Every piece of mail has a purpose — the mailer may want to sell something or promote a sales event, ask for a donation, promote a new product, announce an event, send a message to a friend, send a bill or bank statement, wish someone a happy birthday or anniversary, send a rebate check, invite someone to a party, or mail out something that keeps your company top of mind. The term “failed mail” could apply to any piece of mail that does not make it to the address, is not opened, or does not accomplish the task it was intended to when it was sent. If you send out a large mailing, no one expects 100% of the people to engage with you, but you also need to recognize that many people never even open the mail piece, which means that the purpose of the mailing had no chance of succeeding with these particular customers. So, the challenge with every mailing is to at least present the message in a way that the recipient will consider opening the envelope and reading the message.

The first element every mailer should consider (and the USPS now requires) is to validate the addresses. Does the person actually still live there? Then the address needs to be formatted properly so the USPS equipment recognizes the address. These two steps are the easiest part of the task to prevent failed mail. They can be automated with tools from the USPS and with various mail prep software. The second factor of the process is a bit more challenging — is the message relevant to the recipient based on their age, gender, whether they own a home or rent, own a pool, travel a lot, etc.? Again, this is something that can be automated with the assistance of list companies that collect and data mine for this information.

Separating the Successes from the Failures

Now, once this fairly simple but yet crucial task is done, it’s time to ask yourself, “What separates success from failure when I was able to automate all of this?” It comes down to the design and strategy of the mail piece. That does not take away any of the importance of making sure the address is right, but it does put more value on targeting the message that so it can be more focused and directed to the particular audience. You need to design a mail piece differently depending on whether you are sending to a Baby Boomer, Gen-X, or a Millennial. Let’s say you are selling something that would be relevant to either all three generations, such as an activity tracker. All generations use them, but they use them in different ways. The imagery and text of the mail piece has to be adjusted to show relevance to each group. Design is more than just the aesthetic of a mail piece; it has to be integrated with the images, the text, the offer, and the listed benefits for the precise audience to which the mailing is targeted. In the past, this would have been done with different versions, but this has limited effectiveness and cost benefits. Today, with the use of variable data printing on toner-based digital presses and high-speed inkjet printers, a mailer can make each piece unique for every single piece in a multi-million piece mailing.

When one talks about the design of a mail piece, they typically think about what the graphic designer does to make the piece look attractive. That is only half of the design component. Designers may have a good sense of balance, proportion, rhythm, contrast, and unity — but communicating effectively is about more than making it the piece look pretty. The design cannot get in the way of the message and the action you want from the recipient once they look at the mail piece.

There are a number of things to consider as you design a mail piece, the first being the goal you hope to accomplish by sending it. What is the specific goal of the marketing campaign? It surprises me how many times people cannot quickly state that goal or are only thinking in the short term and not the long-term results (ex. what is the lifetime value of the customer?). What is the call to action? What is going to make the recipient want to respond? Giving recipients an option to connect further online is an additional tool. Is there a time frame for them to respond? If you do not give them a deadline, it is easy for them to put things off and forget about it.

If you want to create an effective mail piece, you need to think like a salesperson or a marketing manager, not just as a printer or mailer. The plan is the most critical element of any designed mailpiece. Knowing the audience, knowing the product, and understanding the value to the customer results in a targeted message that calls recipient to the offer.

Additional Resources

If you are looking for a strategy on how to better serve your customers, consider reading the following four books:

1. Steal These Ideas!: Marketing Secrets That Will Make You a Star, by Steve Cone. This book focuses on how to look around at great ideas that you can repurpose to serve the needs of your customer. You do not need to reinvent the wheel; there are already great ideas that can solve the problem you are working on.

2. Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity, by Josh Linkner. For years, companies (including printers and mailers) have been trying to systemize their production process, and this has stifled the creative and innovative initiative in their employees. This book can help to energize the creative talents in your company.

3. The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. This sales book focuses on how sales is more than just selling a service, it is selling a solution and the sales person needs to engage the customer to understand what they really need.

4. Strategic Database Marketing 4th Ed: The Masterplan for Starting and Managing a Profitable, Customer-Based Marketing Program, by Arthur Hughes. This book is all about personalization, Arthur Hughes was doing personalized mailing long before Xerox invented the DocuTech (all the way back to the 1950s). This should be a must-read for anyone managing the data in an integrated campaign.

John Leininger is Professor Emeritus of Graphic Communications at Clemson University. He formally retired in 2018 but remains involved in the printing and mailing industry.

This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.