Most Common Direct Mail Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

When it really comes down to it, there are two types of companies that leverage direct mail.  Companies that see direct mail as an expense, and those that think of it as an investment.  Companies that see it as an investment are constantly focused on refining their efforts to improve results.  Companies that see it as an expense tend to keep repeating the most common direct mail mistakes, all in an effort to reduce cost.

Let that sit for a moment, because the biggest mistake we see most often is that mindset.  When you think investment you’re thinking return, but when you think expense you’re thinking of cost.

So the first thing we need to do, and keep doing, is change our mindset.  When you see it as an investment you focus on improving your efforts.  Today we’re going to focus on how you can make your investment produce even bigger results.

Direct Mail Mistake 1: Poor Targeting

Did you know that 40% of a campaign’s success can be attributed to the initial targeting?  Marketing is a marriage between your messaging and your target audience’s interests…or lack thereof.  You may have the best message in the world, but if that message doesn’t align with the target audience you’ve segmented then you’re at risk of having a negative ROAS.

To this point, I’ve always told my marketing colleagues that you can’t think about what the message is until you’ve clearly defined the target audience.  Companies generally start with the best of intentions, but just don’t dig down deep enough.

In the words of marketing guru Seth Godin, “Riches are in the niches”.  The more niche you can narrow your target audience, the more you can personalize your message to really connect and resonate with what matters most to that segment.

So the common direct mail mistake that most companies make isn’t that they don’t segment, it’s just that they don’t segment enough.  Let’s take a look at a non-profit client that we’ve worked with.  Historically, they’ve targeted older working professionals, with household incomes over $150,000.  To “enrich” the data set, they’ve leveraged lists that feature community members with a history of giving.

This is a great start to segmenting a new donor base.  But let’s consider the Portland/Metro market that I live in.  There are nearly 15,000 registered non-profits in this market alone.  Most of which are also targeting older affluent individuals with a history of donations.  Affluency doesn’t go far when you have that many hungry hands asking for contributions.

The Solution

The secret to prospecting data is often sitting right under every business.  The individual attributes of every customer you’ve worked with, when in aggregate and analyzed, can provide you with a very accurate blueprint of what your Ideal Customer Profile is.  Not what you assume it is, but rather, leveraging deep statistical insights to uncover the most important attributes of your existing customer base.

Note, not all “look-a-like audiences” are the same.  This term has become so ubiquitous that I tend to dismiss any data provider that offers it because most of them are superficial at best.  They tend to look at only a handful of attributes, and make some overarching assumptions that on the surface may look good, but in application fall short.

Let’s go back to that non-profit.  On the surface the demographics did reflect their donor base, however, those top level attributes were not actually the most common, ie – most important, attributes.

To get statistically meaningful data, you have to dig deep.  That’s why when we analyze our customer’s database we evaluate every person by looking at over 1,600 attributes…much deeper than the obvious data points.

When we analyzed our non-profit’s donor base one of the most important attributes of their donor base was iPhone vs. Android users.  What does that have to do with being a donor?  I’m not sure honestly.  We’ve speculated, but ultimately the why doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the analysis concluded that was one of the most important attributes in defining their donor base.

On top of targeting older affluent people, we applied their unique donor model atop their local market.  Then we assigned every person in that market a rating of how close they matched the non-profit model.

This instantly eliminated 90% of the market and instead focused on those individuals that most closely resembled existing donors that are already giving to their cause.

The results?  In total that campaign netted 888 total donors for a total of $229,699, which included a segment targeting their current and lapsed donors.  New donors targeted from the model totaled 382 people, who contributed $47,784 in new donations.  

The previous year they had 2/3rds less new donors when just focusing on basic demographics.

Riches are in the niches, so digging deeper into your database is one of the quickest ways to instantly improve the quality of your direct mail efforts.

Direct Mail Mistake 2: Misdirected Messaging

Hot take, nobody cares what you sell.  Read that again, nobody cares what you sell.  What they care about is how your product or service improves their life.  

Yet, time and time again when you open your mailbox it’s filled with mail pieces that are focused on the company and their offering.

Years ago, I was in Orlando for a Keller Williams event.  While talking to an agent, he asked me what I did.  When I worked for a direct mail company his immediate question was how much our postcards were.  Upon hearing what we charged at the time he said he could get mailers for about 20% less.  

Without skipping a beat I asked him what kind of car he drove.  Generally I’m that guy that comes up with the perfect line about 5 minutes after the moment.  However, in this instance I saw an agent that was incredibly sharply dressed.  I noticed that he had expensive glasses on, and that there was a nice Rolex on his wrist.

It took him a few seconds before he started laughing and said, “You got me, I drive a Mercedes.”  

Inherently, cars are meant to get us from point A to point B.  However, the car he chose did that in spades.  The Mercedes had more features that made his driving experience more enjoyable.  More importantly though, his car was a status symbol meant to convey success when he parked in front of a home for a listing appointment.

