Direct Mail Piece

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When it comes to creating a great direct mail piece, design plays a crucial role. But direct mail design involves more than just the colors and imagery on your piece. An effective design guides your prospects through your advertisement and drives home your marketing message in a visually appealing way. Great design also adheres to your brand standards and helps you create a cohesive brand image that’s easily recognizable.

In this guide, we’ll review the most important steps in creating a great mail piece: planning, designing, and proofing. Whether you’re creating your own piece or working with a company that’s designing it for you, you’ll find valuable direct mail design tips to improve your ads. Let’s get started.

  1. Mailing costs are an important consideration when measuring your direct mail results. Consider, for example, a mailing package that includes multiple components, all printed in four color, fully personalized and mailed first class. This package could cost you $1.50 per piece.
  2. Choose a Class of Mail. Decide which service best fits your campaign. Which mail rate will you use.

Plan Out Your Direct Mail Piece

Planning out your direct mail piece ahead of time will help you streamline the design process by keeping you organized. Plus, if you encounter any problems down the road, you can revisit your initial strategy to get back on track. Follow the steps below to develop your plan.

Know Your Target Audience

.MBI Direct Mail, Inc. Is a facilitator for EDDM® and EVERY DOOR DIRECT MAIL®. MBI offers services related to the printing and setup of the mail piece. Postage and mailing of EDDM® mail pieces are the responsibility of the customer.

It’s nearly impossible to design an effective direct mail piece if you don’t know who you’re targeting. Understanding what your audience wants helps you create a persuasive design that complements the copy you write. You’ll want to know things like how much information your prospects need, what offers they will respond to, and what kind of images will resonate with them before delving into the rest of the design process.

Identify the Goal of Your Piece

Another important step in planning your direct mail piece is identifying the goal or intent behind it. Why are you creating your advertisement in the first place? What are you hoping to achieve in terms of results?

Knowing the goal of your piece (and your campaign as a whole) helps you hone in on the message you want to send and informs your decisions about copy, imagery, and format. Speaking of which…

Choose the Right Format

With your audience and goal in mind, it’s now time to choose which direct mail format you’ll use. By format, we mean the type of mail piece you’re sending – menus, postcards, brochures, etc. Format is important because it dictates the amount of copy and images you can fit onto your piece. If your goal is to provide plenty of detail about your products or services, a larger piece like a brochure might be the best choice. On the other hand, if you just want to announce a sale or provide a few coupons, a postcard is probably your best bet.

It’s also important to consider the effect you want to have on prospects when they open the mailbox. In most cases, the larger the piece, the larger the impact. For example, using a large postcard to announce a sale is more likely to grab your prospects’ attention than a small flyer. However, keep in mind that the larger you go, the higher the price.

For more information on direct mail formats and which is best for your needs, check out our article, What Is Direct Mail Marketing?.

Organize Copy Effectively

There are several key copy elements that usually appear on every direct mail piece. These include but are not limited to:

While there are no hard and fast rules for placing these copy elements, there are some basic principles to keep in mind. First, your headline should always be in a prominent place and in a larger typeface than your subheadings and supporting copy. Additionally, your offer and CTA need to stand out clearly since they’re the most important parts of your mail piece. Adhere to these simple guidelines, and you’ll ace one of the most important parts of direct mail design.

For help writing these key components, check out our companion piece on how to write direct mail copy that sells.

Develop a Grid Layout for Your Piece

Pro Tip

Before you move on to actually designing your piece, familiarize yourself with USPS mailing regulations. You don’t want to create a beautiful design only to find out you didn’t leave the proper space for the address panel. In most cases, you’ll be designing from a template provided by your direct mail or printing company and won’t have to worry about compliance. But it’s good to be aware.

The final step in planning out your mail piece is creating a grid layout. The term “grid layout” comes from the traditional use of graph paper to help line up your design elements. While using graph paper is no longer common, the term is still used today.

Copy elements should be laid out in plain text, showing placement and size relative to how it will be designed once planning is completed. Use image placeholders (dummy images), and don’t worry about choosing your background at this stage in the process. You can spend more time fine-tuning your image and color selection later.

Planning your piece ahead of time using a grid layout helps you establish flow throughout your advertisement. Plus, it allows you to identify problem spots on your piece that might trip audiences up as they read. Start with three variations so you have some options and narrow down to your final layout from there.

Design Your Direct Mail Piece

After you’ve finished planning out your direct mail piece, you’re ready to start designing. Keep the following in mind as you work on your ad.

