A Direct Mail Horror Story


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Getting your company’s message out to the buying public doesn’t have to be complex or expensive. Direct mail is perhaps the most targeted and cost-effective vehicle for communicating to an audience.


But direct mail can only produce results if it delivers a gripping message or offer, is produced and printed professionally, and is used in conjunction with an up-to-date mailing list complete with an individual’s name.


Before you have the piece typeset or order mailing labels, take into consideration several factors which could affect the bottom line. From proofreading to printing to proper postage, producing a direct mailer properly is no small feat. Planning the entire process is the key to successful implementation and results.


Here is a real-life example of a direct-mail project gone awry, rampant with mistakes from which we all can learn.


A division of a major international corporation needed to produce 7,000 newsletters for a client firm and hired a small, independent consultant to coordinate production of the direct mailing.


  • The design firm hired by the consultant designed the piece oversized by one-eighth inch, resulting in an extra 10 cents postage to mail each piece. Multiply this by 7,000 quantity, and the total extra cost (i.e., not in the budget) was $700.


  • The piece was printed with a first-class mailing indicia; however, it should have been printed with a third-class indicia. This was the client’s fault for not reviewing the mechanical artwork properly prior to approving the piece for printing.


  • Rather than mail all 7,000 pieces at first-class rate, only 1,000 were mailed to a select group, using existing labels produced by the client. The remainder of the newsletters were to be mailed using a bulk-rate indicia “crack and peel” sticker affixed over the printed first-class indicia, which cost $125 to print and $200 to affix. (Running total of extra costs thus far: $1,025.)


  • After 1,000 newsletters were mailed, the client noticed (too late, unfortunately) that there was a 3 x 5-inch space left empty in the headline. For example, it was supposed to read “John Doe’s Newsletter” but read instead, “John Doe’s.” Although a large portion of the front page was left blank, this was the type of mistake that only the client could have picked up on. A corporate decision was made to reprint the entire 6,000 newsletters remaining to be mailed, with the correct headline name. (Add $2,000 to running total of extra costs incurred, for a total figure thus far of $3,025. Note that it would have cost more to downsize the piece by one-eighth inch, so the decision was made to just reprint in same oversized format. Also note that the stickers were never used.)


  • In the midst of all this, the client installed a toll-free 800-number which had to be printed on the piece. After the newsletter name and 800-number were added, the piece was reprinted and 4,000 newsletters were then mailed at a bulk rate of 23.3 cents each. Unfortunately, the 800-number was almost identical to another company’s number, and the client ended up paying for incoming calls resulting from people dialing wrong.


The consultant was out of the picture entirely by this point. As a result, the division head of the major corporation had to get involved directly because too much money had been spent unnecessarily.


  • Two thousand newsletters remained to be mailed. The client changed its 800-number and had to buy 2,000 stickers with the new 800-number (add to running total $100 to print stickers, $100 to affix, for total of $3,225). The client decided to mail the newsletters to a new mailing list and bought a mailing list on computer disks without testing prior to purchasing. However, no one in the company could open the disks, which were unreadable.


Time and money were being wasted at this point!


The subtotal was $3,225 spent unnecessarily; this does not include the cost of changing the 800-number, paying for wrong numbers dialed to that number, the cost of computer disks, and the cost of hiring yet another vendor to read the disks and print labels. Not only was the original newsletter designed wrong, but it looked unprofessional, with bulk-rate and 800-number stickers all over it.


The moral of the story is to think “big picture” during every step of the project, evaluating each detail no matter how minor it may seem. Here are some factors to consider when planning your next direct mail project:


  • Consult the vendors and consultants who are knowledgeable about postal and mailing regulations. Seek expert advice prior to designing the piece to be mailed, and certainly before printing. It is helpful to call the mailing-requirements department of the postal service before hiring an outside vendor, and then using the information gleaned to “test” their knowledge.


  • Be aware of design. Determine the proper size and weight of the mailer based on your overall budget. Postal surcharges are added for overweight and oversized pieces. Know the weight, size, and type of postal rate (first-class, third-class bulk, etc.) that the mailer will have prior to designing the piece, or you may be adding extra postage on the piece that you didn’t count on.


  • Check artwork every step of the way. Check the rough proofs and mechanical artwork yourself, and have one or two other persons check as well, especially before approving the direct mail piece to go to print. This is important because making adjustments to the piece after it has been typeset is costly and simply wastes time.


  • Ask questions of vendors. Don’t rely on word-of-mouth recommendations alone to make vendor decisions. Communicate throughout the entire process. Ask to see samples of work from printers and check for quality and turnaround time. Don’t be afraid to ask even the simplest of questions before starting a project; think about the vendor as a business partner-you’re both in it together! Mistakes can often be avoided if information is shared, particularly in the early stages. For example, by informing the computer-list broker of the type of computer system your company has, the broker can provide disks in a format that can be used to produce labels.


  • Take a close look at the mailing list. Request a small “test” sample of a computerized mailing list to test compatibility with your computer to print labels. Lists that haven’t been updated or contain missing information could cost money, create a delay in delivery time, or cause nondelivery.


  • Have a game plan and stick to it. Don’t shoot from the cuff and change decisions three-quarters of the way into a project. For example, if a select number of names are to be mailed several weeks later than the rest, inform the printer and the mailing house early, and document this in writing. Be as literal as possible to avoid misinterpretation at any stage of the process.


By adhering to the direct mail “checklist,” you can keep costs in check, avoid nightmares, and rest easy that the project will run smoothly!

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