He could drive any car to his listing appointments, but he knew a Mercedes projected a level of success that would instantly resonate with his potential clients.

The Solution

As we talked about in the previous section, by narrowing down your target audience you can really narrow down what’s important to them.  Your messaging should quickly and succinctly identify the main problem or pain point in your customer’s life. This immediately validates you as an authoritative figure who understands them and their needs.  

Once you’ve identified the pain point you can then position your product in a way that makes that pain go away.  In the words of my first boss Brian Taylor, “Talk about benefits, not attributes!”  Keep your messaging focused on the positive benefits it’s going to make in your customer’s lives.

Add in some social proof to validate your claims and you’ll find your campaign’s performance starts to improve dramatically.  According to Northwestern University, reviews have a significant impact on purchasing decisions on low and high priced items.  “Research found that when reviews were displayed for a lower-priced product the conversion rate increased 190%.  However, for a higher-priced product, the conversion rate increased 380%.” 

Note, in the words of Donald Miller from StoryBrand, “Ideas are like bowling balls.  Most people can only carry one, maybe two at a time.”  Don’t over dilute your direct mail messaging with too many pain points.  Take the time to deeply evaluate your customer base and what pain point matters the most so you can keep your messaging on point.

Direct Mail Mistake 3: One and Done

You know what nearly every marketer I’ve talked to in the past twenty years has said when asked, “What are you seeing having the biggest impact when it comes to direct mail?”


I heard that in my first year on the job and I heard it last week while at a marketing summit.

When it comes to direct mail and consistency, the challenge is budget.  Direct mail inherently comes with a higher sticker because you’re dealing with paper, toner, and of course USPS wants their cut too.

The common direct mail mistake we see happening here is that most companies allocate most, if not all, of their budget on one campaign.  Putting all your eggs into one basket is somewhat like walking up to the black jack table and putting all your chips on red or black.

You’re rolling your luck, because even if you eliminate all of these direct mail mistakes, you still have to deal with the variability of timing.  You may have selected your target audience perfectly, crafted a message that resonates and yet the timing may not fit the consumer for a multitude of reasons.

Google does a great job of breaking down the consumer purchasing process with their “See, Think, Do” framework.  This multi-touch framework is echoed everywhere across the marketing landscape.  

Ask that Mercedes Benz driving Keller Williams agent what he was taught about marketing, and he’ll tell you that you should follow an 8×8 approach to onboarding potential customers.  8 touch points of value over the course of 8 weeks.  For existing customers KW advocates having 33 touches over the course of a year to maintain a strong relationship.

Virtually every system will have nuances, but the underlying message is that you have to be consistent.

The Solution

When it comes to direct mail we recommend two different approaches to maintaining consistency.

The first is rethinking your budget allocation.  If you’ve got a budget that can let you target 75,000 people, consider splitting that list and instead repeatedly sending to that same audience.  Statistically, your response rates shouldn’t change if you’re mailing to the full 75,000 list or a fraction of it, say 20% which would be 15,000.

With each additional drop, you will typically see an increase in response rates because of the power of consistency.  So instead of using your budget on one big sendout, breaking it up will over time yield higher response rates, especially if you’re leveraging A/B testing, listed next.

Sample: One Mailout to Entire Target Audience


Response Rate


Sale Point







Sample: 5 Mail Outs to the Same Segmented Audience


Response Rate


Sale Point






























Even a small 10% increase in response rates on each send, using the same original budget, would net you a 20% increase in ROAS.

The second approach to increasing consistency is by leveraging an omnichannel campaign.  This direct mail approach combines physical mail with digital media, to the same target audience.  So rather than getting just one mailer, the audience is consistently retargeted through channels like email and/or display media.

Note, some people conflate omnichannel with multi-channel marketing.  Multi-channel is when you have marketing in different channels, but it’s often different messages in different channels, directed to different people.  Omnichannel is distinct in that it’s the same message, across different channels, explicitly directed to the same target audience.  

The difficulty is what we call Identity Resolution.  This is the ability to go out and identify mobile IDs and active email addresses for the people in your target audience.  Once you get those you can start leveraging digital remarketing ads that reinforce the physical mailer.

It’s effectively putting your direct mail on steroids.  Seriously, our clients typically see a 2-3x increase in response rates when they use omnichannel marketing vs. direct mail only.

This approach is budget friendly too as the cost increase adding these digital channels is a fraction of what it would cost to send out a 2nd mailer, let alone a 3rd, 4th, etc..

So an omnichannel approach is minimum impact on the budget with maximum impact on the ROAS.

Direct Mail Mistake 4: A/B Testing…or Lack Thereof

This common direct mail mistake is my most frustrating.  I can’t tell you how many sizable companies, with full marketing teams, still don’t A/B test.  It’s honestly quite maddening.

When I was younger my dad taught me to believe nothing that I hear and only half of what I see.  His point was, even when you think you’ve got a good read things can still be different than what you expect.

