direct mail personalizationPersonalization in direct mail – it should go without saying, right?

I mean if your marketing to people on a one-to-one level, don’t you expect it to be personalized?

Maybe today, but that wasn’t always case.

Not that long ago, mailers were routinely sent out with Cheshire labels glued on the outside. The address label would often read “Occupant/Resident” or “Job Title/Company Name.” Lists provided limited personal information and were largely inaccurate and out of date.

The sole purpose of the addressing process was delivery – to make sure your mailing arrived at its destination.

But today, thanks largely to technology, you can do a whole lot more with direct mail personalization.  Now personalized addressing can also help you command your reader’s attention and actually improve the response of your mailing.

In fact, studies have consistently shown that personalization does improve response.  But two questions are always in play –  “how much personalization?” and “at what cost?”.

Let’s look at the options:

Letter Packages

Letter packages can be personalized in a number of ways.  How you approach personalization depends on your budget and personal preferences.

  • Envelope personalization – no more Cheshire labels.  It used to be if you wanted your envelope to be directly addressed (so it looks like it was individually addressed), it would cost you extra.  Now it’s pretty much the standard.  Labels are a thing of the past.  Of course, many marketers use window envelopes leaving the addressing to an inside element.

  • Letter personalization – almost everyone wants to have a personalized letter.  Somehow, being able to write “Dear John” or “Dear Mr. Smith” just feels right.  Laser printing is used to create personalized letters which is more expensive than a generic letter printed with offset printing.  When using a two-pager, laser printing is often used for the first page (for personalization) while the second page is printed offset and not personalized.

  • Reply device personalization – for the longest time, this was the most cost-effective tactic for personalization.  By addressing the reply card, then positioning it in a window envelope, you were able to use one address for both delivery and response.  This was particularly helpful when testing because you could pre-address your reply card and include a testing code which would come back to you.

  • Other elements – it’s not common, but occasionally you see personalization applied to other elements in a direct mail package – a brochure, a premium sheet or some other insert.  I’d like to think that mailers that do this have tested its effectiveness against the additional cost.

  • Matching – this is where personalization can become expensive.  For the most part, you can personally address one element of your direct mail for the standard cost.  But if you want to address two pieces or more, you’ll incur additional addressing costs and then there will be a cost to ensure that the two pieces match.

    By matching, I mean someone needs to make sure that John Doe’s letter goes into John Doe’s envelope.  This seems like a pretty simple task but if your mailing is being processed by machine, matching is a spot-checking process that slows everything down and increases your costs.

    Some very sophisticated printing presses are able to address multiple pieces and insert them at the same time thereby removing the need to visually match.  But these are generally reserved for very large mailings.

  • Handwritten letters or postcards – every once in a while you will see a mailing that appears to be personally handwritten.  Most people know it is not actually handwritten (although some are pretty convincing), but if it gets the reader’s attention, it may be worth a try.

  • Handwritten side notes – you may have noticed that some letters have what looks like handwritten notes in the margins.  For example, a letter sent to me may include a handwritten note that says “Bob, check this out” with an arrow that points to an offer.Again, we can debate whether anyone is fooled by this but side notes of any type (personalized or not) can draw attention to important selling points.  They are attention grabbers which you can use to your advantage.Simulated handwritten side notes may not be appropriate for your business or your target audience, but it can work – and may be worth testing.

Variable Data Printing (VDP)

Variable data printing has been a real breakthrough for direct mail personalization.  With VDP, you are not only able to personally address each piece, but you can also insert other personalized data, photos and graphics at the same time.

For example, a postcard or some other mailer with your name included in a cartoon or on a photograph.  Or a mailer with your name written into the sand on a beach or formed in clouds in the sky.  (Some of these applications require very specialized software that not all printers can provide.)

These are fun and creative uses of personalization, but they are also practical and effective.

Imagine if you ran a travel agency, you can switch in and out different photos of destinations based on an individual’s age, income or travel history.

Imagine if you were marketing chief of a retail chain, you can insert the address, phone number, directions and even a photo of the nearest store to each individual recipient.

Imagine if you were a grocery store marketing manager, you could match product photos and coupons to each household by product needs – so a household with young babies would get diaper coupons, and a household with pets would get pet coupons.

The opportunities are endless.

One of the best features of VDP is that it requires very little set up time or costs.  Unlike offset printing where you have significant set up costs before you run the press, VDP can be printed in very small quantities.

Typically, VDP is most price competitive in small quantities – up to about 2,000 pieces.  (This may vary with each printer.)  But at some point after 2,000, offset will become increasingly less expensive than VDP.  As quantities go up, the differential will become greater.

Personalized Landing Pages (pURLs)

In direct mail today, we routinely use landing pages to provide our readers with another way to respond to our mailings.

In addition to the reply card, the phone and the fax, we are now giving people a web address (a URL) to go and get what we’re offering.  Landing pages make response easier for the respondent and more efficient for us because we can automate the entire process.

Personalized landing pages (Personalized URLs) take the generic landing page one step further.

When your prospects arrived at their pURL, their contact information is already pre-populated so they don’t have to fill in any additional information.  Moreover, the message can be very specific to the individual.

That’s because separate landing pages are created for each individual in the original mailing.  So if you had a mailing of 5,000, you would also create 5,000 landing pages.  This may sound a bit overwhelming, but technology makes it reasonably easy.

PURLs have a high curiosity factor.  People cannot resist typing in their personalized URL if only to see where it takes them.  Once they get there, though, your pURL still has the challenge of getting them to convert to a lead – in much the same way as a generic landing page.

One of the challenges with pURLs in direct mail is the relative complexity of the URL which prospects need to accurately type into their browser.  Most pURL addresses will have the main domain plus the person’s name: (

Cost has also be a consideration when using pURLs, but over time, the cost differential between generic landing pages and personalized landing pages has become less.

Message Relevancy

Of course, the best application of personalization is less about technology and more about developing a personal connection with your audience.

This depends entirely on how much data you have about that person.

On a basic level, when writing to an individual in a certain industry, talk about that industry. If they have a certain job title, or if they drive certain car, or own a certain pet, or belong to a certain club – use that information to make a personal connection.

But as you gather more information about that prospect, work it into your messaging when appropriate.  Be careful not reveal too much of what you know.  You don’t want to make your prospect feel uncomfortable.

And by all means, if your prospect already has a relationship with you, be sure to acknowledge that relationship.  It will get you in the door.

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."