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A second look at direct mail

Attention and action are two sides of direct mail. A great piece of mail will get seen, noticed, and acted upon

December 1, 2023  By Olivia Parker

Our priority must be to create mailers that will inspire receivers to act, not just cherish the beauty of the printed piece. Photo © MVProductions Generated with AI / Adobe Stock

One of the quirks of my chosen career is that I have a reasonable obsession with all things paper, and I enjoy getting mail. While I may look at a piece of mail with a more technical appreciation, I am not alone in my enjoyment. According to Canada Post, one in four Canadians read and open every piece of direct mail and 50 per cent of millennial Canadians (born between 1981 to 2000) are excited to see what’s in their physical mailbox with 42 per cent keeping mail for future reference.

Mail continues to be one of the most viable ways to reach consumers since it is tactile and stands out when compared to the hundreds of emails clogging our inboxes daily. In fact, most consumers have banner blindness with 58 per cent of people ignoring most online ads, according to Two Sides UK. According to the 2023 The State of Direct Mail report by Lob and Comperemedia, nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of marketers agree direct mail delivers the best ROI, response rate and conversion rates among all channel options. All that to say, mail is still an important marketing channel.

Which is why, if given the opportunity, our knowledge as print purveyors, graphic designers, creatives, etc. means we can offer advice to clients and marketers. 


First, mail as a medium introduces limitations: size, weight, material, and required postage (the conditions change between different postal systems). It is important to know and understand the different specifications. For example, the smartmail marketing solutions offered by Canada Post neighbourhood mail (one to many), postal code targeting (one to few), and personalized mail (one to one) all have their own guidelines. Knowing the creative limits helps us plan and design mail that will be deliverable. 

Second, at our fingertips is a wealth of knowledge about paper weights, types and brightness, envelopes of every size and colour, inks that span a rainbow of opportunities, and a wealth of finishing techniques (diecut, foil, emboss/deboss, etc.).

All this knowledge can be put to good use in creating mail that stands out. Whether it is producing a short run of PR packages or large mailings for non-profits we can create quality, eye-catching print materials at a variety of price ranges that get attention in the mailbox.

Go beyond the conventional #10 white envelopes and perhaps use a handwritten invitation for better response rates. Photo © alswart / Adobe Stock

Is standing out enough?

Getting eyes on the mail is only half the battle as, arguably, many companies want to see a return on investment. John Lepp, author of Creative Deviations and an expert fundraiser with over 20 years of experience, would argue action is the key differentiator of effective mail. To get a consumer to act requires excellent storytelling and copywriting, along with meaningful design choices.

In 2022, Good Works released, Changing Tides: The Evolution of Giving Behaviour in Canada, stating that “33 per cent of Canadians polled reported that they made a donation in response to a fundraising letter they received in the mail in the past year.” The Time We Spend With Mail (2023) report by the Joint Industry Currency for Mail (JICMAIL) showed a strong connection between mail attention and commercial effectiveness. According to their research, spending more time with direct mail items can result in a x2 to x3 increase in effectiveness, leading to more purchases, footfall, discussions, and voucher redemptions. 

Additionally, mail generates significant digital attention for brands’ owned channels. A mail item that prompts visits to advertiser websites keeps users engaged for five minutes per session on average.

Studies have shown direct mail marketing delivers the best ROI, response rate and conversion rates. Photo © Joshua Resnick / Adobe Stock

Commercially effective mail triggers action

Think back. If it comes in a #10 white envelope with a logo in the top left corner most can predict what’s inside—bill or appeal. While the contents might be printed on a beautiful gloss stock with colour pictures and a solid brand campaign, is that enough to get us to act? To my earlier point I have lots of mail samples, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have acted.

Lepp uses the term, ‘doormat dominance,’ to explain our need to dominate a prospect’s mailbox. When he’s at conferences, he will show the conventional #10 juxtaposed against a handwritten invitation envelope with stamps and invite readers to contemplate, “Which would you want to open?”

Our focus on cosmetics or esthetics in print means we may blind ourselves to the end user’s experience. The need to create something that stands out can be our own downfall. For example, coated stocks are harder to hold, read and write on. Grey text and small point size have legibility issues. The use of colour or expensive finishing techniques can have the opposite effect. 

Charities struggle with threading the needle between compelling design and not appearing to be squandering funds. Their audience knows print is expensive and expects non-profits to use their gifts meaningfully; expensive appearing print may alienate donors.

Lepp makes the following suggestions for achieving compelling personalized persuasion at a commercial level.

Change the envelope

A white #10 is expected and boring. Try a 6×9 envelope or change the envelope’s colour. Taglines or pictures on the exterior, while attention getting, immediately indicate it’s marketing. Create curiosity by inverting normal mail expectations.

Make it human

Handwriting, mistakes, stamps; things that are not ‘commercial’ break up the monotony of mail and get people’s attention. To create this appearance consider using the ‘stamp-like’ indicia and a legible handwriting typeface while pre-sorting your mail to follow Canada Post standards. 

Consider how you can add ‘more’ human elements like organic lines or hand drawn arrows. Informal and fun tone, voice, and visuals make the content more approachable. Personal and impactful stories make it less clinical and can connect deeply with audiences.

Match the scope to the audience

In our quest for segmentation the cost of the mail should relate to the values of the audience. 

The average customer may be skeptical of flashy or over-the-top designs and materials. Consider what a piece of mail for Ferrari versus Honda Civic prospect looks like; these are varied groups with different expectations around marketing materials and messages.

Say thank you no matter how small

Admittedly, Lepp is a fundraiser, but he emphasizes how much impact a thank you can have.

“I went through 500 pieces of mail that my mother-in-law got from charities last year…through all of those she got only one thank you card. Although it was all automated, she still indicated she would give again because of that card,” he said.

A culture of gratitude is appreciated, and it matters. Encouraging clients to also print some thank you cards they can personalize could make all the difference.

Simple may seem boring, but there is a need to strike a balance in both presentation and content, so it resonates. Pretty marketing is definitely one way to be persuasive, but Lepp offers another perspective—break the rules.

“The more personal a piece of mail feels (like something that I sent to you), the more likely it’s going to get opened, and looked at, and hopefully acted upon. It feels weird in our roles in the professional world to be imperfect and personal but that creates action…You’re still a human being trying to talk to other human beings about something they hopefully want. Just all these professional barriers get in the way of really good open communication,” he explained.

People are paying attention to their mail, so we have a responsibility to make sure it also inspires action. 

Olivia Parker, BTech, MPC, BEd, teaches visual communication and media production. Her areas of interest include omnichannel marketing and communication, direct mail, and personalization. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of PrintAction.

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