We Analyzed 39 Bad Direct Mail Campaigns. Here Are Common Mistakes to Avoid

Direct mail is a terrific medium.

Mail makes it easy to reach targeted households, and it engages multiple senses, which impacts information retention and brand recognition. Unlike digital messages, postal mail is immune to spam filters and ad blockers. It gets opened and enjoys a read rate far exceeding that of other channels.

Direct mail has plenty of advantages that make it an important component of most marketing strategies, but it costs more to produce and deliver than the digital alternatives. Mail requires a financial investment, which means you need to pay attention to the details to optimize your direct mail campaigns. Direct mail mistakes can erase all of the email’s advantages and wreak havoc on your budgets.

For these reasons, marketers must be careful as they consider the aspects of their direct mail campaigns. A mistake will kill the effectiveness of your efforts. Unforced errors can make your investment in creative design, materials, and postage to be wasted. An unsatisfactory direct mail experience may discourage you from trying mail again, and you’ll miss out on what postal mail has to offer.

Fortunately, working with direct mail experts and a platform like Postalytics can protect you from many common direct mail errors. Postalytics can’t prevent all the things that can make a direct mail campaign go bad, though. That’s why we’ve written this article—to make you aware of the pitfalls and help you take steps to navigate around them.

If you’re unfamiliar with Postalytics, here’s a short overview video.

The most common direct mail marketing mistakes

In this article, we’ll look at common direct mail marketing mistakes. You’ll see for yourself how mailpieces can make the wrong impression on the recipients or poor execution can cause a campaign to fail.

Here are the 10 most common direct mail marketing mistakes

  1. Failing to meet the minimum mailing dimensions.
  2. Dark/black background color on mailpieces.
  3. Poor screening and imaging.
  4. Return address placements on letters and flats.
  5. Text or graphics in the Barcode Clear Zone.
  6. Messy postcard designs
  7. Insert shift
  8. Folded Self-Mailer construction
  9. Address placement on flats
  10. Requesting uniquely assigned BRM ZIP+4 Code

You can spot some of these mistakes in this comparison of good and bad direct mail marketing examples.

The good news is you can avoid the mistakes that result in bad direct mail. Very few direct mail campaigns go astray because of circumstances the marketer could not have anticipated or prevented. The wounds are nearly always self-inflicted, and prevention is the cure.

Some areas we’ll be exploring to help you avoid common mistakes

  • Planning mistakes
  • Misaligned targeting
  • Poor data quality
  • Postal regulation issues
  • Quality control failures
  • Confusing messaging/call to action
  • Follow-up failures
  • Fulfillment problems
  • Questionable design decisions

Planning Mistakes

We’ve all heard that failing to plan is planning to fail, and this certainly applies to mailed communications. You can avoid many of the other mistakes on our list by ensuring you develop a comprehensive strategy for your direct mail efforts before you jump in and start making decisions about the campaign.

The plan starts with a specific and measurable goal. If your goal is a vague idea about “generating more sales” then your direct mail campaign will be disappointing. You may book more sales by pure chance and benefit a little from brand recognition, but you won’t see the results you were hoping to achieve. Unfortunately, companies launch direct mail campaigns every day with no real thought put to the desired outcome.

A more effective goal would be “to increase direct sales of widget #1 to suburban middle-income families in the tri-state area by 15%”.

Can you see how powerful a specific goal can be? By being more explicit, you’ve identified which product to promote, defined the target audience, specified the sales method, and set a measurable goal. Now you can compare every decision related to your direct mail campaign to see if it supports your goal or not.

See this guide for developing a direct mail strategy.

Goal establishment is just one part of the strategy. You’ll also want to decide about budgets, timing, follow-up, specific calls to action, integration, consistency with other brand messaging, and other details.

