Marketing with Direct Mail: The Definitive Guide

This is the ultimate guide to sending killer mailshots in 2018. In this post I’m going to show tested strategies that have been used to create some of the most successful mail campaigns with real examples and hard numbers.

Let’s get started.

Each of the tips in this guide will lead to modest improvements individually, but when combined we’ve seen over 10X improvements in engagement, and a 325% increase in ROI. This is known as the long tail approach to postcard marketing.

Section 1. The 5 things you need to optimise

During a successful campaign, a reader will go through 4 distinct phases, resulting in 5 things to optimise, these are:

  1. They scan the mail
  2. They read the content of the mail
  3. They Store or Share the item (Optionally)
  4. They take action (Visit your website etc.)

Understanding the transition between these stages is the key to optimising your message. At any point in this journey, a reader can throw your mail in the bin, which is what we want to avoid!

All of the techniques in this guide will show you actionable easy to implement strategies for converting the reader through this journey. We’ll also give some practical tips on measuring and testing your campaign.

The infographic below shows this quite nicely:

2. Scanning mail – Grabbing their attention

The most common thing people do when they first receive mail is to scan it.

When people scan mail, they use the “Lazy” part of the brain. The only way to get through to this is to grab their attention with easy to digest information (images and text).

Simple easy to digest messages which focus on a single pain point

Look at the 2 postcards below. They are both postcards sent to customers to encourage them to buy a pair of glasses. They were both A/B tested against each other. The postcard on the left, had a modest response rate of 1.3%, whereas the right had a response rate of 2.8% that’s over a 100% improvement just from changing the headline of the postcard. The reason why this had such a huge boost is because it minimises the mental effort required to process the information.

Cut the clutter. Remove any extra words and avoid all unnecessary images. Remember less clutter means more clarity.

Tip: Always make your wording simple, so people can consume and understand your message at a glance. Lots of people will skim over your message before deciding to pay more attention.

Remember that the first goal here is to capture the reader’s attention and get them to read your message. Having an easy to read message will encourage them to process your headline, but we want the headline to encourage them to pay attention. You do this by focusing on a single pain point (A problem the reader is facing).

What problem are you solving? And what solution are you providing?

Always personalise your messages

If there is one rule we’ve learned, it’s that the best way to grab someone’s attention is to include their name, in a big bold and clear way, and personalisation doesn’t have to end there. The more personalised you can make the message, the better.

Imagery to grab attention

People have 5x stronger emotional reaction to images than words and are able to understand images more effectively with both the conscious and subconscious parts of their brains.

There are a few tricks here.

Firstly, make a connection no-one has made before.

When the human brain sees something unfamiliar for the first time, their brains kick into survival mode. “The Ventral tegmental area” is the region of your brain responsible.

This is why shocking, unconventional and surprising things often draw our attention. So, consider taking some extra time to find an image which stands out and is a bit different.

Here are some great example postcards which nailed this:


Don’t use photos which are too complicated or have a lot going on. Where possible use photos which are simple and clear with complementary colours. Take a look at the two dog walking postcards below. Which do you think was more effective?

3. Content

After you’ve got the attention of the reader, you don’t have much space to compel them to action your postcard. Depending on your goals, this is when you focus on a single message, that focuses on one pain point, and communicates this effectively. You don’t have much space, and you don’t want to fill up your postcard here with useless content. So, make sure you put a lot of thought into what specific message you want to communicate to your readers.

4. Encouraging the reader to store your postcard

The longer your mail lives in the household, the more chance you have of getting it actioned. The average postcard, once held is kept for 27 days. When this happens, average actions increase by a whopping 80%.

35.6% of mail gets stored somewhere temporarily (from the kitchen table to the fridge). When people store a piece of mail they are 3X more likely to remember a brand or message a week later.

Most businesses don’t use any of the tricks I’m about to show you, and it’s one of the biggest missed opportunities in direct mail. Especially when you see how easy they are to implement.

Tip #1 – Making the postcard useful

The goal of making postcards useful is to plant the idea in the readers head that says “I should hold onto this because it might be useful”. There are many ways to achieve this, but they all have one thing in common. They turn the postcard from something which has “information”, into being something which  has a physical “function” (i.e. not just a piece of marketing material).

Although there are lots of wacky and creative ways how people have achieved this (from making toy cut-outs for kids, to door hangers). These are novel and creative approaches that may not fit everyone’s needs.


The technique that will be most useful, is to use the postcard as a physical voucher or ticket, which gives the reader access to something.

Make the postcard a discount voucher

A common way to achieve this is to make the postcard a discount voucher. This works especially well for physical stores/businesses. But also, with online businesses by adding a voucher code which they can use online.

Add useful retain-able information

If you have nothing to offer then include a piece of useful information on the card so that it can be stored e.g. a phone number or directions. Make sure this is easy to find and clearly displayed.