Be Strategic with Fonts

The font you choose for your mail piece also plays a significant role in how readers perceive your ad. Keep the following in mind as you format the text:

Stick to one or two typefaces. While it’s tempting to use flashy fonts on your direct mail piece, your best bet is to use one or two typefaces that are easily scannable. Keep in mind that your prospects are quickly flipping through their mail and don’t want to decipher a jumbled mess of fonts.

Make sure it’s easy to read. In most cases, you’ll want to select a sans serif font (Arial) for your ads. Sans serif fonts don’t have small accents at the end of each letter stroke like serif fonts (Times New Roman), so they look uniform and simple. This makes them easier for readers to scan and quickly comprehend.

Vary font size to add visual interest. Try using several different points (also known as weights or sizes) of the same font to jazz things up. Just remember to base your choice of font size on the importance of each copy component (i.e. put the headline in the largest font size).

Utilize White Space

Incorporating white space is another important aspect of effective direct mail design. Simply put, white space is the empty area between the different elements of your design (such as your logo and your CTA). Keep in mind that white space refers to the blank area on your piece, not an actual color. White space plays an important role in emphasizing the most important parts of your piece, while also keeping your ad from being cluttered and overcrowded.

Use Imagery Wisely

When it comes to making your direct mail piece memorable, imagery is one of your most powerful allies. Carefully chosen graphics get people’s attention and increase the likelihood of them reading your piece.

Always use as much lifestyle imagery as possible on your direct mail pieces. Pictures of people using your product or service the way you want them to helps prospects understand how your offerings will enhance their lives. Don’t just show readers what your product or service looks like – illustrate for them exactly how they’ll benefit from it.

Here are a few more tips for using imagery effectively in your direct mail:

Use high-resolution images. A high-resolution image shows a lot of detail. Technically, it should be 300 dpi (dots per inch) in your image editor to print at this recommended quality. This makes your pieces look crisp and professional. On the other hand, low-resolution images are often blurry and look unprofessional.

Avoid backgrounds that are busy. The background is the area or scenery behind the text and other design elements of your piece. A background can be an image, color, or pattern. One that’s too complicated can distract prospects from your message – the main object you want them contemplating.

Don’t put text on top of images. The text on your ad can become hard to read if it’s overlapping an image. If you’re using an image as a background, try stamping out part of the image and replacing it with a solid color to make the text stand out. Or, manipulate the text so it’s on a less busy part of the image.

Careful editing is the final step in designing a great direct mail piece. To make sure your ad is as effective as possible, proof it yourself and then have others look at it as well.

Proof the Piece Yourself

Start by proofing your ad yourself to catch obvious mistakes in your copy, like misspellings or grammatical errors. You’ll also want to pay attention to whether or not your images clash with one another. Finally, make sure you haven’t strayed too far from the original goal of your piece and that your messaging is consistent throughout. Taking time to reflect on the finished product always helps you produce a stronger advertisement.

Ask yourself the following questions as you proof your direct mail piece:

  • Does the overall design of your ad flow and make sense?
  • Are there any places where the copy is unclear or confusing?
  • What’s the main point you’re trying to emphasize on your piece? Is it coming across clearly?

Additionally, you should always be sure to proof the tracking information on your piece. Verify your tracking phone numbers, QR codes, and marketing links are working and going to their intended destinations. To learn more, check out our guide on how to track direct mail.

Have Others Proof Your Design

Ask your employees, coworkers, friends, and family members to evaluate your ad and provide candid feedback. You can even share your piece with customers who visit your shop to get their impressions.

Getting the opinions of impartial third parties helps you create more effective mail pieces. And the extra sets of eyes can catch mistakes you may have overlooked since you’ve seen your ad repeatedly during the planning, design, and proofing processes.

Ask others who proof your piece the following questions:

  • What is your main takeaway from the piece? Make sure it matches your intended goal from the planning stage.
  • Is the ad visually appealing?
  • Is there anything on the piece that’s difficult to understand?


It’s important to remember there’s no such thing as a “perfect” design, so your goal should always be continuous improvement. One of the best ways to improve your work is to test several different designs against one another and compare the results. Keep in mind that all testing should stay closely married to your brand to help you build brand recognition with your audience.

Creating a cohesive brand and using great design helps you present your marketing message in a consistent, logical, and visually appealing way. Ultimately, your design joins the important elements of your direct mail ad together to create a unified piece prospects will engage with and respond to.

