This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Mailing Systems Technology.

Direct mail remains a popular and valuable marketing channel, especially when it’s part of a well-coordinated multi-channel campaign. Marketers have broad options when designing their direct mail pieces, and they need to make wise choices to ensure efficient production and optimal return on marketing investment (ROMI). Making the right choices in format, technology, and workflow will drive effective mail pieces that are delivered on time and on budget.

Choose the Best Format for Your Application

Among the direct mail formats available to marketers are enveloped letters, folded self-mailers, and postcards. Enveloped letters offer the most “real estate” for delivering your message. They also offer the option to include multiple components ― perhaps produced using different printing technologies ― that play different roles in connecting with the recipient. The letter offers two-to-four pages to make the pitch for your product or service. This pitch can, and should, be as personalized as possible so it resonates with each recipient. They should feel you are speaking directly to them and that your offer is relevant to their current needs. Other components in the envelope, such as brochures, buckslips, or flyers, can be more visual with heavy color and graphics usage to highlight the product or promotional gift. Mail pieces that contain a large amount of personally identifiable information (PII), especially financial or insurance offers, should use enveloped letters to better protect the PII they contain from prying eyes.

Folded self-mailers save the cost of producing multiple components, but they have design considerations of their own to remain cost-effective. The more complex the fold pattern, the higher the cost to manufacture a self-mailer. It’s also important to be sure your self-mailer design meets USPS automation requirements. In general, the final fold of the piece must be below or to the right of the address, and the piece must be sealed with glue or tabs in a pattern that meets USPS specifications. In addition, the maximum size of a letter-sized folded self-mailer is slightly smaller than for an enveloped letter (6” x 10.5” vs. 6.125” x 11.5”)

The simplest direct mail format, postcards, are best used when the message is short and simple, lends itself to a visual presentation, and no PII beyond the name and address need to be included in the offer. Due to their easy-to-produce, inexpensive nature, postcards can be a great “first step” into direct mail. Special postcard postage rates only apply for First-Class Mail, and then only if the postcard is no larger than 4.25” x 6”. If you are using USPS Marketing Mail (formerly Standard Mail), a postcard simply mails at letter rates.

Match Technology to Production Needs

Once you’ve chosen your format, you still have decisions to make about which of the various types of production technology you will use to drive the efficiency and effectiveness of your mail piece. If you choose to mail an enveloped letter, you’ll need to decide whether to use flexo or litho printing for your envelope. Flexo-printed envelopes can be efficiently produced in a single manufacturing operation, making them less expensive; however, they traditionally have had simpler art and lighter ink coverages than their litho-printed counterparts. But keep in mind, modern envelope converting technologies now allow flexo printing of four-color process images and use of coated papers and heavier ink coverages, so be sure to talk with your envelope supplier about the best printing option for your application. Litho printing requires a two- or three-step manufacturing process, so it is more expensive, but it allows heavier ink coverages, use of coated papers, and more complex images. The savvy marketer needs to weigh the potentially higher response a flashy litho-printed envelope may gain for the mailpiece against the cost differential of the two production methodologies.

Mailpiece components, self-mailers, and postcards can be printed or personalized on sheet- or web-fed devices no matter the technology chosen. Typically, this is a volume-driven decision. Faster set-up and less make-ready waste favor sheet-fed for smaller volumes (up to about 25,000­­-50,000), while running efficiencies strongly favor web-fed technology for larger volumes.

There are two technology options for personalization and digital print: toner-based or inkjet devices. When we look at monochrome (black) personalization on preprinted shells, toner is known for its high-quality output, working well over a wide range of quantities, and being the most common method used for this purpose. Inkjet is known for speed and is most often used for very large-volume projects.

In the digital print world, toner is again known for very high-quality reproduction, but due to relatively slow run speed, is most often associated with cut-sheet production. The quality of full-color inkjet print has improved rapidly over the past five to 10 years and is now very close to what can be achieved with toner. Because of its faster run speed, it has been traditionally associated with continuous input devices, but has been making strong inroads into the cut-sheet market as well.

Select the Optimal Workflow

Choosing the optimal workflow for a direct mail project incorporates many of the factors we have already discussed. A traditional workflow incorporates preprinted shell documents (usually produced on lithographic presses) with monochrome (black) personalization added in a separate production operation. A traditional workflow generally creates messaging targeted to groups of recipients with similar characteristics, resulting in multiple mailing packages due to different versions of the various components, which are designed to appeal to the different groups.

Because of the amount of versioning needed to create personalization and relevance in a traditional workflow, the volume of names, and consequently the postal presort qualification, within each version is relatively limited. Often in this type of workflow, once the mail is produced, the various versions will be commingled back into a unified mailstream, with its resulting efficiencies for presort qualification and postal logistics.

The alternative is a digital print workflow that incorporates a white paper-based manufacturing flow with full-color print and personalization in which all elements on the page are potentially variable. This data-driven approach to direct mail allows for true one-to-one messaging with the potential for each recipient to receive his or her own customized, relevant offer. To support the depth of variation that can be found in these programs, it is often necessary to employ a dynamic content management system to automate the versioning and proofing they require.

One of the advantages of a digital print workflow is that almost all the variation between individual mail pieces is managed within the digital print software. Because of this, physically separate versions aren’t needed, resulting in “single-stream” production. Since the full universe of names for the program is together in a single mailstream, native postal presort qualification is much higher and the need for commingling is much less.

Drivers when considering traditional vs. digital workflows include the amount of data available about the target audience, the number of variables used to create each mail piece, and the ability to transform these data and variables into personalized, relevant targeted marketing. Programs with uncomplicated messaging and minimal targeting are a solid fit for traditional workflow, while programs with highly complex messaging and individual targeting are best supported with a digital print workflow.

Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI)

As with anything related to direct mail, the focus in choosing elements for your direct mail format, technology, and workflow should be continuous testing, measuring results, and adjusting your approach based on your analysis. Choosing the right production techniques drives cost effective direct mail that gets opened and drives response, resulting in optimal ROMI.

Kurt Ruppel is Director Postal Policy and Marketing Communications at IWCO Direct. He is a member of the Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) and serves on the Board of Directors at the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA), where he is also Vice Chair of the EMA’s Postal Affairs Committee. He can be reached at