Good direct mail marketing campaign strategies include elements such as:

  • Objective
  • Target definition
  • List source
  • Volume
  • Mailing frequency
  • Offer/call-to-action ideas
  • Mailpiece format
  • Mail induction target dates
  • In-home target dates
  • Mail class
  • Postage allocation
  • Testing plan
  • Fulfillment strategy
  • Integration/timing/triggers with other channels
  • Review/quality control/approval process
  • Budget

Misaligned Targeting

Sending direct mail marketing pieces to the wrong people happens for three reasons:

  1. You haven’t defined your buyer profiles well enough
  2. You don’t have the data you can use to filter out unlikely prospects
  3. You didn’t take the time to filter the list

Making any of these mistakes means you are wasting money. That may not matter much if you’re sending emails that cost practically nothing to create and deliver, but every piece in your direct mail campaign costs money for paper, ink, handling, and postage.

Failing to screen out people you know won’t be buyers also affects the ROI of your campaign, which can have a detrimental effect on your career or your ability to secure approvals for future projects. Think about it. Sending mail to someone with a zero chance of responding is just adding to the expense with no possibility of revenue. Why would you do that?

Some filters are insanely easy to apply, depending on the characteristics of your targeted customers. If your campaign is about women’s shoes, then remove all the men from the mailing list. If you’re promoting retirement communities, the age of the recipients would be a limiting factor. Deceased people don’t buy exercise equipment and prison inmates won’t be getting the invitations to attend retirement planning seminars sent to their home addresses. Don’t spend the money to create marketing pieces almost guaranteed to produce no results.

In other cases, the filtering is a bit more sophisticated. Don’t send offers for add-on accessories that won’t work with the product customers just bought from you, for instance. Besides being a total waste of money, these mistakes make it seem that you don’t know (or don’t care about) your own customers—something sure to irritate anyone who might otherwise be a fan.

If your mailing lists lack the data you need for filtering and targeting, seek help from companies that can enhance the data by appending information to your records.

This article discusses targeting and segmentation.

Poor Data Quality

Most experts agree that personalized direct mail boosts response. An abundance of data and digital printing technologies have made personalized direct mail an easy thing to accomplish—unless incomplete or inaccurate data makes your personalization efforts look silly or incompetent. Nothing screams mass-production more than a personal-looking letter addressed to the Ohara or mcdonald family where the casing is obviously wrong. Always make sure you define a default value in case a variable data field is blank. Address your direct mail letters as “Dear Customer” if the first name is missing. “Dear FirstName” just doesn’t cut it.

Data quality problems with mailing addresses can even prevent mailpieces from being delivered to the intended recipient. Luckily, you can standardize and update postal addresses. Address hygiene capabilities are built into Postalytics but if you are not using our platform, be sure to use address correction software before you mail. The US Postal Service can revoke postage discounts if your mailing includes too many addresses that you should have corrected.

Learn more about address verification here.

Postal Regulation Issues

Violating postal rules can result in postage increases or surcharges. The USPS can even refuse a mailing and send it back to be corrected. If you are using a knowledgeable mail service provider or a service like Postalytics, you won’t have to worry. Business owners who construct their own mailings, however, may not be aware of standard mailpiece sizes, aspect ratios, address placement, mail classes, or ancillary services. Making a mailpiece an eighth of an inch too tall or orienting the address incorrectly can add an expensive surcharge to every mailpiece and blow your budget.

The US Postal Service publishes guides that cover every aspect of mailpiece dimensions, designs, addressing standards, and many other topics. They also provide experts called Mailpiece Design Analysts who will review your proposed mailpieces and provide feedback regarding regulatory compliance.

Here’s a brief tutorial on USPS approved mailpiece sizes.

Quality Control Failures

Quality control can cover a lot of areas. Inconsistent trimming, mismatched mailpiece elements, inadequate ink coverage, and skewed address blocks have all caused direct mail problems. Most embarrassing are spelling or grammar mistakes in the text of your direct mail pieces. These will immediately turn off prospective customers, giving them the impression that your company doesn’t pay attention to details.

