Of all the elements we consider as we produce printed communications, the importance of the envelope is often overlooked and under-appreciated. Envelopes can have a significant impact on postage costs, payment processing, and customer response rate. In other words, it would be a mistake to discount the envelope’s potential!

How does something as old and foundational to the mailing process get overlooked and underutilized? Look no further than your mailbox. It happens all the time: Mail is delayed or, worse, rejected because the basic elements we all should know about envelopes are forgotten, mishandled, or simply not applied. Proper envelope design is essential to ensure that postage is optimized. The slightest increase in any dimension can move the piece from USPS “letter-sized” to “flat” and the postage costs skyrocket. To be specific, the piece inside may not require the envelope size used but the postage is charged on the size/dimension of the mailed piece, which the envelope dictates.

For envelopes, the areas of consideration that I want to highlight fall into four areas highlighted below.


Diving right in, design is a very important consideration. There are USPS regulations related to envelope design that most mailers discover are easy to find and follow. The USPS design requirements focus on getting the mail piece delivered through the USPS network. In process, the envelope could travel through several processes (manual and automated) before it is delivered. To achieve (timely) delivery, it must allow the processing equipment to efficiently operate, highlighting the need for barcode clear zones and other standardized elements necessary for high-volume mail processing. These requirements are not restrictive, per se, but can become so when they are not incorporated into the envelope design. They can literally stop the mail and cause it to be returned or mailed at retail postage rates. An investment in time reviewing your design with a USPS Mailpiece Design Analyst (MDA) is recommended. Here is a link to this valuable resource: https://postalpro.usps.com/mailing/mailpiece-design-analyst-mda-customer-service-help-desk.

Reply Envelope Type

Although reply envelopes often look unassuming, unnecessarily plain, and are represented as utilitarian only, they are one of the most critical elements in a mail package. There are some simple things we all should know and consider about reply envelopes. The two most common “versions” we see in our industry are business reply (postage paid by business requesting payment) and courtesy reply (postage affixed by respondent). Both are effective but we must consider their purpose and our desired outcome to properly use each in an optimal manner. The USPS compliant artwork needed for each is available to anyone via the same MDA link provided above. It should also be noted that they do not have to be “plain” and can be designed to stand out in the envelope, inviting the recipient to send it in! By using colored stock or appropriate graphics, this can easily be achieved.

The prepaid postage on business reply envelopes is generally used to incent timely response for a request for payment (bill pay). Yes, many people still mail in their payments! The tenet here is that the respondent will act more quickly if they do not have to pay for postage. It may seem old-fashioned and strange to some in the industry, but this idea has stood the test of time and is still effective today. The courtesy reply envelope has its own unique requirements but can be effective. In the recent past, when tested against each other, the BREs would win every test. This is no longer true. Now, BREs and CREs perform about the same when measured solely on response rates. There is an oddity related to this testing: When organizations that regularly use one type of return envelope (“Champion”), and then test the other type against it (“Challenger”), the Challenger does better. This points to the fact that people generally notice the change, which provides an uplift in response!

Operational Stability

All envelopes have a purpose. All are generally used in automated inserting environments and should meet the specifications of the equipment manufacturers to optimize productivity. These can be difficult for most people to understand and are often not accounted for as capital equipment is acquired. Thankfully, there are great partners in the envelope industry. They have a great deal of experience with all types of equipment and can often recommend product that will ensure that there will be no disruption to the throughput of your operation. They know about glassine, high speed equipment processing (feeding technologies, etc.), OCR technologies, and USPS compliance and can help mitigate any issues with your mail as it is produced in your operation and when it gets to the USPS. They are waiting for us to engage and discuss issues with them to maintain and sometimes increase productivity.

This gets more complex as we need to stabilize and manage envelopes for both the outgoing and incoming mail processes. I address the outgoing process in the previous paragraph. Many often overlook the processing of incoming mail associated with claims, payments, return mail, and other incoming business communications. We must ensure that the automated processes associated with managing this incoming mail stream are fully optimized and free of issues that slow down revenue recognition, cash recognition, or settlements associated with medical claims. Any disruption in these processes can be catastrophic to an organization financially as well as very damaging to their reputation.

Available/Valuable Space

Finally, we should all take advantage of the space our envelopes provide for us to manage their appearance and reinforce branding. Our business units are always looking for space on the documents themselves which can be difficult to find. We overlook the fact that the envelope is the first thing the recipient will see. A properly placed message, pleasant appearance, or well-placed brand reminder will help the document arrive inside the recipient’s home (ahh, success!). In my daily routine, this is called the “driveway sort.” I go to my mailbox every day and on my return to the house, the mail is sorted into two piles: Going into the house and going into the recycle bin. Often the decision is made for me by the appearance of the envelope. I know enough about mail to look at the postage and try to discern a few things about the contents but even for a “geek” like me, appearance makes a difference. If nothing else, it allows me to see things I think are creative and add them to my personal collection of pieces I use as examples during my presentations (good and bad).

In conclusion, the envelope is a valuable and powerful tool. It can be the difference between success and failure as you send printed communications for your business. The worst-case scenario is that the envelope is poorly done and cannot mail or cannot mail at presorted rates (financially, this can be disastrous). The best-case scenario is that you remember to engage the proper resources, do a great job, and the mail reaches the intended recipient to drive the behaviors/outcomes your organization desires; all at the preferred USPS rates that were budgeted. The great part is that the choice is yours and the resources needed for success are available and waiting to help you succeed.

Mark Rheaume is a Services Engineer, Enterprise Services Sales Engineering, at Ricoh USA, Inc. He has over 35 years of industry experience developing, designing, and implementing solutions. Mark is and has been an active member in several postal industry associations as a board member, speaker, and writer. These associations include: MTAC, Idealliance, NPOA, PCC, MSMA, Mailcom, NPF, and Printing Industries of Minnesota. He can be contacted at Mark.Rheaume@ricoh-usa.com.

This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.