Direct Mail Formats

From postcards to letters to bowling balls with faces painted on, you can send pretty much anything through the post.
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You can send virtually anything through the post. In general, most direct mail will fall into one of these categories, no matter what formats: 

  • Brochures
  • Catalogues
  • Coupons
  • Fliers
  • Letters
  • Postcards
  • Packages / corporate gifts
  • Self-mailers

The formats you choose for your mail should be a function of the message, image, cost, target CPR, practicality and volume. Consider the requirements of imaginary Aubrey, Abigail, Antoine and Alfred:

Aubrey wants to sell a high ticket consulting service to a niche market with a small number of prospects but a high-value sale. She might choose to use a well-produced brochure format personalised with a handwritten letter. She couldn’t handwrite many, but the small volume and the connection she tries to forge with her prospects make this perfect. 

Abigail wants to hit every new business as soon as they startup. She uses a sequence of timed messages targeted to the specific niches she sells to. She doesn’t know much about the businesses she is approaching, other than the fact that they’re new and there are absolutely loads of them, so she uses a cheaper, instantly digested postcard format for her direct mail that she was able to find an online designer to create for her.

Antoine wants everyone to know about his car washing service in a local area, so he prints a load of cheap flyers that he knocks up on Word, and distributes via door drop using normal Royal Mail services (and a few friends). If Antoine moves from a £40 carwash to a £500 car detailing service, he might think about a more quality mail piece sent to specific households.

Alfred is in charge of a clothing company that needs to meet figures this quarter, so he sends out simplified catalogues to a targeted segment of his database with a direct response coupon included. There simply isn’t time to produce a full catalogue, so the focus is on variations around a few core money earners.

… and so on.  

A sales letter format supports a longer form copy, but it still needs to grab the reader and get them to commit to the action you need them to take. Sending a wishy-washy blog post through the post does nothing. You ain’t in Twitter now Dorothy, you’ve got 300-500 words per side to get attention, build interest and move to action.

A postcard is a short, snappy format piece that can’t be ignored. Nobody can miss your message, even if they’re sorting mail without opening it. You’ve got graphics and words, to get a call on your freephone or a visit to your landing page where the real sale begins. 

A self-mailer, or roll fold, is a two-sided piece able to hold a bunch of sales copy and exterior graphics. So, postcards combine the best of both worlds. It is however much more complicated to design and write for, so in practical terms, you may find yourself testing less than you should for the simple reason that updating designs is a such a pain.

The 2019 Multichannel Marketing Report from PFL determined that postcards (53%) and letters (52%) are the most popular formats, followed by dimensional mail (42%) formats (e.g. boxes or tubes). Postcards are most frequent, but not necessarily best at representing brand (dimensional mail, obviously, wins that one)

So, in summary, consider the following checklist to decide on suitable direct mail formats:

  • Customer Lifetime Value
  • Prospect avatar
  • Cost v Budget
  • Market size
  • List size and availability
  • Speed of production/lead time
  • How the mail piece fits into your brand
  • Practicality
  • The complexity of sales message
  • One or two-step sale
  • Expertise available for the creation of the piece
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