Here is a mix of useful examples, and creative ideas to inspire making your mail more storable:

  • Adding a voucher code
  • Entering them into a free lottery with a unique code
  • Creating reusable postcard that they can be used for valentines/birthdays or another occasion
  • Providing contact information
  • Providing a game on the card for kids

5. Sharability – Opportunity to improve your reach

Post gets shared on average 1.4 times within a household. Sharing mail improves its reach and amplifies the effect of all the techniques previously mentioned.

There is another reason to make your mail shareable. Because the act of sharing your mail also means that people will remember your message and your brand longer.

Here are 2 quick and effective tips to making your mail more sharable.

#1 Making someone laugh

Humour is the most effective emotion you can use in mailshots to encourage sharing. Be careful where you use it and make sure that it’s not inappropriate. It needs to be genuinely funny and novel. Check out these examples:

A hilarious example of direct mail campaign for tooth implants.

KitKat made a fake version of a royal mail “could not deliver” letter.

#2 Personalise with their first name

Very often, someone else (not the intended receiver) in the household will see the mail first. By including the name of the intended receiver on the postcard, you increase the chance of the mail being passed on to the right person, and not being recycled.

6. Call to action – Make it worthwhile for people to take action

A lot of direct mail campaigns are sent with a specific goal in mind. This could be to encourage a purchase, to get people to sign up to a website, visit your store, or contact your business.

You need to provide prompts for an immediate response while your message is fresh in the heads of readers and are compelled by your value proposition. The call to action depends largely on what your goal is. What do you ideally want readers to do once they’ve read your message?

Include benefits in your call to action

Simply saying “Visit our website to find out more” is a start, but to improve the effectiveness, include benefits to doing so which align to the problem you sold earlier. E.g. “Visit <URL> to see our exclusive deals in Bristol”.

7. Tracking and measuring engagement

Now we come to the most important part of this guide.

If you realised that for a specific campaign, every £1 you spent was generating £6 of new business, you would probably throw a lot more money at that campaign. On the flip side, if you had a campaign that was not generating any income, you should cut or optimise that campaign. Seems obvious right?

Until you ask the question, “how do I know how effective my campaign is?”. This is the most mis-understood element of all postcard campaigns. Too often people rely on hunches, and feelings to determine how effective a campaign will be. Without tracking and measuring engagement, you have no any idea how effective a campaign is.

Important Tip – Measuring campaign responses, doesn’t need to be accurate to be useful. It is essential, and not doing so is shooting in the dark.

Offer discount codes

Discount codes are the simplest and easiest way to track a campaigns effectiveness. Simple messages such as “Claim 20% off this February with code MAIL-5” lets you measure how often that discount code has been redeemed.

Tracking URL’s

Web links are not just for email. You can also use them effectively in direct mail. By including a short URL on your postcards (such as with googles URL shortener you can track your campaign easily. Don’t forget that a lot of your readers won’t visit this link, but those that do will give you a good indication of how the campaign is performing.

Ask a subset of your users where they found you

If the above aren’t possible. Then just ask a sample of users how they found you. You can do this with a form on your website or asking customers how they heard about you.

Section 8: A/B test the right way

You’ll enjoy a huge amount of success and improved conversion rates with the techniques outlined so far, but without testing, you’re just shooting in the dark.

A/B testing (also known as split testing) is the process of testing different versions of your campaign and measuring what is more effective. It will tell you what text, images, and concepts work the best.

In this section I’ll show you the right ways and the wrong ways to test your campaign, and find out whats actually working.

The most common mistake – testing on too many users

When you test a concept and want to compare it to another version. If you test on too small a group you won’t reliably know if your result was down to chance (In other words it’s not statistically significant). On the other hand, if you test on too large a sample, you will have wasted your opportunity experimentation, and will be spending more on untested concepts. As a general rule, you want to send samples to the minimum number of people needed to be statistically significant.

Getting your sample size right depends on a lot of factors, there is statistical models for this. Which I won’t go into. Check out this optimizely tool for calculating optimal sample size based on statistical significance.

The concepts here are no different to A/B testing in any other medium. Except with mail it can be even more important (as mail is more expensive than email).

Check out Ginny Mineo’s article on this A/B testing sample size.

The right way – Test big ideas first, then iterate

Focus early on major differences, don’t focus on micro-optimisations. Got a great concept for a campaign? That’s great, but don’t stick with that single idea, and optimise that campaign. Instead pick another 2 or 3 big ideas and measure those against each other.

Don’t just play with visuals

It’s not just the design of the postcard and the messaging which you can optimise. The day of the week that post is received can have a significant impact on a campaigns effectiveness. E.g. An ad for a babysitter might be more effective just before the weekend, when parents are thinking about their plans for a weekend. Don’t make any assumptions here, the only way to know is to test!

Testing postcard sizes

Bigger post is more expensive, try your campaign on smaller and larger formats to determine if your achieving the benefit of a bigger card.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to me: “theo at postary dot com” or leave a comment below. Subscribe to the email list to get more exclusive tips for marketing in the mailbox.