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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: A Thoughtful Approach to Direct Mail

By mid-morning I have upwards of sixty emails to read. In contrast, when I go out to my physical mailbox, I only find a few, well-designed mail pieces. In the first case, I do whatever I can to delete the emails without missing anything important. In the second case, I find it relaxing to look through the physical mail.

It looks like I’m not alone. I just read “How Much Does Direct Mail Cost,” written by Lynne Kingsley and published as an Ironmark blog. What it says about direct mail portends well for self-mailers, postcards, and other such commercial printing products. According to the research she includes, people tend to trust the permanent, physical nature of direct mail. It seems to stick in people’s memories better than email. They like its tactile qualities. And there’s a manageable amount to absorb, unlike online email.

So the hue and cry of several years ago that direct mail was ever so “yesterday” seems to be fading as direct mail printing makes a comeback.

What We Can Learn from Lynne Kingsley’s Article

(First of all, it bears reading, and it can be easily found online.)

What I found most helpful about “How Much Does Direct Mail Cost” was the mental to-do list it offers for planning and budgeting for direct mail products, as well as these two caveats:

  1. Direct-mail campaigns are recurrent, so plan for follow-up mailings.
  2. Direct-mail campaigns are incredibly effective, so consider direct mail an investment rather than a cost.

Here are some of the talking points from Kingsley’s article:

Consider your options. These include postcards, self-mailers, marketing letters, invitations, booklets, brochures, and catalogs, to name a few. Postcards have the benefit of a lower postage cost, plus they can be read without opening an envelope. If they are well designed, they can stand out from among the other mail and grab a prospect’s interest.

Things to consider include mailpiece size and thickness. Kingsley includes a chart, but what I would suggest is that you either research bulk mail online or visit a USPS branch and request a business reply mail book. Meeting the Post Office size requirements will save you lots of money, so consider the time spent learning about direct mail requirements to be a worthy investment.

Also, decide how you’ll be paying for postage. Research stamps, postage metering, and bulk mail permits (the mail “indicia”), as well as business reply mail permits in general.

Self-mailers go into the mail without an envelope. You start with a large, flat printed sheet, and you fold it down to mailing size. (Research this size. Too large, and you’ll pay a premium. The wrong aspect ratio of height to width, and you’ll pay a premium.) Heavy stock feels opulent. However, a mailer produced on cover stock will require more postage than a folded self-mailer printed on a commercial printing text stock.

Like postcards, self-mailers broadcast the mailer’s brand immediately, without the need to tear open an envelope. These days self-mailers are sealed shut with removable fugitive glue (a little like rubber cement). Unlike wafer seals (the prior method), removing fugitive glue doesn’t damage the printing.

Having designed a lot of these when I was an art director, I’d encourage you to follow size and paper weight specifications from the Post Office, and to make sure you’re not printing on areas of the self-mailer that should be left blank. This also pertains to wafer seal placement (if you use them instead of fugitive glue). (Research machinability and automated mail.)

If your self-mailer can go through all the automated mailshop machinery without causing problems, and if you have sorted and addressed the self-mailers correctly, you will reap postal discounts. It’s worth the research. (In fact, it’s also worth making friends with the Business Mail Specialist at your local Post Office branch. Show her/him your printed mock-ups for self-mailers, and ask for feedback.)

Kingsley’s article, “How Much Does Direct Mail Cost,” then goes on to discuss letters in envelopes. The only downside is this involves printing both the promotional letters and the envelopes. Plus it involves addressing the envelopes. One way around addressing the envelopes, however, is to buy window envelopes. If the address on the mailing letter shows through the window on the envelope, you don’t have to separately address the envelopes. This saves money.

(Research #9 and #10 envelopes. Your outgoing envelope will be a #10 envelope, and it can contain a #9 business reply mail envelope along with your marketing letter. Don’t rule these out. These are very effective, even if they involve printing the mailing letter and also buying envelopes. A few other things to consider are the size of standard vs. custom envelopes and the products they contain, how thick the envelope paper should be, and how many inserts the envelopes will hold.)

