10 Steps to Set Up and Run a Direct Mail Campaign

10 Steps to Set Up and Run a Direct Mail Campaign

These days, despite the prevalence of digital media in our world, many marketers are surprised to learn that direct mail can play a pivotal role in a successful marketing strategy.

And while it’s true that any business or organisation of any size can greatly benefit from designing and executing a direct mail marketing campaign, it’s not exactly a walk in the park. Get it wrong and you could end up with a costly mistake and little to show for your effort.

That being said, direct mail is a surprisingly affordable way to market your business and receive unparalleled returns on your investment. Data continues to show, year after year, that customers love getting direct mail and they’re highly likely to respond to a clear call to action.

There’s no better time than the present to start planning your next direct mail marketing campaign.

But first… What is direct mail marketing?

Direct mail, in simplest terms, is any iteration of mass-produced, physically printed marketing materials sent to recipients on a specific list – you guessed it – through the postal service.

The look and feel of a mail campaign and how mailing lists are compiled varies, but the end result is the same: You design marketing material that is mailed out to customers or potential customers within a specific audience you’ve identified.

Who is it good for? Absolutely everyone.

No heartbreak here: The beauty of direct mail marketing is that it’s incredibly versatile and it works well for businesses and organisations of nearly every shape and size in every industry.

From nonprofits and charities to real estate agencies, business to business service providers to car dealerships to local bakeries and restaurants… and everything in between.

With the right call to action, the right design, and by working with the right team of experts, direct mail marketing works.

How do you create your first direct mail campaign?

Once again, we want to point out that the process of executing a successful direct mail marketing campaign is not for the inexperienced. There are a lot of steps that take place in the background before your live campaign hits mailboxes.

The sooner you engage with a full-service printer and direct marketing specialist, the better. In fact, it’s never too soon to start working with your chosen printer. The earlier this happens, the more successful your campaign stands to be.

Your printer will help you design a marketing piece that can be produced in the most cost effective manner and ensure you use the best quality materials that fit into your campaign budget.

Before you start, set a goal for your direct mail campaign.

Before you even dig into the nitty gritty of concocting and executing a direct mail campaign, you’ve first got to determine what the whole point of your effort is going to be.

A marketing campaign of any kind without a specific goal or direction is doomed from the start. If you skip this step, you stand to waste both time and money.

Are you attempting to:

  • Drive foot traffic into your brick and mortar business?
  • Increase donations to your nonprofit group?
  • Grow your online sales through your website?
  • Elevate awareness in your brand?

Whatever your reasoning, the main point here is to have a single goal for your direct mail marketing strategy. Knowing what you’re hoping to achieve is the key to developing a successful campaign.

Once you’ve got a goal in mind, it’s time to hit the ground running.

Step 1: Determine who is in your target audience.

As with all good marketing strategies, when you set out to publicise your business via your campaign, you have to start by understanding who you’re trying to reach. If your goal is to reach existing or previous clients, you already have a wealth of customer information to pull from.

However, if you’re hoping to reach new customers, you have to use a little more imagination. The more specific you can be about the people in your audience, the better your return on your marketing investment will be.

Effective direct mail flyers should include:

Taking a few minutes to sit down and make an avatar for your ideal customers – commonly known as an “ideal client/customer avatar” or “ICA” – may sound like a silly exercise but it can actually be quite enlightening.

Using Ideal Client Avatars

If you’ve never done it before, an ICA is a fictional person you create that embodies all the characteristics you think of as being that perfect-match customer or client. And by perfect, we mean right down to even the finest of details.

Get out a pen and paper or use a new document or spreadsheet on your computer to write some things down about your perfectly-matched client. The more specific you are, the better.

Here are a few things to jot down:

  • How old are they? Instead of choosing a typical age range, decide on a number you feel comfortable with. For example, maybe your avatar, Jennifer, is 43.
  • Where do they live geographically? Depending on your business, this may matter significantly or not at all. But it’s good to consider either way. Think about whether they live in a city, in a suburb, in a rural area, etc.
  • What do they do for work? Jot down a specific job title if you have an idea for one or their actual work – either will do.
  • Are they married, in a relationship, or single? This may have an impact not just on their disposable income but on their buying decision-making process.
  • Do they have children? How old are their kids? Again, children can change spending habits or have other impacts.
  • What is their annual salary? You can choose to factor only your potential clients’ salary or, if they’re in a relationship, their combined salary with their partner’s. Knowing both numbers may be helpful.
  • Do they own a vehicle? Do they drive at all? Your clients’ geographic location will play into this.
  • Do they rent or own their home? In addition to that, what kind of home do they live in – a house, an apartment, a condominium? Do they live on a large piece of land, such as a farm or acreage?