Type “What is direct mail marketing?” into a search engine, and you’ll get all kinds of results. They range from brief definitions of direct mail to tips on design and choosing the right mailing list. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at direct mail marketing. This includes what it is, who uses it, what types of direct mail there are, how it ends up in the mailbox, and what factors determine the cost. Our goal is to give you a solid understanding of what direct mail marketing is and how it works.

Let’s get started.


What is direct mail marketing? Direct mail marketing is the making and sending of advertising materials through the mail. It includes audience research, list building, and more.

What is direct mail? Direct mail is advertising mail not requested by the recipient. Direct mail comes in a variety of formats and usually includes an offer.

Who Uses Direct Mail Marketing?

Businesses and organizations from a variety of industries use direct mail marketing. Restaurants, grocery stores, and auto repair shops send menus, coupons and promotions. Politicians, charities, and nonprofit groups send donation letters, brochures, and campaign postcards. Even tech companies use direct mail marketing to reach their prospects. Any business that sells a product or service is a good candidate for a direct mail campaign.

Direct Mail Pieces That Work

Does Direct Mail Work?

It does! The upward trend in response rates over the years shows direct mail’s effectiveness. According to the 2018 DMA Response Rate Report, direct mail got an impressive 9% (house lists) and 5% (prospect lists). Direct mail response rates are higher than all forms of digital advertising – combined. You can learn more about how awesome direct mail is in our Is Direct Mail Dead? article and infographic.

How to Send Direct Mail

There are two main ways to send direct mail: shared mail and standalone mail. Shared mail is when advertisers share space with other businesses in the same mail piece. Standalone mail is when advertising is its own mail piece.

Shared Mail

Shared mail (aka marriage mail) is direct mail marketing where advertisers share space. Predefined mailing areas make a separate mailing list unnecessary. The advertisers split the cost of postage. Both of these make shared mail very cost-efficient, sometimes as low as a few cents per household.

Examples of shared mail include Valpak, RedPlum, and Clipper Magazine.

There are several size and placement options available for your ads in a shared mail piece. You could choose a full-page ad in a circular, or a flyer in an envelope with other offers.


  • Low cost
  • Broad reach since they’re distributed to everyone in a particular area


  • Your ad is with dozens of other ads
  • You’re likely to appear alongside your direct competitors
  • No personalization options
  • Lower response rates
  • Sent to predefined mailing areas on set schedules
  • No targeting options

Standalone Mail

Standalone mail is anything not grouped with other advertisements. Standalone costs more than shared mail because you’re paying for everything. Most of the time, standalone mail requires you to provide or buy your mailing list.

Standalone mail is how you send direct mail postcards. You can also use it to send self-mailers and envelope mailers. There are endless possibilities for the format and presentation of standalone direct mail. As long as you meet certain USPS size requirements, the only limit to how creative you can be is your budget. Mail Shark sends standalone mail only.


  • One-on-one communication with the recipient
  • Countless format and presentation options
  • Target audiences based on demographics, geography, psychographics, etc.
  • Personalize for each recipient
  • Higher response rates
  • Can have broad reach or target a specific audience


  • More expensive than shared mail

Types of Direct Mail

There are six types of direct mail (also called mail pieces, products, formats, or mailers). But what are mailers? A mailer is any piece of direct mail, no matter what shape or size it is. Below are some of the most common direct mail formats and some popular use cases.

Direct Mail Postcards

Postcards are a low cost option and the most common form of direct mail. You can choose from a few sizes.

Best For:

  • Appointment reminders
  • Thank you cards
  • Prospecting
  • Promotions

Direct Mail Letters

Envelopes help protect the contents of your letters from prying eyes. Because there is more than one piece, they cost more than postcards or folded self-mailers. There are various options for envelope color, size, and material.

Direct Mail Pieces For Real Estate Agents

Best For:

  • Confidential mail
  • Mail with more than one component (letter, brochure, order forms, etc.)


Self-mailers (brochures, menus, etc.) don’t need an envelope, so they’re a low-cost option. They’re made from a single folded sheet of paper or card stock and are sometimes tabbed or glued to keep closed.

Best For:

  • Explaining products and services in depth
  • Offering lots of coupons

Catalogs and Booklets

Catalogs and booklets are multi-page mail pieces with a bound edge. They’re available in a variety of sizes and are almost never sent in an envelope.

Best For:

  • Showcasing a lot of products and marketing content
  • Informational packets

Circulars, Inserts, and Wraps

Circulars, inserts, and wraps are an efficient and cost-effective marketing format. They’re printed on lightweight paper. Inserts and wraps appear inside or around larger pieces like newspapers.

