What Makes Direct Mail Effective?


Your Mailing List

How old is the data you are thinking of using? What’s the source of the list? Is it reliable?

You might have your own database of customers, prospects or responders to your other marketing campaigns. This is great news, but only if you’ve kept the lists up to date.

You may be thinking about buying a list, again this can be a good option but make sure you understand what you are buying and that the list source is a reputable one.

You should never underestimate the importance of having an accurate list. That means checking names (including spelling), job titles, and address and postcode details.


Have you developed a detailed profile of the target market for your direct mail, or have you fallen into the trap of thinking anyone, or any business, will be attracted by what you have to offer?

ontarget At the most simple level you can target mailings on the factors given below:

  • For Consumer Mailings – age, socio demographics, life stage, geographic location and lifestyle.
  • For Business Mailings – industry sector, size (by employees or turnover), geography, decision making process and job title.

In addition for both audiences think about their potential motivation for buying – greed, fear, reward, etc.


Understanding Your Prospects Go beyond the profiling data and think about your prospects. What do they think, feel, and want at the moment? What do you want them to think, feel or do as a result of your mailing?

Not all mailings will require a response; you may simply be looking for a change of perception, or a better understanding of your service.

Getting the Content Right


Be very clear about what you want to communicate. Only clear, simple messages will be understood. Avoid long words, long or complex sentences and of course avoid jargon that the reader might not understand.

What is the single-minded proposition, and given that most direct mail is looking for a response are you very clear in your ‘call to action’ – what you want the reader to do next?

The discipline of writing a direct mail letter is different to writing to your great aunt. Your prospect may have no or little immediate interest in getting a letter from you – so you have to grab their attention straight away.


The overall structure of the letter itself is very important – remember many people won’t get beyond the subject line and opening sentence. So you’ve got to grab their attention immediately.

Keep your opening paragraph brief and state your reason for writing. The body of the letter can then give a bit more detail; maybe brief details about the product or service and the benefits your recipient will receive from using it. You might need to give a simple example, case study or testimonial.

Closing the letter is very important too. What do you want the reader to do next? Is it absolutely clear? Maybe at this stage ask someone else to read the letter and what he or she would do if they received it.

The layout of the letter is very important. The subject line should be engaging and possibly in bold, a different font, centred or enlarged. But to be honest it’s the words rather than the layout that’s important here.

Be direct and clear.

Think about things like a special offer, discounts and announcements. Use trigger words, like ‘save’, ‘free’, ‘special’, ‘offer’ but don’t over do it and only use the words if they are true.

Additional Tools

In some sectors you need to get cut through even with the type and style of envelope you use. In consumer markets a message on the outer envelope can often ensure the letter is opened. In a business-to-business environment a hand written envelope might get you through the gatekeeper.

You may want to send supporting materials with your letter. Make sure that whatever you are sending is relevant and looks part of a whole. Bear in mind that the type of consumer mailings that we are all used to receiving all of the materials are designed to work together. You may have heard that the more inserts there are in a pack the better the response rates. This can be true, but only in specific sectors (mail order being one) and only where the mailing has been designed as a whole, not a few things that have been thrown together in the same envelope.

Planning for Success

The same rules apply to a direct mailing as would to any marketing activity.  Plan, or else.

Firstly you should have very clear, quantifiable objectives for the mailing. How many responses do you expect and what will you do if this isn’t achieved?

Make sure you brief everyone in your business about the mailing – better still get them involved in developing the mailing, they may have useful ideas.

Set up a simple system for monitoring response and following up response, quickly.

Be clear on how responses will be followed up. Will responders be sent more information? Do you want to arrange an appointment or can you sell directly over the phone?

Hopefully your direct mail letter won’t be the only marketing activity you undertake so don’t forget to gather information from respondents, if only to clean the list you have built up.

The Secrets of Success

Some recent statistics report average response rates of 8.8% to consumer mailings and 8.4% to business-to-business campaigns (2006 data). So direct mail can be an effective tool in your marketing armoury, if you know the secrets to success.