6 Direct Mail Mistakes That Can Cost You Thousands


Did you know the Standard Rate postage difference from an automation letter to a non-machinable letter can be 15 to 23 cents per piece? For First Class mail, it is even worse (around 35 cents each). With loads of new (and not-so-new) postal regulations in effect, there are some pretty easy ways to make a design or production misstep that can cost lots of money. In most cases, a little design planning and communication could have prevented the errors.

Lots of these mistakes may or may not have be caught in the past because the United States Postal Service (USPS) employees who check the mail when it is presented at the Bulk Mail Entry Unit either missed a previous error, were recently reminded of some of the postal regulations by auditors, recently received in-service training session on a specific rule category, or are new to the job.

However, it is only a matter of time before an infraction is cited, mail is charged more, and you have an unexpected budget buster that could reduce or eliminate any return on your mailing investment.

Here are the most common faux pas that can cost thousands, but can also be eradicated with proper pre-planning:

1. Failure to Use the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) on Reply Mail
USPS rules dictate that any discounted mailing that has a reply vehicle inside must bear the proper IMB on the reply piece. This means that a business reply envelope or card that bears no barcode, or the old version of a barcode, is subject to non-automated postage rates for the entire outgoing mailing. Savvy inspectors will open a mail piece and check for reply mail inside. If it does not meet regulations that will bump your postage up to “non-auto” rates … a big increase. Make sure your reply vehicle complies with the new IMB rules.

2. Designing a Folded Self-Mailer Using the Old Rules
January 2013 ushered in new rules for folded self-mailers (not booklets) 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 weighs 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). Insure mail piece design is presented to your mailing expert prior to finalizing the piece.

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 ducks in a row when designing the mail piece and deciding to which post office your mail will be brought.  Remember that a small difference in organization name on the mailer versus what the post office has on file could raise a red flag.

4. Flat-Size Address Placement
This is a biggie, 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 rule” 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.)  

5. Postcard Design
First Class postcards enjoy a low postage rate with speedy First Class service.  However, there are many limitations on the design of these pieces and, while they are an awesome 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 is 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 3.5″ wide x 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” 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 and get faster, more predictable service.

6. Poor Merge/Purge or List Hygiene
Most folks want to believe their databases are clean and free of duplicates or other trash. Data processing (DP) experts in direct mail testify otherwise. It is a huge waste to mail two pieces to one person or to be mailing to outdated or bad prospects.  Mailers should be allowing time for the DP team to process the list and provide results so that issues can be corrected before the mailing. In many mailing environments, DP work is done the day before the mailing and National Change of Address (NCOA) results are not even examined nor merge/purge results checked. Each piece of wasted mail can easily cost 50 cents to $1 each in 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 questions raised in the data processing step:

  • Do I want to mail to folks who have moved out of my service area or out of range of my locations (common in retail, nonprofit)?
  • Which deliver-ability indices do I delete? Can I 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, full name/address, address only (different strategies for business files, residential files, etc.)?
  • Do I want any extra DP 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. And often the dollars are not seen directly (since lots of undeliverable mail pieces are usually discarded). Postage is an ever-increasing cost, so it pays to be vigilant about getting the most bang out of every buck spent.

These are the top six mistakes. Any of the first four will be huge budget breakers should the USPS check your mail (which they usually do). The sixth item will be a more invisible cost, as you have fewer pieces delivered and more mailers trashed.

Contact MCC’s Mailing Solutions Division today to help plan for your next direct mail campaign.

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