Best For:

  • Distributing print coupons
  • Product and sales advertisements

Parcels and Dimensional Mailers

Parcels and dimensional mailers aren’t flat like postcards or letters. Their design and size help you grab your prospects’ attention, but they can be costly.

Best For:

  • Mailing to a small group of high-value prospects

Direct Mail Mailing Lists


Now you know what direct mail is and what it looks like, but how does it end up in people’s mailboxes? Shared mail is self-explanatory. No mailing list required. Choose from your provider’s available, pre-defined mailing areas.

For standalone mail you need to decide who to mail to, and then get a mailing list. We’ll go over the two main types of mailing lists below.

Once you’ve decided who to mail to, you’ll have a better idea of the delivery options available to you. While you can send direct mail through FedEx or UPS, most goes through the USPS. But you might use FedEx or UPS if you’re overnighting a parcel or dimensional mailer.

Mailing List Types

You’ll need to decide who you want to reach before sending your campaigns. We’ve included the USPS delivery options available based on the mailing list type below.

Video Direct Mail Piece

Saturation Mailing Lists

If you want to reach most of the people in a single geographic area, choose a saturation mailing list. With this type of mailing list you’ll mail to entire ZIP codes or carrier routes. Saturation mailing lists have few targeting options, so the cost is low. Saturation mailings should be in walk sequence and meet the 90/75 rule, which helps keep the costs low. You can rent a saturation mailing list from a broker or list provider.

Benefits of Saturation Mailing Lists
  • Allows for the lowest postage rates
  • Ideal for businesses that offer goods and services most people need
  • Use median demographics for carrier routes for your mailing
  • Perfect for drawing large crowds and announcing events, new locations, or products
USPS Delivery Options for Saturation Mailing
  • Marketing Mail (Standard Mail)
  • Every Door Direct Mail® (EDDM®)

Targeted Mailing Lists

If you want to reach specific demographics, choose a targeted mailing list. These lists can be filtered by geographic, demographic, and psychographic selects, among others. Because a targeted list uses selects to find the right audience, it costs more than a saturation list. You can rent a targeted mailing list from a broker or list provider. You can also build and maintain your own house mailing list.

Benefits of Targeted Mailing Lists
  • Ability to segment your list by almost any criteria imaginable
  • Reaches a more specific, qualified audience
  • Better potential response rates than using a saturation list for the same marketing
USPS Delivery Options for Targeted Mailing
  • First-Class
  • Priority Mail
  • Marketing Mail (Standard Mail)
Pro Tip

Pricing out each component of your campaign can be time-consuming and frustrating. A direct mail company can work with you to choose your pieces, design and print them, and help you get a mailing list. A good company will also keep the total cost within your budget.

Direct Mail Costs

Are you wondering how much direct mail costs? As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into direct mail marketing that can influence the price you pay. Here’s a quick overview of the main costs of direct mail marketing:

  • Mailing List: Saturation lists cost the least. If you need a very specific audience, you’ll want to choose a targeted list. The more selects or filters you add to a targeted list, the more expensive it gets.
  • Design: The price you pay for your design can vary depending on a variety of factors. If you create your own design in-house, you could save some money. Having someone else do your design often comes with a fee, but some providers include it for free.
  • Printing: Print costs vary based on the quantity and complexity of what you’re printing. The smaller and simpler the format, the lower the cost to print your pieces. Adding variable data printing (VDP) and high-end materials or finishes increases your printing costs.
  • Postage: Several factors determine your final postage rate. Marketing Mail and EDDM®bulk postage rates are lower than First-Class and Priority mail. Your format and mailing list type will determine which of these are options.

Lower Your Postage Costs with Discounts

One way to lower your costs is through postage discounts. The discounts you can get depend on how much prep work you do for the post office. Whenever you save the post office time or money, you get a postage discount. Actions you can take to receive postage discounts include:

  • Presorting, or grouping, your mail together by ZIP code
  • Standardizing and verifying deliverable addresses using CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System) certification software
  • Running your list through the National Change of Address (NCOA) database
  • Formatting your mail pieces to meet USPS machinability standards
  • Including an Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) to meet USPS automation requirements

Mail Shark can provide these services for you to make sure you get the lowest possible postage rates.

What’s Next?

You’re well on your way to understanding direct mail marketing. If you’d like to learn more about direct mail, check out these other resources:

Or, if you’d like to discuss direct mail with one of our experts, give us a call or fill out the contact form. We’ll walk you through how direct mail can benefit your business.