The Ultimate Guide to Direct Mail for Small Businesses

When starting a local small business, one of the channels  that can be used to help target local areas around your local business, and jump start your brand awareness campaigns, is direct mail. Using direct mail in parallel to digital channels such as SEO, Email, and Content Creation, tablet marketing, as well as having a great website design, can be beneficial when trying to increase your customer base.

There are many misconceptions about direct mail, so we wanted to give small businesses an inclusive guide to help them make better marketing decisions.

The guide will cover the following 6 areas:

  1. What Exactly is Direct mail.
  2. The Benefits of Direct Mail.
  3. The Pros and Cons of Direct Mail.
  4. Best Practices and Guidelines for Direct Mail Campaigns.
  5. How to Integrate Direct Mail into Your Digital Marketing Efforts.
  6. How to Track Your Direct Mail Campaign.

direct mailWhat is Direct Mail

Direct mail, also known as Bulk Standard Mail, is a method of marketing that employs printed pieces that are sent directly by post to a desired audience. Direct mail marketers typically utilize mailing lists that already identify pre-selected individuals who are likely to be receptive to the piece’s message. It offers potential customers the chance to obtain free information about products and services, and it allows advertisers to control who they market to and how they market to those individuals. A poorly designed direct mail campaign is what we traditionally think of as junk mail, but a cleverly devised campaign can be a significant driver of new business.

Benefits of Marketing Via Direct Mail

The foremost advantage of direct mail as a marketing method is the ability to send printed pieces to potential customers in a highly targeted fashion. For example, a company working from a list of established customers doesn’t need to worry about the message going over the heads of people who aren’t likely to be interested in the sales pitch. Every day, television watchers are inundated with advertisements, and in most case those viewers are not receptive to the messages they receive and are not going to act upon any particular call to action. Conversely, a direct mail campaign pushed toward established buyers can deliver better results by putting the message directly in the hands of someone who has already demonstrated a willingness to respond to it in a positive fashion.

Direct mail pieces can also be highly customized to specific customers. A company that employs a detailed database can target a wide range of different demographic features to ensure that the message is being directed in the most attention-getting manner to the reader of the piece. If a political candidate is sending out direct mail pieces, the campaign can tailor those pieces based upon factors like geographic location, gender and age in order to speak as directly as possible to the wants and needs of the receiver of the message. This can entail using different colors, pictures and texts in order to tailor a message to the specific concerns of a set of recipients. The end result is that the person reading the piece is more likely to feel that the message was aimed at them than might be the case with a broadcast message.

The use of direct mail can also be very cost-effective. Thanks to bulk mailing options available from the postal service, a direct mail campaign can send a large number of targeted pieces for a fairly low price. Due to this fact, a direct mail campaign can achieve a much higher volume and return than might be expected from something like an Adsense campaign on the Internet or a radio spot.

pros and cons of direct mailPros and Cons of Direct Mail

The biggest pro in favor of marketing through direct mail is the ability to know who received your message and how they received it. Direct mail campaigns allow you to say definitively that Joe Smith in Southfield received a copy of the piece in question during the second week of December. You can study your database and see who is and is not responding to your message, and this allows you to make corrections in order to develop more appealing future pieces of direct mail.

The biggest con of direct mail is the disposability of the piece. The fact is that many tons of direct mail goes into the trash every day. It’s very easy for customers to look at a piece, dismiss it and toss it away.

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On the flip side, direct mail pieces tend to have a long life if they’re not trashed right away. A direct mail piece has the ability, if left around, to linger and attract the attention of potential new customers. A person sitting around a friend’s house may decide to pick up a piece of interesting direct mail and examine it simply out of boredom or curiosity.

A very good direct mail piece may be intentionally passed along to others by a very motivated customer. This allows you to turn your customers into evangelists for your products, ideas and services. They can take the direct mail piece and place it in the hands of a possible new customer. This ends up being free advertising and a form of social proof that’s indispensable in growing a customer base.

Another strength of direct mail is the legality of the practice compared to other forms of direct marketing. Thanks to the advent of the Do Not Call List, direct marketing over the telephone can be difficult. Similarly, sending bulk message across email or SMS systems can lead to big fines. Conversely, direct mail campaigns are legal in most jurisdictions, and that permits marketers to use them as the simplest way to send unsolicited messages to potential customers.

best practices direct mailBest Practices and Guidelines

There are a few best practices ad guidelines when building your direct mail campaign. These guidelines will help you get the most ROI from your campaign.

Database Value

The very first thing someone conducting a direct mail campaign must have in place is a database system to bring everything together. The database is vital to producing every single piece that’s printed and mailed out. There are two ways to build the information that’s contained within the database.

First, you should always be logging information from visitors and customers into the database in order to grow your mailing list.

Second, you may look to purchase several mailing lists from firms that specialize in assembling such information.

There is a wide range of information that should be developed about each customer. You want to have access to data points such as:

  • The name of the recipient
  • Age, gender and mailing address
  • Basic contact information, including both home and cell phone numbers
  • Household data, especially how many individuals are living there
  • Credit history
  • Purchase history, including the dollar amounts of recent sales to the customer
  • Demographic information, such as what industry the recipient works in
  • Social and financial attachments to business and organizations
  • Social media usernames and handles

A robust database can allow you to develop a clearer picture of who your target customer is. More importantly, it can be used to develop and deploy specific pieces of direct mail. A well-maintained database will allow you to instantly pull up a list of customers who are most likely to be receptive to a particular campaign that you’re planning.

