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Designing with the Post Office in Mind

Using Creative to Keep Down Postage Costs

Direct mail has emerged as a powerful and respected component of many advertising campaigns. It is cost effective, measurable, and has a response rate that matches or exceeds most other forms of media. According to the US Post Office, almost $200 billion in business-to-business sales annually are attributable to direct mail. The numbers for consumer sales attributable to direct mail are even higher.

Designing Direct Mail pieces presents some unique challenges. First, we need to create multiple visual pieces that are visually striking, well organized and compelling in order to have the prospect open it, then read it and, ultimately, respond to it. There's a great body of knowledge out there that's been amassed over years of successful direct mail campaigns about what works and what doesn't. We'll go over some of the basics and point you in the right direction to learn more.

Types of Mail Items

It's always been important, when creating a direct mail piece, to keep in mind the United States Post Office's guidelines for sizing and orientation, so that you can take advantage of favorable rates and handling. Here are the basic sizes and shapes to work with when you start your creative process:

Item Min. Height Max Height Min. Length Max Length
Postcard 3.50 inches 4.25 inches 5.00 inches 6.00 inches
Letter 3.50 inches 6.125 inches 5.00 inches 11.50 inches
Flat   12.00 inches   15.00 inches

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To qualify for the card rate, your piece can be no larger than 4.25" x 6.0". Interestingly, the First Class mailing rate for postcards of this size is lower than Standard rates. So, if a postcard is an appropriate vehicle for your message, you can get the word out fast by sending it this way.

Postcards can be very cool. If you use a striking visual, and some good choices of color, you can get an effective message delivered at very low cost. The nice thing about postcards is you don't have to worry about the prospect not opening it- you're almost assured they will see your message. This is great if you are out to create awareness of your offer through frequency- since the Postcard is low cost, you can send many of them to the same mailing repeatedly. If they don't respond to your offer the first time, they may on the third or fourth try.

Envelopes, Letters and Flats

The most popular envelopes are the 10, the 6" x 9" and the Monarch. Using standard envelopes can save a lot of money, but the trade-off is that your piece may not stand out among other offers the prospect receives. To qualify as a letter, the orientation of the piece must be horizontal, or landscape, and the piece must be longer than it is tall with an aspect ratio (length divided by height) of between 1.3 and 2.5. Using a square envelope, which might be visually striking, will cost you more to mail than the standard letter sizes. The price increase results because officially, the piece won't be a 'letter' anymore, it will be a 'flat', which is basically an envelope that doesn't fit the letter guidelines and is considered a non-machinable letter.

There are basically two rates you should know about for letters and flats: Standard and First Class. We won't list the actual rates here. Call us for the most recent rates. Under most circumstances, Standard rates are less expensive. You will find additional savings because we address the item properly and use postal automation guidelines when preparing your mail.

It is likely there will be some situations where you would want to use First Class, even though it may cost more, because the item will be delivered quicker. Some savvy mailers like to make letters look 'personal' by actually using 'live stamps,' which are the kind of stamps you would use on your own mail at home, versus metered postage. This can be more expensive, but could substantially increase the percentage of letters you send that get opened by your prospects.

Getting It Opened

Both letters and flats have proven to be the great vehicles for making a substantial offer and achieving the best response rate. But you need to make sure that the piece that you spent so much time working on doesn't get thrown away without being opened. One extremely important component of an envelope-based direct mail campaign is what's called the 'OE' offer. This is an enticement that you've cleverly placed on the outer envelope (OE) to compel the prospect to open the envelope. Obviously, this has to be some well-written copy that immediately conveys the importance of your product or service. Just as importantly, it needs to be in a font, color, and perhaps, accompanied by a striking graphic or picture, that makes it jump off that envelope so the prospect just has to open your piece.

An alternative technique is to use a 'blind' envelope, which might look like a bill or an important government notice. Sometimes this type of mailing is done with no return address. The nice thing about blind mailings like these is that you can meter the postage, and use barcodes, so you'll get the benefits of automation discounts from the Post Office. Plus, you can use a standard, off-the-shelf envelope, which is sure to be the least expensive piece you can use, besides a postcard.

Once It Is Opened

Once the fantastic choices of design, size, shape and color you've made for the outside of the piece have paid off and the prospect opens it, don't blow it by having something boring and forgettable inside. Often, direct mail pieces have several items inside, starting with a letter. The design and content of the letter is key to the success of the entire program; in fact, many direct mail campaigns begin and end with the letter. With the right letter, you might not need anything else inside that envelope! Keep it short and to the point. By the way, 'free' is still everyone's favorite word in direct mail: Amazingly enough, it always generates the best response from offers.