Kingsley then goes on to discuss invitations. Consider whether you want flat cards or fold-over cards. Make sure you’ll have room for the invitation, the reply card, the envelope for the reply card, and any inserts you want to include. Also, I’d encourage you to consider paper weight (24#, which is comparable to 60# text stock, or 28#, which is comparable to 70# text stock). When I used to design these, I’d make paper dummies of all inserts, make sure everything (based on size and thickness) fit in the envelope, and then hand off the mock up to the printer to make sure everything was printed and then inserted (mailshop work) as intended.

I’d also consider paper color and texture. There are some elegant or fanciful paper stocks out there to choose from.

Booklets, brochures, and catalogs! These days, intriguing design, including creative paper choices and unique use of gloss, satin, and dull coatings, can make booklets, brochures, and catalogs a real knock out. People can carry them anywhere and page through them at their leisure. You can even use these printed materials to direct clients to your website to further the marketing conversation. People trust the permanence of print. Take advantage of this, and also use the tactile benefits of these three sales tools to your benefit. (Play to the strengths of print: those qualities that set print apart from digital media.)

But, again, be conscious of size, thickness, and weight requirements of the Post Office. (Research postcard, letter, and flat.) If you keep to the size constraints, you’ll save money. If not, you might wind up sending a “package” or “parcel” by accident, which will cost you more (particularly over the course of a large mailing). Check these requirements online and/or discuss them with your USPS Business Reply Mail Specialist.

(Most printers now have not only mailshops in house but also postal employees right in the commercial printing plant preparing the mail for drop shipping. So you may do well to ask your printer about all these issues as well.)

Overall Costs to Consider

Finally, Lynne Kingsley discusses production costs. I found this most useful as a mental checklist:

  1. Creative (writing and design): Assume $75 to $125 an hour, and plan for one hour per page of anything your designer creates. This is just a starting point. If you make lots of changes to the design and copy, the price will go up. (I personally would not skimp on this. You can pay less, but how your printed product looks and how dynamic the copy is will determine the success rate of the marketing initiative.) Remember, this is an investment, not an expense. Personally, I’d base my choices of writers and designers on references from people I trust.
  2. Printing: Kingsley’s article, “How Much Does Direct Mail Cost,” notes $.10 to $2.00 per piece as a starting point for your budget. The cost will depend on everything from paper choice (consider printer’s house stocks) to number of inks printed, from page count to special bindings and paper coatings. I’d select a few printed pieces you like and find out what one or two printers you trust would charge to produce the number of copies you need. Then draft a specification sheet and share this with a few more custom printing suppliers, and you’ll get an idea of the total cost of producing your direct mail package. This is the time to find out whether your printer can perform all of the mailshop activities and then enter the final promotional pieces into the mailstream.
  3. Mailing Lists: Kingsley suggests that you assume up to $.30 per record (per potential client name/address). But if you use your own list, it’s free. Either way, make sure the mailing list has been cleaned (bad addresses removed), sorted, and CASS Certified (i.e., everything has been done to ensure accuracy and USPS formatting requirements). If you rent the list for multiple uses, the price (i.e., the average cost per record that you pay) will go down.
  4. Envelopes, Labels, Postage, and Fulfillment: “How Much Does Direct Mail Cost,” assumes $.25 to $2.00 per piece. You should get estimates, but this is a good starting point (a good list of necessary processes to consider when budgeting). Personally, I’ve used both dedicated mailshops and mailshops in commercial printing establishments. So I’d encourage you to shop around. In all cases, finding a knowledgeable, responsive advocate is more important than saving a few dollars.

The Takeaway

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Direct mail is making a comeback. People increasingly prefer printed mail to the overabundance of digital marketing mail they receive.
  2. Direct mail drives sales. It is an investment, not an expense.
  3. Don’t fight the US Post Office. Learn their requirements for size, weight, sortation, and mailability, and you will reap postal discounts.
  4. Find someone more knowledgeable than you to help with the process (a commercial printing sales rep, Business Mail Specialist at the USPS, etc.). But also research the intricacies yourself online and/or through USPS publications. Take the time to study, and you will reap postal savings.

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