter can change based on the Purchase Type field.
  • Call to action and offer deadlines – In your design, whether letter, postcard or package, you’ll need to include a call to action (CTA). The CTA tells the recipient what they need to do next to take advantage of the offer in your letter. The CTA could be to call a phone number, send an email, or enter a discount code onto a web page. The CTA should result in a trackable action so that you can assess the effectiveness of your direct mail offer. In addition, make sure you have a deadline. There are two reasons for the deadline, one is to add urgency to your offer, and the other is to provide an end date for your tracking efforts.
  • A/B Testing – It can be hard to know which part of your direct mail letter campaign worked and which part didn’t. This is where A/B testing comes into play. It’s always a good idea to split your list randomly in half (or thirds or fourths) using every nth record to test different approaches. Limit yourself to testing one component at a time so that you know which factor is influencing the results. For example:
    • You could A/B test printing the discount as “25% off” for half your list, and print it as “$10 off” for the other half of your list. This will show you whether people respond better to a percentage discount or a dollar discount.
    • You could A/B test letter-style vs. graphic style with the same exact offer. You could A/B test a call-in CTA vs. a web page CTA.
    • You could test sending the letter to half of the list via First-Class Mail with a live stamp and to the other half of the list via Marketing Mail rates.

And the list goes on and on. Best practice is to do an A/B test for every mailing. However, if you are confident that you have already developed a mailing approach that works, your A/B tests can be a 90/10 split, with 90% of your list getting your tried-and-true offer and 10% getting your new idea. That way you won’t diminish the returns from your proven approach but you’ll still be testing new ideas to keep things fresh.


Step 6 – Choose the right type of mail class

The US Postal Service has six basic types of mail classes:

  1. Priority Mail Express
  2. Priority Mail
  3. First-Class Mail
  4. Standard (Marketing) Mail
  5. Periodicals
  6. Package Services/USPS Retail Ground
  7. EDDM (Every Door Direct Mail)

For the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on First-Class Mail, Standard (Marketing) Mail, and EDDM as these are the types most likely to be used for direct mail campaigns.

First-Class Mail – This type of mail carries the most expensive postage at $0.55 per piece which makes it the most expensive option. First Class can be used for letters, postcards, flyers, and even small packages (the weight needs to be under 13 oz.). Postcards that are 4” x 6” mail by First Class automatically, and get a discount.

The advantages of First-Class Mail are: no special payment methods required, no mailing permit needed, no requirement to presort the mail, it is faster than standard mail, and forwarding and return services are included. This makes First-Class Mail an easy-to-implement choice if you have the budget. First-Class Mail has the advantage of looking classy and important when it arrives. Using a live stamp makes First-Class mail look even more personal and may improve your response rates.

If you are mailing more than 500 pieces, you can get a discount on your First Class Mail by having your printer/mailer set up your mail for First Class Presort. Your mailer will CASS™ certify and NCOA™ your list, group the pieces by zip code, and bundle accordingly.

Standard (Marketing) Mail – This is bulk mail, which will save you money. Bulk mail requires that you are sending a minimum of 200 pieces or 50 pounds of mail. With this type of mailing you’ll need a payment method, a mailing permit, and the mail must be CASS™ certified, NCOA™ processed, and presorted. If you are a non-profit, you can get a lower price for this type of mail, but documentation is required. Standard Mail can look like “junk” when it arrives since it will carry a mailing bar code. It’s worth testing whether the savings from using Standard Mail are affecting your response rates, by doing an A/B test of Standard Mail vs. First-Class Mail.

EDDM – With EDDM, you don’t supply a list and you don’t need a permit. You select which carrier routes you’d like your mail delivered to and the USPS delivers to every address in that route. This type of mail is very affordable but tends to look a bit more like “junk”. You can’t do a true A/B test with EDDM because you cannot split the list randomly in half. Note that for an EDDM mailing, the US Postal Service has strict requirements regarding the size, labeling, and bundling of mail pieces, read it here.


Step 7 – Tracking Results

Was all the effort of list sourcing, designing, printing, and mailing your offer worth it? Results tracking is the essential final part of the direct mail process so that you can learn from your successes (and mistakes).

Tracking your direct mail results can be accomplished several ways.

  • Return envelopes – The classic direct mail tracking method a business reply envelope. To use this approach, you will need to send a letter, and insert the smaller business reply envelope. The business reply envelope should be pre-addressed and have postage paid to encourage the most responses. This method is easily trackable but will require someone at your business to open the replies and enter them into your business software.
  • Offer codes – Another tried-and-true approach is printing unique offer code (e.g. “WINTERSALE”) that the recipient redeems by calling or going to an e-commerce web page and entering the code at checkout. This approach is easy to implement. However, offer codes can be challenging to use in conjunction with a call-in CTA. If you want recipients to call in, you’ll need to ensure that whoever is answering the phone is ready to ask for and data-enter the offer code accurately so that your business software can track responses.
  • Dedicated phone numbers – You can track results by setting up a dedicated 800 number that is exclusively promoted in your direct mail. The call volume on this 800 number can be tracked, along with other metrics such as call duration, hang-ups, etc. 800 numbers are affordable to purchase and the per-call charges will be around 5 to 30 cents, depending on your plan. The downside is that you’ll need well-trained staff to answer those calls. In addition, your direct mail recipients may not want to call in to redeem an offer, they may prefer to go to a website. This will depend on your particular direct mail offer and audience. For example, to redeem a 10% off coupon for a book, a recipient may prefer to go to a website. But to redeem a $1,000 offer on a home renovation they may prefer to speak to a company representative.
  • Purls and QR codes – Two web-friendly approaches to tracking direct mail results are purls and QR codes. A purl is a personalized url printed on the direct mail piece, like, that takes the user to a dedicated, personalized website landing page. Recipients are tracked when they go to the web page. QR codes function similarly but the recipient will scan the QR code using their phone to get to the web page. Your printer/mailer should be able to assist you with setting up purls and QR codes.


If you follow the steps in this guide, you’ll be on the right track to ensure the success of your first direct mail campaign. Direct mail is an excellent tool to have in your marketing toolbox due to its long shelf-life, design flexibility, options for personalization, integration with phone or web CTAs, and trackability. The team at Susquehanna Printing are direct mail experts with years of success in printing, list sourcing, list cleaning, and applying postage discounts. Contact us today to start work on your next direct mail project.