Something as simple as a synchronization error can cause large numbers of mailpieces to bear personalized information from two different individuals. Too many address lines or lines that are too long cause critical delivery information to be obscured by envelope windows. Mixed-up data files have been known to cause personalized messages to be sent to the address of someone else in the database.

The types of errors that can occur increase as mailings become more complex. It pays to double-check all aspects of the mailing job before you print and do spot-checks of the final product before the mail is turned over to the USPS.

Confusing Messages or Calls to Action

It’s a sad state of affairs when you’ve done all the work to get the attention of a prospective customer and then they don’t understand the message. This often happens when you don’t segment or personalize your content. Sending the same “one-size-fits-all” letter to everyone on the list requires the recipients to sift through the text and determine what parts, if any, apply to them. Making it too hard for customers to tell what action you want them to take is sure to depress the results.

Another common mistake is trying to pack too much content into a direct mail package. Keep it simple and make what you want the customer to do next completely obvious. Too many choices often paralyzes people and they won’t take any action at all.

If you bury your call to action in the content of your mailpiece (or worse, it’s not there at all) the best you can hope for from a direct mail campaign is an improvement in brand awareness. If customers might be unclear about exactly what you want them to do once they receive your mailpiece, there’s no point in sending it.

A call to action isn’t always a direct sale. You may want people to view videos on your website, talk to their neighbors about political issues, or register to receive an e-newsletter. Whatever action is desired, make it easy with obvious phone numbers, QR codes, website addresses, or donation reply cards.

Follow-up Failures

Just like any kind of advertising, direct mail works best with repetition. Plan for multiple mailings to the same list, each time filtering out those individuals who have already responded. Augment your direct mail campaign with email, text messages, phone calls, website banner ads, etc. Marketers will see better results with multiple moderately priced mailings than with a single expensive distribution.

Consider linking your CRM system to your direct mail platform to trigger a pre-designed set of mailings scheduled to be delivered at regular intervals.

Postalytics integrates natively with several popular CRM systems and to the rest via Zapier. Click here to see how your CRM connects to Postalytics.

Fulfillment Problems

Follow up a direct mail campaign by handling the responses as they arrive. Here’s a case when your campaign plan comes into play. You should know approximately when your mail will arrive at the destination addresses. Be prepared with enough telephone operators to handle the calls if a phone response is expected. Be ready with a procedure to send additional items, such as enrollment packets, posters, or other materials promoted by your mailing.

Don’t let your direct mail efforts go to waste, and be ready to respond. A direct mail campaign is often the gateway to more marketing and lead nurturing efforts delivered online. Mail is extremely useful for this purpose, so a mailpiece that directs interested customers to a website or social media where you can enrich the relationship throughout the buyer’s journey is a smart move.

Questionable Design Decisions

Direct mail provides a large canvas on which you can present your material, but don’t crowd it with too much text. Keep the messaging simple and easy to read. Avoid color combinations that don’t provide enough contrast, such as white text on a yellow background, and make design decisions based on your target audience.

If your market is senior citizens, for instance, make sure the images and typography will appeal to older adults. Avoid edgy designs or cartoonish fonts and keep the small print to a minimum.

See this article that includes great mailpiece design ideas.

Final Thoughts

Direct mail is a powerful marketing channel with characteristics that separate mail from all the digital alternatives available to marketers today. Though commonly thought of as a simple and mature process, direct mail marketing is full of opportunities to make mistakes that can cause campaigns to fail.

An easy way to leverage direct mail, especially if unfamiliar with the channel, is using a platform like Postalytics that takes care of many of the details for you. Companies can try direct mail in a safe, directed manner even if they have small mailing lists that most print and mail service providers are hesitant to process without adding minimum charges.

Even with Postalytics, postal mail is substantially more expensive to produce and distribute than electronic messages, such as email or text. A bit of education, carefully considered plans, attention to detail, and built-in quality checks and safeguards will protect a marketer’s investment in direct mail and increase their chances of campaign success.