3 rules to get better direct mail results

4 minute read

Whether the goal is to find new customers, drive more sales or announce an event, a well-timed piece of direct mail (DM), sent to the right audience at the right time, is one of the best ways to get results. But how do you create a piece that maximizes those results? Start with these three rules.

1. Know the 40-40-20 rule

This guideline breaks down which direct mail elements marketers should emphasize. Specifically, it says that 40 per cent of your efforts should be devoted to your audience, 40 per cent to the offer and 20 per cent to creative.

That means targeting the right people (your audience) should be a priority. Use demographics, psychographics or location-based targeting to home in on potential customers. The key is to deliver a message that’s tailor-made for your particular audience.

Your offer is equally important, so make it compelling and relevant to your audience. Tracking mechanisms – a phone number, URL or coupon code – help determine an offer’s success. They also let you calculate the return on investment (ROI) on your campaign.

While audience and the offer are top priorities, don’t neglect the creative – it’s critical to the success of the campaign, too. Do the words and images convey the message you want to send? Does the design encourage interaction and inspire action? It needs to be strategically designed to get results.

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2. Use formatting to your advantage

When it comes to direct mail shape and size, marketers have many choices. Each format has features and benefits that could work for you, depending on your particular campaign.


  • Self-mailers, including postcards, are one of the most cost-effective forms of DM. There’s no need for an envelope, since the customer address is printed directly on the piece.
  • The creative can be produced in many shapes. A pizza shop could print a paper “slice” announcing a weekly special. A real estate brokerage might send out a notice in the shape of a house. A moving company might develop a DM in the shape of a truck. With self-mailers, that level of customization is easy.

    Examples of self-mailer coupon and postcard designs from Nature’s Emporium, a Burlington, Ontario health food market.

    Examples of self-mailer coupon and postcard designs from Nature’s Emporium, a Burlington, Ontario health food market.

  • Self-mailers are good for simple messages. Use them to notify existing customers about upcoming sales and promotions.
  • Self-mailers stand out in the mailbox – the message gets seen quickly since people don’t have to open an envelope to read it.
  • You need to choose durable card stock, but your self-mailer doesn’t have to be a postcard, it can have multiple folding panes.

Outer envelope and letter

  • Include your pitch, announcement, offer or other message on the letter. A #10 envelope has a clear pane, so the name and address can be seen, which makes it ideal for personalizing your offer.
  • The outside of the envelope provides more real estate for your message. Adding copy to this area also creates visual interest and will help your direct mail stand out.

    An example of an outer envelope and letter design from Educare.

    An example of an outer envelope and letter design from Educare.


  • Catalogues and mini-catalogues allow you to include more information than other direct mail options. Use them to tell your brand story and to describe products in detail.
  • If you incorporate aspirational photography and inspiring content, a catalogue can help re-engage lapsed customers and increase order sizes. If you use trigger marketing you can amplify your results: send lookbooks, gift guides or other catalogues around important dates for your customers. They could be for a relevant holiday, like Father’s Day, for example; a season, think back-to-school time; or a milestone, such as a birthday.

    A catalogue design example from clothing brand, Tristan.

    A catalogue design example from clothing brand, Tristan.

  • These options are more expensive than other formats, so make sure to send them to highly-targeted prospects or current customers.

3. Choose the right paper

Your printing partner can advise you about the best paper weights and colours for your direct mail campaigns. Different types of mail require different paper. For example, since postcards have no envelopes, the paper stock needs to be heavy enough to travel safely through mail sorting equipment. If you choose an outer envelope and letter combination for your campaign, you can opt for lighter paper because your message is protected by the envelope.

A printer works on the design of a custom mailer.

A printer works on the design of a custom mailer.

Catalogues and mini catalogues have weight and size requirements, and you need to consider the binding as well. The binding is the part along the seam – will it be stapled or glued? Your answer will impact the paper you can use.

When it comes to outer envelopes and letters, paper colour lets you show a little personality by choosing a brand colour, for example, or something other than standard white. Colour also affects legibility: make sure there’s enough contrast between your paper and ink colours for the address to be read properly.

Read more from our 'direct mail essentials' blog series

Direct mail can be a key part of converting your audience.

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