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Choosing the Right Direct Mail Format

To make sure that your message creates an impact, choose the right direct mail format. Find the best examples of envelopes, self-mailers, and postcards in WMW! system.

To make sure that your message creates an impact, you need to choose the right direct mail format. This is often easier said than done. Sure, it seems obvious that a postcard campaign is ideal for announcing a simple-to-understand offer, like a limited-time sale or discount. But much of the time, it’s not an easy call.

We can try to get some answers by looking at the mail that’s been received and logged by Who’s Mailing What! — the world’s most comprehensive source of direct mail creative samples. A look at the stats of our massive swipe file reveals some interesting facts.

Of all the mail collected by Who’s Mailing What!, 54.7% are envelopes. As you can see below, a lot of different kinds of companies and organizations use envelopes because they are so versatile. Our “Other-Selfmailer” classification covers folded self-mailers, coming in at 24.1% of the total. They’re a great alternative to envelopes, offer more room for messaging than postcards … what’s not to love? And speaking of postcards, 17% of our mail is postcards; read on below for a look at why they enjoy wide acceptance. And catalogs? They’re still a popular choice, can make a big splash in the mailbox, though overall, they’re only 4% of the volume.

The Power of Envelopes

Of the total universe of envelope mailings counted for this study, 37.5% or 16,955 of them were offers for the nonprofit sector, which is the largest pie slice by a very nice margin. This makes sense for several reasons.

The envelope to many people is what direct mail is all about. Look at all of the components: a letter, a lift note, inserts, a brochure, a reply/order form, and a reply envelope. All of them inside the outer envelope, often (and hopefully) with teaser copy on the front. Together, they build an emotional case for donating money to or joining a cause.

Companies in the finance category, such as credit card issuers and insurance providers, are the second-largest group of envelope users tracked by Who’s Mailing What! The reason is much the same as for nonprofits: making and supporting a complex argument. They also have to include lots of terms and disclosures and consumer protection information. It also makes the consumer feel more confident that their finances will be kept safe and secure.


The big story in the rest of the statistics is how retail companies dominate the remaining direct mail formats as organized by Who’s Mailing What!

Take the big pie piece above as a perfect example. More than half – 52% of all folded self-mailers (FSM) – are in retail categories like Pet Supplies, Home & Garden, Cosmetics, Automotive, Wine & Spirits, supermarkets, big boxes, and lots more. Those 10,362 pieces of mail come from companies like Target, Lowe’s, Ford, Petsmart, and many others – all of whom try to use this flexibility of this format to maximize their selling space.

With it, you can have many of the advantages of an envelope package, but at a lower cost. You can guide your target audience’s eyes as the headlines, body copy, images, and graphics flow from one panel to the next. Interestingly, some credit card providers mail complex multi-panel FSMs with pockets and glue-tabbed folded sheets that seem very similar to the form and function of envelope mailings.

Finance was the next largest share with 8.3%. I haven’t checked the details, but I’d bet that nearly all of them are from banks promoting retail banking services. You know, things like checking and savings accounts, maybe some loans, all strictly to drive traffic or leads to a website or a brick-and-mortar location.

Direct Mail Postcards

Here’s another format dominated by retail: the postcard. We found that 4,877 mailings or 34.7% are from retailers. No other category broke into double digits. Why? Because postcards are best suited for limited uses, not heavy lifting or complex selling. So if you want to announce a grand opening, or promote a special sale to select customers, use a postcard. If you want to reactivate an inactive customer by offering a discount, or reach out to someone who visited your website but abandoned their shopping cart, use a postcard.

Let’s consider other categories, like healthcare. Postcards are ideal for conveying simple but essential information, such as changing office hours, added specialty services, appointment reminders, new doctors joining a medical practice, or procedures for dealing with COVID-19.

Real estate? Postcards are perfect! You can include pictures and information about the house, the community, or the real estate professional.

And telecom? Our stats show that companies providing telecom services actually use postcards (6.5%) more than they mail self-mailers (4.3%). Again, they may not need much space to make a simple offer, with a quick rundown of what services and benefits are covered.

When you have a narrow focus, a postcard is a sensible and affordable choice.

How to Find Mail by Format in Who’s Mailing What!

So where can you find the best examples of all of these formats? With Who’s Mailing What! of course. You can draw inspiration from how others have had success in finding customers using specific mailing types thanks to the mail we’ve collected from our panelists.

Here’s how to find them:

After logging in to the website, click on the Search option from the Dashboard.

On the left side of the page, you’ll see Direct Mail Filters as one of the options under Filters. Click on the plus sign to activate the menu, then scroll down to find Format Type.

Checking on that box means that you can search on all of the options, which are:

  • Catalog
  • Envelope
  • Other
  • Other – Self-mailer
  • Postcard

Although all of these format types are also checked by default, you can exclude them from your search by unchecking the box next to that format.

Final thoughts

The bottom line in all of this format talk is that you have to balance competing interests, such as your budget, versus the objective of your campaign. Getting a handle on your printing and postage costs can help you decide what format will best serve your needs.

Removing some design elements or copy from a long-standing design or even a successful control to save money may not affect your response or hurt your ROI. You won’t know until you give it careful consideration. As the late marketer Mal Decker said, “Two rules and two rules only exist in marketing: Rule No. 1: Test everything. Rule No. 2: See Rule No. 1.”

Paul Bobnak

Direct Mail Evangelist



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