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March 16, 2017

4 Steps to (Correctly) Build a Direct Mail Operation

Lob has had a front row seat for all the mistakes customers make when they begin to build out a direct mail operation. We're laying out this guide because we believe mail is a powerful communication channel when used the right way by enterprises, and we also believe the way it's being used today is not maximizing its potential.

Companies need to have a clear strategy when using direct mail to engage a user base. Know who you're trying to incentivize, and what exactly you are trying to get them to do. The guide below should help you start on the right foot when scaling a direct mail operation.

1. Finalize your use case, pre-design

First and foremost, be imaginative. Whether the use case is in marketing, operations, or product, don't let "real-world challenges" get in your way when building a direct mail operation.

  1. What's your desired outcome from the user opening the piece of mail? Is it operational, like paying a bill? Is it marketing-based, like trying to re-engage a customer who made one purchase before going dormant?
  2. What pieces of data can you use to influence that desired outcome? Your marketing team may have a user's home address and the information from their most recent abandoned cart. Your ops team may have all of a user's medical history or financial information.
  3. What's the best form factor to communicate that data? Weigh this carefully. Think about the relative amounts of real estate and security each form factor offers.
  4. A real estate agent may prefer to send a postcard for marketing purposes, because none of the information on it (resident's name and mailing address) is confidential. The lack of an envelope means it grabs attention right away, like the headline does below.
A real estate agent's direct mail operation: programmatic customized postcards
  1. How to hook a prospect? Tell them exactly how much cash they can earn for their specific home.
  2. A health insurer may prefer an envelope for operational purposes, because the extra security of an envelope is mandated by both common sense and by law when handling extremely sensitive patient data.
  3. What's your timetable? When should people be receiving this collateral? What events should trigger the mailing of the piece(s)?
  4. In the case of bills and other key operational mailings, the answer is probably 'right away'. Work backwards to ensure you're in position to collect for services rendered, accounting for time in design, printing and shipping.
  5. In the case of marketing followups and retention offers, the answer is probably 'it depends'. Is a postcard with the unique promo code going to reach the customer exactly 60 days after their first purchase? Again, cement your use case and work backwards.

2. Design

Based on your finalized use case, come up with a design that delivers the right data to elicit the right response from your target demographic. Make sure the design flexes on the different triggers or timings you want to use.

A well-designed mail piece allows for fluidity, customization, and personalization.

No two users should get the exact same artwork. Personalization is often a multiplier of ROI with direct mail: a little effort to make the recipient feel specifically noticed goes a long way. In the example below, ezhome maps out recipients' properties and includes a fully custom quote on their postcards.

Dynamic done well: every ezhome postcard is relevant only to the recipient.

A good mail piece is easily iterated upon. A/B testing is vital, and can lead to small but meaningful improvements. We highly recommend that companies leverage tools like HTML to build and render their artwork for all mail types.

HTML offers a lot of flexibility, allowing you to quickly and easily change data to generate truly dynamic content. This will allow you to quickly iterate on existing designs and launch new ones that are just as flexible and adaptable to your triggers.

Use HTML in your direct mail operation!

3. Find the right partner

There are two key dimensions to evaluating a production & fulfillment partner:

  1. Operational excellence: your partner should have quality, capacity, and redundancy in spades. If you're seeing pixels out of place, only hearing about bottlenecks after you send over the designs, or replacing files, look elsewhere.
  2. Forward-thinking: your partner should embrace disruption. They should see an API-driven approach to direct mail as a challenge to evolve, not as an existential threat.

Word of advice: you'll find a lot of partners who are good at 1 or good at 2. Take the time to find a partner who is good at both. When you're truly ramped up and cranking out cutting-edge direct mail campaigns on par with email, the search will have been worth it.

4. Get up and running. Quickly.

Finally, to do direct mail well, you need to play by the same rules you do with email. Time is of the essence, no matter what your use case is. Any time spent setting up supplier relationships takes away from time spent figuring out how to optimize your mail pieces. Sending a special offer in a birthday card that arrives two weeks late is a self-defeating exercise. That's doubly true for transactional mail like financial or medical bills.

If you're not able to A/B test and iterate on mail as easily as you can A/B test and iterate on email, your direct mail operation will become a liability rather than an asset. The key to all of this is leveraging an analog channel without all the baggage of doing it the old-fashioned way.

Implementing a Direct Mail Operation

If you've worked through these 4 steps, you've done the hard part. When it comes time for implementation, a mail partner's job should be to help you execute without bogging you down.

At Lob, we're building the best technology platform possible to help our customers architect direct mail solutions the right way. Learn more about our print and mail APIs here.

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