Deploying a database requires confronting a basic question. Will you seek to build your own front-end software to handle the task or purchase an off-the-shelf solution? Most industries can get by well enough with commercially available software, but you may want to look into designing a front-end system that’s tailored to your operation’s specific needs. Most companies, as they grow, eventually begin to build their own in-house database systems that are customized to the demands of their industries.

data driven marketingTest and Be Data Driven

Before getting too far into your initial direct marketing effort, you should do a test run. This is especially important if you turned to a company that sells mailing lists, since you want to know that the list you’re working from has enough current and accurate data to be useful. Your should do an initial set of mailings and then pause the campaign in order to see what percentage of pieces are sent back to you as undeliverable mail. This percentage will give you a better understanding of the accuracy of the list you’re working from.

It’s also worthwhile to hold off on obtaining a list until you’re close to doing your initial run of mailings. This allows you to ensure that the list is as fresh as possible. The value of the information in a mailing list decays at a faster rate than most people would anticipate. As much as 25 percent of the information on a mailing list is no good after a single year. This is because people move around the country and their lives change. Kids go off to college, couples get married or divorced and jobs are lost or promotions are given. By refraining from diving in too quickly with your initial efforts, you can curb the costs that might be incurred from sending out too many undeliverable pieces.

If you’ve paid for access to a mailing list, it’s important that you show a reasonable return for the expense. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to achieve about 95-percent deliverability of your initial run through the list, if it is fresh and accurate. If the percentage of undeliverables begins to approach around 10 percent, then you may wish to request a refund of the costs on those names.

Watch For Duplicates

It’s also a good idea to use your database software to cull duplicates. You may also want to discuss having a data mining service run through the mailing list in order to help you develop a stronger picture of who your customer base is. This is a good idea once you moved on from the initial run through the list and begin expanding your own database by acquiring new customers.

direct mail and digital marketingIncorporating Direct Mail into Your Digital Marketing

Direct mail is nice, but you want customers to opt-in to receiving as much direct marketing material as possible. Most companies, even if they have a large direct mail effort on-going, prefer to drive customers to their websites. There are a few basic steps to making this happen.

First, of course, your website design and experience is key.

This means having a URL for your site that makes sense, coupled with a website design that is trustworthy and represents your business in a professional way.  You should also use specific URLs that are tied to your direct mail pieces in order to improve the tracking of your campaigns. Each campaign should be tied to a specific URL for that campaign. Not only is this convenient for the customers, who benefits from being able to go directly to web pages with content tied to what motivated them to act, but it allows you to draw a direct line from mail piece to the decision by the customer to follow up.

couponSecond, have a coupon code system in place on your website.

This rewards customers for taking actions that you desire. In return for a small discount, they will make a purchase and likely opt-in to your digital marketing efforts. You take a small hit on the coupon code, but in return the customer is giving you an escalated level of permission to market directly.

Third, have a developed social media presence in place.

Just as your website should prompt people to “Follow Us on Twitter,” your direct mail pieces should include the same prompts. You can spur additional action by telling recipients of direct mail pieces that you have exclusive offers available on your social media pages. Since there’s a good chance that a motivated buyer will follow your social media feeds, this adds another layer of permission and access that wasn’t previously there.

Fourth, build opt-ins into everything.

If your website includes a checkout process, add a check box next to the button that finalizes the purchases in order to have customers opt-in to receive emails. It’s important that you utilize an opt-in campaign and that you conform to all guidelines that govern Internet-based spam messages. You should also have an easy to use opt-out URL available for visitors to employ should they no longer want messages from you.

All of these components ought to be tied back to your database. As a campaign progresses, you want to have enough information coming to draw a line from the direct mail package to the opt-in for the digital marketing campaign. This allows you to clearly quantify the effectiveness of your direct mail efforts. It also allows you to determine whether a customer might be more receptive to the digital campaign than the mail campaign. If that proves to be the case, you can reduce the volume of direct mail sent to that person. This type of action will ultimately allow you to market more directly to the customer while also lowering the expenses imposed by your mail campaign.

Tracking Your Direct Mail Campaign

You always want to know when a specific campaign worked, and that means building a number of tracking systems into every campaign. As was mentioned in the previous section, URLs and coupon codes are a great way to tie the initial mail piece to the eventual action taken by the customer. The same concept can be applied even if a customer never opts into a digital marketing campaign. Specific codes should always accompany individual campaigns. This means developing a database of those codes in order to keep track of when they’re used.

Prompting the desired action requires a small bit of social hacking in order to work. If the response is expected to be mailed back by post, you can ask the customer to attach a sticker that accompanies the piece to the form. The sticker will include the tracking code that corresponds to a specific campaign. A similar approach can be used if customers are prompted to call by phone and place orders. The customer can be instructed to provide the operator receiving the call with a code that accompanies the campaign in question.

Ultimately, you want to be able to tie all of this data together. You want to be able to check your database front end and see which campaigns are working and which are not. You also should have enough data gathered that you can use a data mining service to study your customers. You may be surprised to learn that specific clusters of customers respond one way to a campaign, while other respond differently. This information can then be fed into future campaigns in order to improve the targeting of messages to specific groups.


Building a direct mail campaign is serious work, and it takes time to obtain the desired return. It’s important to develop your own mailing list and tie it to data about each customer. This information will allow you to nudge customers toward your digital marketing efforts and create a more efficient system for handling both mail and digital campaigns. It also permits you greater insights into how is buying and why they want to buy. As an added benefit, building your own direct mailing list will free your from spending more money to acquire new leads.

A thoroughly constructed direct mail campaign can accomplish a number of goals quickly and cheaply. Direct mail allows you to target specific individuals or groups with a message that tailored to their interests. This makes it an ideal vehicle for any company that’s trying to grow a loyal customer base. With enough effort and a viable tracking database, you can turn your direct mail campaign into a significant engine for your business.