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Direct Mail Mistakes That Can Cost Thousands


1.  Designing a Folded Self-Mailer Using the Old Rules

January 2013 new rules for folded self-mailers (not booklets) were put in place that reduced the allowable size, altered folding parameters, and increased tabbing requirements.  Now, a folded self-mailer can be no larger than 6” high x 10.5” wide and cannot be open along the bottom.  The only options are that it is open along the top or the left trailing edge.  Also, tabbing has been changed to require more tabs for a piece that weights over 1 ounce.  Finally, be careful of paper stock: the minimum basis weight for a folded self-mailer is now 70# text (more if the piece is perforated or die cut).  Ensure that your mail piece design is presented to your mailing expert prior to finalizing the piece.

2.      Flat-Size Address Placement

This is very critical, because the USPS charges First Class rates to any mailing that does not comply, even a nonprofit mailing.  The rule is that any flat-size mail piece (magazines, catalogs, etc.) requires the address to be entirely in the top half.  This is regardless of copy position or graphics.  Generally, the top half is defined as the upper part when you hold the piece with the stitching to the right.  The “top-half” is why you see so many magazines delivered with the address upside down in relation to the cover.  This rule does not apply to First Class Mail.

The Postal Service separates mail into four shape categories: cards, letters, flats, and parcels.  There are different rates and preparation standards depending on the shape.  Letters are the least expensive for the postal service to handle, and are the least expensive to mail, excluding first-class postcards.  USPS defines a letter as a minimum of 3 1/2 x 5 inch (height x width) to a maximum of 6 1/8 x 11 ½ inch.  If your mail piece exceeds these dimensions, it is classified as a flat and you pay about 50% more than a letter for first-class postage and a greater increase for Standard Mail.  Thus, it pays to see if a piece larger than 6 1/8 x 11 ½ inches can be folded or reformatted into the dimensions of a letter.

3.      Nonprofit Issues

The USPS is strict regarding nonprofit (Standard) mail rates.  A difference in organization name, return address, content in the mail piece or post office of mailing will, at best, delay your drop date.  At worst, you could be forced to pay around 40 percent more in postage.  Make sure you have your nonprofit details in order, when designing the mail piece and deciding to which post office your mail will be delivered.  Remember that a small difference in organization name on the mail piece versus what the post office has on file could raise a red flag.

4.      Postcard Design

First Class postcards have a low postage rate with speedy First Class service.  However, there are many limitations on the design of these pieces and, while they are a great medium in which to convey a message by mail, failure to properly design them can result in some big postage penalties.  Here are some rules to keep in mind:

  • The maximum size if 4 ¼” x 6”, and it has to be a single card, unless the second-half is a reply card.

  • Designers must allow enough room, around 3.75” – 4” wide x 1.5 – 2” high, for the barcode and address.

  • The USPS mandates that either the entire right half or the entire top half be reserved for the return address, indicia/stamp and outgoing address.  Technically, no other copy is allowed in that area.  If you violate this rule, you could be charged higher “letter-size” postage rates.

  • Do not design vertically – 6” high x 4 ¼” wide.

  • There is no “postcard” rate for Standard Mail.  If you are a commercial mailer, not a non-profit, you should mail First Class when mailing a postcard.  You will actually save a couple of cents per piece and get faster, more predictable service.

5.      Designing a Mail Piece Without Understanding the Postage Ramifications

Postal equipment is designed to handle rectangular pieces at high speeds, not square or unusually-shaped pieces.  Pieces that are squarer than rectangular can’t be mailed at automation rates, they’re considered non-machinable and will incur a surcharge.  This means that you’ll pay much MORE in postage.  The key is checking to make sure the aspect ratio (length divided by height) is between 1.3 and 2.5.  The length of a letter is always determined to be parallel to the address, thus inadvertently addressing a piece parallel to the shorter side could violate the aspect ratio requirement.  If a customer’s mailing falls outside that range, the customer needs to be alerted to the postage implications.  Of course, customers might choose to mail unusually shaped pieces anyway, banking that the piece will generate a higher response rate.

Weight is another factor to consider.  Weights of 1.0 ounce in First-Class Mail and 3.3 in Standard Mail are critical weights.  Exceeding them can cost you thousands of dollars!  Make a mock-up of your mail piece early in the process to verify the weight.  If a piece weighs slightly more than the above mentioned weight thresholds, you can council your customer on how to lighten the piece.  For example, changing to a lower-basis weight paper may save a significant amount of money.

6.      Layout of Address Block Issues

There are specific requirements for where the address, barcode and return address must go on letters and flats.  On letters, for example, the barcode must be above or below the address – at least ½ inch from the right and left edge, and within 5/8 inch and 4 inches from the bottom of the piece.  Alternately, the barcode can be placed in the bottom right 5/8 inch from the bottom, up to 4 ¾ inches from the right.  Advertising copy and graphic elements must be kept away from the address block or the address may not pass the Postal Service’s print reflectance and contrast tests.  In addition, it’s wise to avoid aqueous or varnish coating in the address block area to avoid smudging addresses and barcodes, which could result in loss of discounts.  Check to be sure that your mail house has proper equipment to print on coated stock.  Mail Pieces in window envelopes trigger the “tap” test by USPS staff, in which a sample letter is tapped on each side.  In order to retain the automation discount the address must stay 1/8 inch away from the left/right edge of the envelope window and 1/25 inch away from the top and bottom.

7.      Poor Merge/Purge Processing or List Hygiene

Most want to believe their databases are clean and free of duplicates and/or incorrect addresses.  Data processing experts in direct mail know otherwise.  It is a huge waste to mail two pieces to one person or to be mailing to outdated or bad prospect addresses.  Mailers should be allowing time for the data processing team to process the list and provide results so that issues can be corrected before the mailing.  In many mailing environments, data work is done the day before the mailing and National Change of Address (NCOA) results are not even examined or merge/purge results checked until after the fact.  Each piece of wasted mail can easily cost 50 cents to $1.00 each, plus the missed opportunity of sending non-deliverable mail.  Allow more lead time for data processing if you want to make changes to your database prior to mailing.

Here are some examples of question raised in the data processing step:

  • Do I want to mail to those who have moved out of my service area our out of range of my locations?   This is common for retail and non-profit businesses.

  • Am I able to get a listing of those records deemed “undeliverable”?

  • How do I handle borderline deliverable records (e.g. records missing apartment numbers)?

  • Do I want to dedupe by last name/address, name only, address only?  There are different strategies for business files, residential files, etc.

  • Do I want any extra data processing steps taken to update my database (DMA Mail Preference, Deceased Processing, additional address hygiene steps, etc.)?

Wasted money in direct mail can be attributed to poor mail piece design and sloppy data management.  Often the dollars are not seen directly, since a lot of the undeliverable mail pieces are usually discarded.  Postage is an ever-increasing cost, so it pays to be vigilant about getting the most bang for your buck