The more you know, the better you can target your potential customers through your marketing campaigns, both via direct mail and in your other advertising efforts.

If you’re not sure where to start, look at your list of existing clients and build your ICAs around a few of your best customers. Try to choose a wide range of people you may be able to target and consider what new markets, groups, or demographics you may be trying to reach.

Once you have a few ICAs, compile a list of characteristics your audience as a whole shares. This will be the initial stepping stone for building your mailing list.

Step 2: Build your mailing list.

When businesses set out to create their first direct mail campaign, they often worry over this step. Though it’s a vital part of the process, it’s nothing to be afraid of.

Start by determining what you have. You likely already have a list of addresses of your current or previous clients. Depending on the goal of your direct mail campaign, you may decide you want to omit either group. (This goes back to determining who you’re trying to reach.)

On the opposite side, if you’re hoping to reach a completely new audience – whether that be because your existing list is too small or because you’re trying to break into a new market – you may have no address list to use.

Never fear – there are solutions for this.

Renting Mailing Lists

Renting mailing lists is an affordable option for businesses of most sizes. A mailing list broker can take the information you’ve compiled from your ideal client avatars and the main characteristics you’re targeting to build a specialised list of addresses that you may rent. This option is typically a one-time deal: You pay for use of the list and cannot use it again unless you also pay the rental fee again.

Buying Mailing Lists

The benefit of choosing to purchase a mailing list is that you’re not beholden to anyone – you own the list of names and addresses outright. This tends to be a much more expensive route but if you plan to conduct multiple direct mail campaigns, it may be the best option for you rather than repeatedly paying list rental fees. As the list owner, you’re also free to use it however you like, though you should not resell any part of the list to another entity.

List Building with Canada Post

Canada Post offers a number of services to businesses looking to send direct mail campaigns, including renting mailing lists. They act as the mailing list broker and allow you to narrow down your criteria to reach the most accurate prospects throughout Canada. We highly recommend working with Canada Post to compile your direct mailing list.

Step 3: Decide on your mail format.

There are lots of options for sending direct mail to your audience. Choosing the right one simply involves considering your ultimate goal and budget. Some forms of direct mail are more costly than others, of course, but less expensive options don’t necessarily mean lower response rates or marketing goal successes.

The most common forms of direct mail are postcards, letters, flyers, magazines and catalogues, and what we call “premium communications”. Each has its place in the direct mail marketing wheel.

  • Postcards: Unsurprisingly, postcards are not only the least expensive direct mail option, but they’re the most common kind of direct mail piece. Postcards are great for delivering a snapshot of information in compact form and studies have shown that 56% of postcards are actually read by consumers.
  • Letters: Letters give off a more professional appearance than postcards and are almost equally as successful. They’re great for publicising promotions or surveys and have a fantastic response rate. These are also popular direct mail formats for charities and nonprofit organisations because they provide a quick solution for reply devices, such as self-addressed return envelopes for donation checks.
  • Flyers: Think of direct mail flyers as a larger-format postcard – there’s more real estate to get your message across than a typical 4 x 6 inch postcard. Flyers are relatively inexpensive, depending on your design, and command consumers’ attention, especially those in older populations.

Step 4: Design your direct mail asset.

Once you’ve determined your overarching direct mail campaign goal and what kind of mail piece you’ll send, the next step is to design the mailer itself.

Above all, be sure to use a single, clear, unambiguous call to action, or CTA. Your mail piece should be very specific about what next steps your recipients should take. For example, should they call to set an appointment? Should they visit a website? Should they visit the store? Be specific and give one option. As humans, we can be easily confused or turned off when we’re presented with too many choices.

Be sure to incorporate an eye-catching design that will speak to your audience, too. According to most direct mail gurus, 40% of a direct mail piece’s impact comes from sending it to the right list in the first place. Another 40% comes from the value of the offer, but as much as 20% comes from the design and written content message of the piece.

If you’re not sure how to design your direct mail campaign, don’t fret. Your direct mail company will have a team to help you choose the right fonts, text placement, and appropriate imagery in your design.

Reply Devices: To Include or Not to Include?

If you’ve chosen to use direct mail letters or a “premium communication”, you’re in a unique position to include a “reply device”, or something your recipients can use to directly and immediately respond to your direct mail campaign. For example, think of wedding invitations with RSVP cards or nonprofit organisations asking for donation checks.

