From the January 2000 issue of Startups

It's time to do your first direct-mail promotion, and you're thinking "How hard can this be?" In reality, there's much more to direct mail than picking a mailing date and sending a catchy letter. Getting the actual piece to your target on time is the end result of careful planning and lots of details, any of which could delay your promotion if you're unaware of them.

Working backward from the date you want your piece to be mailed (your drop date), the first thing you should do is plot dates for every action step you can think of, says Ann Bouchard, owner of Bouchard Marketing, an advertising and marketing company in Roseville, California. If possible, start at least six weeks in advance.

As a small company, you'll probably need one or more outside vendors to help. These might include a printer, a mailhouse or fulfillment center (where your mailing can be folded, inserted and sorted for postal discounts), and a mailing list service (which provides a list of recipient addresses).

If you haven't already formed relationships with such vendors, ask around for names of vendors other local entrepreneurs have had success with. Interview at least three of each type of vendor, and discuss the scope of your project. Have each vendor give you an estimate of how long they'll need to complete the job. Your best and most timely results will come from vendors with whom you establish a long-term relationship. Like you, each company has a unique personality and working style. Determine your most important criteria, and look for vendors that meet those.

Unsure whether to outsource? Compare the value of your time against the expertise of outside vendors. What a mailhouse knows about postal discounts, for example, may save you more than if you had done the job yourself.

Once you've chosen vendors, get everyone on a schedule. "If there's enough time, always pad an estimate by at least one or two days," says Bouchard. "If one deadline isn't met, and there's no room to err, the whole project could be thrown off." Include dates for deadlines, such as when you'll deliver your copy to the printer, when the printer should have the first proof to you and the dates on which your mailing list and printed piece should arrive at the mailhouse. Don't overlook holidays, and if you need others in your company to review a proof, allow them at least three days.

Bouchard recommends giving anyone involved in your project a copy of the time line. Ultimately, however, it's your responsibility to manage the project. "Don't be afraid to hound your vendors," says Bouchard. "If a deadline is two days away and you haven't heard anything, call. It's always better to know of a delay in advance."

Finally, set a specific goal for the promotion and a way to track results, whether it's a dedicated phone line or coupons customers can redeem. If you have employees, get them involved long before the drop date and plot a follow-up date to check reports and get employee input on customer response.

"Be willing to question absolutely everything," advises Bouchard. That, she says, along with careful planning and keeping a time line, almost always guarantees a timely promotion.


Carrie Schmeck carrie@tech-line.com spent five years as director of a corporate marketing department. She's now a freelancer who writes marketing copy for businesses.

Get Help

A direct-mail piece dropped on the intended date does not guarantee success. Check out these Web sites for tips on creating winning direct-mail packages:

  • Advertising Mail Marketing Association (www.amma.org) explains laws, regulations, policies and practices related to direct mail.
  • The Direct Mail Package: A Checklist (http://dmworld.com/library/aug97.html) gives you the rundown on critical mail components to consider.
  • Direct Marketing World library (http://dmworld.com/library/library.html) lists helpful articles on writing, designing and targeting your package.

    The Horah Group (www.horah.com) provides a valuable mail weight and thickness calculator as well as a postage and postal specifications chart.