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Direct Mail

Direct mail is everywhere--and if you're not using this pervasive form of advertising, you could be missing out.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What It Is: Individual or group mailings to specific ZIP codes that can include letters, ads or coupons

Appropriate For: All businesses

Typical Cost: $300 to $6,000 per mailing depending on your location, how many pieces you send, printing and postage costs, and whether you choose an individual piece or are included in a group effort

How It Works: Direct mail is everywhere--and I'm not exaggerating. In fact, I can predict you'll get more than one piece of it today, either in your mailbox, tucked into the pages of your newspaper or stuffed into one of your monthly bills. Like water, direct mail will find its way into whatever outlet it can.

One of the least expensive ways to participate in a direct-mail campaign is to team up with other businesses in a cooperative effort--Valpak and Carol Wright envelopes are great examples of that. With this approach, you're able to choose specific ZIP codes to be covered, giving you the ability to control your costs. You also have a say in how your ads or coupons are printed--single or double-sided, two- or four-color, glossy or matte paper--giving you further control. With this particular type of direct mail, however, your piece is just one of 30 or 40 others in the envelope. So you have to make sure your printed piece will catch the eye of the person who's flipping through all those ads, And because these envelopes blanket an entire ZIP code, reaching all the included addresses--businesses as well as residential--you have to understand that not all the destinations will be ones you'd hand pick.

When you contact these cooperative companies, be sure to ask about their mailing schedules. They won't target all ZIP codes every month--there are specific times of year when you can mail to the areas you want. So get those dates and deadlines--the company will be happy to give you the entire year's schedule so you can make your plans.

You can also choose to send out individual direct-mail pieces--meaning you aren't sharing space with others--by having them designed, printed and mailed by a mail house or direct mail company. These firms have the ability to specifically target the recipients of your ads, not only by geographic area but also by the habits, hobbies, talents, schooling and reading preferences of your customers, among other things. While this kind of direct mail costs more than a cooperative effort, a much higher percentage of your ads will be getting into qualified hands--that is, into the hands of a larger number of your target customers. Also, with this type of mailing, you're not bound by any predetermined mailing schedule. But be aware of the fixed costs that these companies have no control over:

  • Postage
  • Paper
  • How elaborate your direct mail piece is in terms of design and colors
  • Size (postcard-size to large, foldout pieces)

Direct mail pieces also show up in your Sunday newspaper every week. They're called "inserts" and can be parceled out to the ZIP codes of your choice. How does it work? You assume the cost of printing the inserts and the responsibility for delivering the ads to the newspaper or publication by a specific deadline. (Here again, your printing choices and list of ZIP codes will determine the final cost of this effort.)

Did you know that many distributors will supply insert ads at no charge to you (with the possible exception of the cost of shipping them to you), and some will even have the ads pre-printed with your business name and location to help you promote their brands? Check with all your manufacturers and distributors to see what's available. Often, these pre-printed ads are more readily available around certain holidays, but sometimes the companies provide them all year long. And if your distributors do have pre-printed ads, ask if there are also co-op dollars available to help pay for the campaign itself. Many companies will pay 25 to 50 percent of the cost of inserts or even other types of direct-mail efforts.

If you're interested in reaching businesses rather than homes, contact the chambers of commerce in the areas you want to reach. Often, if you provide the coupons or ads, they'll insert them into one of their monthly mailings for a nominal fee, which is often less than $100.

To help determine the most important ZIP codes to hit, keep track of your customers. Ask them for their ZIP code when they make a purchase. It's not unusual; you've probably been asked for yours over and over again. Do what those other stores are doing, and keep track of where the people who shop at your location live. Make sure all of your employees ask each customer as they process the sale and make sure they write the information down. Once you start doing that, you'll see a pattern and can tell where, other than your own neighborhood, you should be sending direct mail in the form of ads or coupons.

Direct-mail pieces can be sent right along with your monthly invoices, too. Stuff an ad into each envelope--in fact, this is a great place for a coupon since these people are already your customers and don't need to be totally educated about your business. A coupon will be a little "gift" for them to use the next time they do business with you.

Kathy Kobliski is the founder of Silent Partner Advertisingin Syracuse, New York. She is also the author of Advertising Without an Agency Made Easy.