These often come in the form of self-addressed and prepaid postage envelopes or postcards, though prepaid postage isn’t always necessary and omitting it can help cut down on costs. Whether you choose to prepay for postage or ask recipients to affix their own stamps should factor into your total campaign budget.

Reply devices generally provide a higher response rate than direct mail pieces without them purely because they imply that a response is expected. It also extends a very clear call to action that the recipient should take – there’s no question as to what they should do next.

Even if you expect your responses to come via another channel, not physical return mail, including some kind of response or reply device can increase your overall campaign effectiveness

Step 5: Print and produce your direct mail campaign.

After all that deliberation, you’re now ready for the biggest part of the show – printing and preparing your design to be mailed out.

Find a print house capable of handling everything under one roof. This will ensure that your budget is kept in line and your campaign goes out in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Be wary, however, of “discount” print houses or online-only options with whom you can’t directly communicate and strategise. In these cases, you get what you pay for. Working closely with your print team will lead to better results – both in the designing process and the final print run.

Producing Your Direct Mail Campaign

Printing is just the first stop on the production train. Once your pieces have been printed, your approved communications are moved into the production process. The next steps will vary slightly based on the communication piece being produced (such as a postcard versus a catalogue), and the format in which you chose to send it.

Production steps can often include:

  • Lasering your personalised components, including a letter, response device, vouchers, or other items.
  • Scoring, trimming, and folding lasered materials.
  • Inserting additional items (often including up to 3 matching components) using a video match system to guarantee all of your mailing goes out flawlessly.
  • Sorting the final packages to ensure that the mail being deposited at Canada Post locations is prepped to Canada Post’s standards. 
  • Quality control takes place every step of the way, ensuring a flawless execution on your campaign.

Step 6: Get help with data processing.

Your mailing lists are only as good as your data processing department. Data processing is a complex operation that assures your data is cleansed (confirming addresses and recipients are up-to-date), accurate, and in the proper Canada Post format to achieve the best postage rates possible.  

This team also checks that no duplicate records are sent and that the correct message goes to the correct individual.

Here are the steps necessary to ensure accurate data processing:

  1. Convert any varying files you have and determine a standardisation of file formatting.
  2. Generate “dumps and counts” and Data Quality Analysis (DQA) reports to confirm the correct data is sent, and that the files were not corrupted during file transfer, or the original data extract prior to sending them to the mail house. This step is important to catch any issues up front and avoid any unforeseen added costs.
  3. Run an address accuracy and correction process to put all addresses into the proper Canada Post format and to correct any issues in the initial data (e.g. a mistyped postal code that could make a mail piece undeliverable or increase postage costs).
  4. “Dedupe” your data – or remove any duplicates – to verify that multiple copies of your campaign are not sent to the same household or individual. This is very important, especially when dealing with rented lists, as often the same individual may be provided on multiple lists from different sources.
  5. Your data should be sorted to ensure you are getting the best postage rates available.
  6. Generate final net counts after processing that show your records count by segment, split (if you are running a “split test” of mailers with different CTAs, images, or other variances between “Test A” and “Test B”), and province as well as any other criteria you may have. 
  7. Prepare your files for generating your “live”, ready-to-go mailers, production, and samples for your final output.

Step 7: Map variable printed data through the “forms composition” process.

The “forms composition” step is where the creative and data meet.

Any component that is laser printed (e.g. letters, lasered self-mailers) needs to go through this process so that the variable information (anything that changes like recipient names, street names or house numbers, etc.) and static information on the mail piece are programmed to coincide accurately with the other copy and images in the design. This also ensures the correct variable information is pulled for each individual print.

In simpler terms, the data department who handles cleaning and accurately organising your mailing list information passes their files to the forms team. The forms team then determines exactly where the variable data should be placed (“mapping” the data) and programs the machine to print your variable data where it needs to go. This process ultimately ensures your design and aesthetic are maintained and that your data prints in the proper format.

A good example of the forms composition process in action is in customer mailings from companies like Airmiles. These direct mail pieces often include product images and promotional coupons within a mailer. But the coupons are specific to each individual Airmiles card holder and thus are driven based on the customers’ spending habits and the products they most often buy.

Signatures for multiple senders on individual mail pieces within a single organisation (think of a law firm or real estate office where there may be multiple representatives or sales people and each person’s signature would be used for their specific clients or potential clients) are also mapped at the forms composition stage.

For more complex direct mail campaigns, there are often additional files provided that are used to pull in more lengthy copy based on a specific field (or fields) within the data (for example, legal information that may be specific by province or a product/donor type). 

Ultimately, this process involves a team programming the printer to know what to look for and what to print based on different variables.