The same is true in marketing.  Even when you mitigate all of these direct mail mistakes, you still can find yourself with mixed results.  Consumers are fickle, timing matters, micro and macro conditions can change quickly.

The challenge, or perceived challenge, we hear from organizations is that they are resource constrained.  When they hear about the A/B test they tend to think it’s going to be twice the work.  

It’s not.

The Solution

A/B testing doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming.  It really just takes a little bit of up front planning and some minimal data review after the campaign.  

Virtually every component of your direct mail can be tested from list, message theme, visuals, call to action, offer value, and even color.  Yes, even color can have a sizable impact on the performance of your marketing.

Hubspot did an A/B test with color comparing a CTA that was green and a CTA that was red.  Ahead of the test there was speculation that green would come out ahead.  Not by much, but the general consensus was green would perform better.

In the end the red CTA ended up outperforming the green one by 21%.  The effort to conduct this test took a few minutes, and the ROAS went up by 21%.  And we’re talking about color.  

Imagine how much more effective your direct mail campaigns would be if you were A/B testing across the board.

Note, it seems obvious, but since so many marketers don’t do A/B testing, it’s worth noting that you should only be A/B testing one aspect at a time.  If you’re testing more than one variable then you won’t know which one is influencing performance, good or bad.  There are some ways to mitigate this, but we’ll save those for an actual conversation.

Direct Mail Mistake 5: Conversion Strategy

This is a bit of a hybrid mistake that touches on the direct mailer itself, but reaches further into your business.  Whether that’s your customer support/sales teams, your website, email sequencing, you need to have a good conversion strategy in place.

The mistake we see is that companies spend so much time and money on the mailer itself, but then just mail it in on the rest…pun intended.

Let me give you a personal example of this.  Years ago I was working for a direct mail company that focused on the real estate industry.  At the time we’d just started introducing some customer facing data targeting tools allowing agents to select their own geos and demographics, like renter vs. homeowner, household income, age, etc..

So I had my team design a postcard with a 30-something person as the main image.  The accompanying text read something like, “Suzy is a 30 year old renter earning over $60k and is looking to buy.”  We sent this mailer out to about 50,000 agents across the country.

Even though the messaging on the back said that this was just an example of how you can target in your own market using the online data tool, most agents just got fixated on Suzy who wanted a home.

As a result, I think we had the highest response rate ever on that mailer, but I didn’t prep our customer service team with the approach and strategy of using our online data too.  This created confusion with the customers, it created confusion internally with our team and led to a poor customer experience.  I still cringe when I think about it today.

It’s important to understand that your direct mail is just one piece of the customer journey.  If you want higher conversion rates with your direct mail you need to focus on your conversion strategy.

The Solution

It starts first with your mailer and your call-to-action.  Remember how we talked about ideas being bowling balls in the hands of your consumers?  The same is true for CTAs.  You need to limit your CTA to one distinctive ask.  This doesn’t mean you can’t include a phone number on your mailer if you’re driving people to your website.  It just means that the website URL and the CTA should be prominently displayed together.

From there though you want to make sure your next touch point in the customer journey is seamlessly prepared.

Let’s review one or our clients and the approach.  They are an ecommerce based business, but one of their biggest competitors is a brick and mortar business.  When they identify ICPs in these markets they tailor their messaging on the mailer teasing differentiations.  They also have a QR code tied to their CTA which directs people to an in depth blog.  This blog is rich with data about how their product outperforms the competitor’s brand.

What I love about them though is that they previously did some A/B testing on their blog until they got their lead form conversion rates as high as possible.  Only then did they leverage this page in concert with the direct mailer.  

The ultimate goal here is that the user who gets presented with a mailer should have a consistent messaging and theme as they go through their journey.  If you’re focusing on a specific product, don’t get lazy and send them to your home page.  Create a landing page that continues to highlight the pain and how your solution helps the customer overcome it.

If you’re pushing for inbound calls, make sure your team has seen the mailer.  Make sure they understand the strategy and next steps for the customer.

Now What

The final challenge we see facing organizations is that even with all of the information and guidance they still have challenges executing.  So you know your direct mail could be performing better, and you have ideas how to do it, but either you don’t have the bandwidth or expertise to access the right data, to integrate the right channels, to analyze the results accurately.

Businesses that want to grow significantly need to look for 10x opportunities.  This is where working with a proven direct marketing agency like Propelo Media comes into play.  

We appreciate that every business wants more leads, but the challenge is finding qualified leads.  So we leverage a 5-part strategy that accurately identifies the most qualified buyers in your market so you stop wasting money and begin growing revenue.

All that’s needed from you is an honest conversation, and then we’ll brainstorm findings and will present you with a tailored solution that we execute.

Schedule a call today.


Right People, Right Channels, Right Results

Often confused with “multi-channel marketing”, omni-channel marketing elevates your campaign’s effectiveness by communicating your message to the right prospects in the channels they use, at the right time.