One of the most important things to remember about direct mail is that the more personal it is, the better it will be received. So if you can include the name of the prospect in the letter, you'll almost always get a better response. This will cost more, but it will be worth it. After personalization, the next most important thing is called the 'Johnson Box', a bold and centered statement at the top of the letter, typically just below your letterhead and often separated by a bold line from the rest of the letter. Make the big offer here, or state your value proposition. Next, keep the copy of the letter short, focused and succinct.

Don't go crazy with fonts: This is the letter, not the brochure. The one exception to this is to use 'Cross Heads', which are bold headlines in the middle of the letter (between paragraphs), which reinforce the offer. Another thing that works really well is fake handwriting. It sounds funny, but this has also proven to gain additional response rates when combined with the other effective tools we've discussed in this article.

The final, tried and true technique for direct mail letters is to end them with a PostScript. For example:

PS: If you order today, we'll give you a free set of steak knives. So call now!

Studies have shown that even when people ignore everything else, they read the Johnson Box and the PS.

The Brochure

The bigger and fancier the brochure, the more it will cost. Multiple pages, thick stock and fancy binding are going to add up to real money over a run of thousands of pieces- not just in the production of the piece, but in the mailing costs, too, because of the weight. Depending on what you're selling, you might do well by simply using an 8.5 x 11 double-sided, process color sell sheet with some great looking photography. You could include a headline and the contact information on the photo side, and use the back for the nitty-gritty product details. Another cost-effective technique for Direct Mail is to take that 8.5 x 11 form factor, and turn it into a tri-fold self-mailer. You'd want to use at least a medium-weight stock for that type of brochure. Even 100# cover stock at this size only weighs about 0.6 ounce per piece, which is substantially below the maximum weight allowed for both First Class (1 ounce) and Standard mail (3.3 ounces).

Place your company name and logo prominently where your customers can't miss them! And make sure it's easy to find out where to contact you: put your phone number in a prominent place and in larger type! The aforementioned headline should be in the top right-hand corner. Studies have shown that's where everyone looks first. If you are using a multi-page brochure, additional graphics or images can provide impact and help sell the product. It sounds basic, but including customer testimonials can be extremely effective in bolstering the credibility of your offer.

Reply Cards or Envelopes and More

The old adage in the direct mail game is, 'The Letter Sells, The Brochure Tells, The Reply Card Compels.' This really provides a great outline to follow when designing your mailing and deciding how to layout your various pieces.

In addition to the letter, you may want to include that brochure we talked about, and you certainly will want to include some sort of response piece, such as a reply card or envelope.

Every key element in your package should include a mention of your offer, as well as your company's name, address and phone number. You never know which item will end up on top when the prospect tears open your envelope. And if they keep just one of the items, because for some reason it caught their eye, its got to have your contact information prominently displayed. Make sure the offer is clear. People don't like 'fine print' and are hesitant to respond to offers that they don't completely understand.

Make it easy for people to order. A reply card with the prospect's information already filled in and ready to be put into an envelope is going to be a hit with customers; again, this personalization will add to the cost of your campaign, but might just be worth it. Make sure the response device is well organized and offers plenty of room if the recipient is required to fill in a form. There's nothing more frustrating than form fields that are too small, or that make the person filling it in jump around the piece.

Automation Discounts and Other Technical Considerations

We help you achieve a substantial discount from the Post Office by providing what they call "automation compatible" mail with barcodes. By inserting the barcode in the proper location on the mail piece, we make it much easier for the U.S. Postal Service to process your mail. However, a barcode alone will not qualify your project for automation discounts. In order to receive any cost-savings, together we must meet all requirements for the automation postage rates.

While polywrap, polybag, shrinkwrap, clasps, strings, buttons, or similar closure devices may increase your mail costs, studies have shown these items help increase response, so they may be worth it to you.


Contact us for all the details about automation discounts and the other technical considerations we have discussed. With some projects, you could actually spend more to meet the automation rate requirements. Meeting the requirements entails that you take additional steps during layout and design that you may otherwise not spend the money to do. And with other projects, it could be even more expensive to design a piece that requires hand processing by the Post Office. We can help you determine if taking the extra steps to meet the USPS requirements are worth the savings in the end.

As you can see, direct mail can be both cost effective and just plain effective. By following these simple guidelines, you'll create pieces that will help you win the hearts and minds of your prospects without breaking your budget.


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