Step 8: Mail your campaign.

Once your print house has ensured all postal requirements are met, they’ll deliver your pieces to  Canada Post and/or USPS. This includes verifying that all mail is deposited at the correct postal facility as some facilities have different processes for handling and distributing mail. 

Your print house should always provide proof of mailing at the end of a program so you can see that all your live mailers were deposited as scheduled, and so you know when you can expect to see responses.

Step 9: Process and handle consumer responses.

Delivery times can vary based on the category of mail you are using and the location of the consumers being targeted. As such, a printer specialising in direct marketing will help you know when to expect your campaign to be in the hands of your audience as well as when to expect responses. This is the case whether or not you chose to include a “reply device” with your initial mail piece.

Your call to action in your mail piece will determine how you’ll see responses. For example, you may have directed recipients to return a self-addressed and prepaid postcard or envelope, to call for more information or set an appointment, to visit a website, or to walk into your store. Whatever you chose as a CTA, be sure you are ready and well-staffed for the replies. Depending on the size of your campaign, you may need help fielding these. There are lots of companies that assist in processing responses and your print house should be able to provide some reputable options.

Step 10: Analyse your results.

At the end of any campaign, it’s pertinent to analyse your response rates and determine your return on investment. Depending on how successful your campaign was, you may want to do it again. You may also choose to run similar campaigns throughout the year. Look at your statistics from each and compare them to learn what time of year, type of mailer, etc., tends to be best.

Additionally, many campaigns involve test scenarios in a single run, called “split testing”, which allows you to see what works best for each region or demographic and to better plan future direct mail campaigns. Determining your return on investment gives you the tools you need to continually design and execute relevant and exciting communications that relate to and engage your target audience with your brand. This, in turn, allows you to continually improve your response rates and ultimately increase your ROI.

Fully Maximise Your Direct Mail Marketing Success Rate

To be really certain you’re getting the most bang for your buck, make these considerations a priority as you work with your print house team.

Test your mailing pieces before you send your full campaign.

Direct mail can be expensive, but the ROI is worth it in the long-run. Testing your direct mail campaigns helps you better determine whether or not you’re sending an effective message. 

To use your budget efficiently, send a test batch to a small sample of your audience and see how they respond. This can be done in a single mailing campaign to help you understand how your target audience relates to different creatives or offers.  

Testing also helps you plan for future mailings. Through trial and error, you gain the valuable information you need to speak to your customers in the way that best relates to them.

Personalise mailings based on your target groups.

Different demographics will respond to different types of offers and creatives. Don’t get caught sending the “wrong” message to a certain segment of your audience. 

You can determine what works well through A/B (also called “split”) testing in a single campaign or by conducting several similar campaigns over a longer period. Send different types of mail pieces, change CTAs, and even change up your design a little. You may be surprised to learn what works well and what doesn’t.

Knowing your target groups allows you to be more relevant to them and drives response rates and ROI.

Analyse, analyse, analyse.

This is just good business practice but we can’t stress it enough: You’ve got to know what the end results of your direct mail marketing campaign look like from top to bottom. 

Make clear and specific notes about what went well, what was stressful for your team, what kind of responses you received, your response demographic factors, and anything and everything in between. No piece of data is too insignificant. 

Keep your notes somewhere easy to access like a spreadsheet so you can compare them after each subsequent direct mail campaign. The more data you have, the better your campaigns will perform over time.

Optimise the mailing process.

Don’t try this on your own – trust us.

When it comes to direct mail marketing, there are too many things that can go wrong if you’re not sure what you’re doing. This is especially true when it comes to confirming your mailing list is up-to-date, accurately printed, and ready to roll.

Working with a printer that specialises in direct mail allows you to ensure things are done in the most timely and cost effective way. A team who has expertise in the direct marketing realm and who can manage the process from start to finish will help guarantee you achieve the best results and ROI from your campaign.

Direct mail marketing is a somewhat lengthy process that takes time, consideration, and dedication. 

But the facts don’t lie: It’s incredibly effective at holding consumers’ attention and searing into their memory, and direct mail response rates blow their email response rate counterparts out of the water. Consumers love checking their mail and with direct mail rates declining in recent years, there’s never been a better time to “kick it old school” and send your audience physical mail marketing pieces. 

Direct mail had a firm place in the marketing strategies of the past but today, it’s making a roaring comeback. Chances are your business or organisation can greatly benefit from direct mail marketing. 

The first step is setting that goal and deciding what you’re hoping to achieve through your campaign. Now… When will you start your first direct mail run?



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