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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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Custom Printing: The Power of the Outgoing Envelope

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Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that with urgent emails, promotional emails, and spam, I get between 150 and 300 emails a day. Even checking and discarding most of them takes time. In contrast, I get only a handful of physical mail (mostly bills and a few direct-mail pieces). Overall, the direct mail marketers have a lot more of my undivided attention than the email marketers.

In my opinion, direct mail has become a far more personal “conversation” between marketers and prospective clients. And I don’t think I’m alone in believing this. I also don’t think this reflects any great changes in physical mail design.

In this light, I want to discuss a few thoughts on how to ensure that your target audience reads your direct mail materials if your job involves writing, designing, or custom printing such mail.

Clean the Address List

First of all, send your marketing materials to those who will appreciate them. Granted, you won’t always know, but it doesn’t hurt to envision the prospective customer’s “persona,” comprising all of her or his likes and dislikes, hobbies, political preferences, etc., to ensure that the list of addresses to which you send your direct mail reflects this demographic information.

This also means that you should make sure the addresses are complete, accurate, spelled correctly, and current. Your Post Office can help you do this.

Mail list hygiene isn’t really a design decision, but it will at least get your direct mail package or self-mailer in front of those people more likely to be interested. That benefits both them and you.

The Outgoing Envelope

In marketing and publications, this is called the OGE (outgoing envelope). Unless your mail piece is a self-mailer (folded, sealed, and addressed, along with a mail indicia for postage payment), your first job is to get the prospective client to open the envelope. Personally, I usually throw out mail addressed to “Occupant” or “Homeowner.”

But the outgoing envelope is far more than its addressing. When you’re designing direct mail envelopes, consider their size, paper, color, material, texture, and weight.

Here are some thoughts:

Envelope Size and Shape

Custom envelopes that are of an unusual size will attract reader attention. For instance, I’ve received large envelopes, tiny envelopes, square envelopes, and even custom envelopes in the shape of something else (like a truck or a key). Keep in mind that the Post Office will charge more to deliver large envelopes (ask the business mail advisor at your Post Office about the difference in size between letter mail and flat mail, or research this online). Also research surcharges for square custom envelopes. I believe most of the surcharges reflect such things as the difficulty (vs. ease) of automation in processing your mail. If you comply with the rules, you get the discounted rate.

Odd sizes will cost more, but if they increase reader interest (in a material way–and a measurable way), this may be worth the cost. Think of it as an investment.

Color, Texture, and Weight of the Custom Envelope

I recently received a very dark envelope with very serious looking and minimal print in black ink. Needless to say I opened it immediately thinking it was something official and bad. It turned out to be for a funeral parlor. Granted I did throw it out, but the outgoing envelope certainly succeeded. It got me to open the letter.

Other textures or colors (maybe a felt finish, maybe a bright color) can be relevant to what you’re selling and also both a tactile and a visually satisfying experience.

In this light, by increasing the weight of the envelope paper, you can make the entire mail piece seem more official. (People associate heavier paper with a sense of gravitas.) You might want to talk with your printer about 24# vs. 28# envelopes. The former is the regular weight of 60# text paper, while the latter is comparable to 70# text paper. Using 28# paper is also smart for larger envelopes that may contain more marketing materials, since the paper is both thicker and more durable than 24# stock.

Alternatives to the Paper Envelope

An alternative totally different from a colored and textured paper outgoing envelope is a transparent plastic envelope. I’ve received envelopes that have big windows showing what’s inside the envelope, but I have also received totally clear envelopes.

One that comes to mind was for a grand-format inkjet printer. It was made entirely of transparent plastic sheets heat welded into envelopes. I was intrigued. The marketer had done her/his homework and knew I was interested in offset and digital commercial printing. So I not only opened and read the marketing materials, but I also kept the package and wrote a PIE Blog article about it.

You may even choose to forego the envelope entirely and send a self-mailer. Make sure your Post Office approves the paper, design, placement of barcodes and addresses, size and format, etc., before you print, since there are a lot of regulations (which as noted earlier actually allow your mail to proceed smoothly through automation, thus reducing the postage you pay). It’s better to get Post Office approval than to print the job and be sorry when it can’t be mailed or when it incurs a surcharge.

If you send a self-mailer, you can incorporate unique folds (check out Trish Witkowski’s Foldfactory videos online) and seal the proper panels with fugitive glue.

Unique print products pique the reader’s interest. And this sells.

Envelope Personalization

Generic mail gets tossed. Personal mail gets read.

I’ve received direct mail stamped with indicias and meter stamps, but I’ve also received mail with precanceled stamps that are for direct mail use but that look a bit like the “Forever” stamps you buy at the Post Office. These make the envelope look like a friend sent it to you (unless you know what you’re looking at).

Some marketers even choose a typeface for addressing the letter that looks like handwriting, also making the direct mail package look more personal (certainly more personal than a Crack ’N Peel custom label affixed to an outgoing envelope).

When you combine this with clear, accurate, well-chosen addresses vetted for their appropriateness for your message, you’re on the right track to a sale.

These little tricks can get your direct mail package opened, and that’s the first step in interesting your reader in your message and potentially making a sale.

The Power of Cross Media Marketing

All the better if you can key this direct-mail product into a website (home page or personalized landing page). Everything I’ve seen and read suggests that combining physical direct mail and online marketing can drive sales exponentially, because this marriage of technologies allows for a two-way conversation between the marketer and the prospective client. You can receive a direct mail piece, become interested in the content, and then contact the company and request more printed and virtual information through an online portal.

A Reflection on the Quality Product or Service You Offer

Ultimately, your direct mail package is not only a description of the product or service you offer but also a physical product in and of itself, reflecting the quality you promise and your attention to detail. You can convey all of this through your design, paper choices, and every other element of your direct mail piece.

The Takeaway

Each day we go to our mailbox and make an often instant decision as to what to throw away and what to open, read, and even keep. This is based on such visual cues as the custom envelope’s color, shape, texture, paper weight, level of transparency—or, if it’s a self-mailer, based on the intricacy of folds, the typeface, whether there is an indicia or a precanceled stamp that looks like a real stamp. Details matter.

Plus, a direct mail piece (comprising the overall design of all elements) is a physical sample of someone’s (sometimes even a commercial printing vendor’s) design and printing work as well as proof of their attention to detail. So the piece “sells” on many levels.

If it directs the reader to a website or a personal landing page, it even takes advantage of the synergy of cross-media marketing, giving you more sales oomph than either a website by itself or a direct mail piece by itself.

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