Direct mail seems like a pretty simply process. You get a list, write a letter, print the mail components, stuff the envelopes and slap on some postage. Then you wait for the response.

Yes, getting into the mail is pretty simple, but getting response is another story.

With this direct mail checklist, we’ve provided an overview of everything that needs to be considered in strategic planning, creating and executing your direct mail program or campaign. It doesn’t guarantee good results, but it does put you on a path to success.

1. Program Goal and Expectations
Before you get started, think about what you want to accomplish with this mailing. Do you want to generate leads, orders, subscriptions, memberships, attendance, donations, website traffic or retail traffic? And what are your realistic expectations?

2. Product/Service Opportunity
This may be obvious, but can you can these questions? What does your product or service do for your target audience? And how will it change the status quo of your audience?

3. Positioning/Competitor Analysis
Positioning is about how your product or service fits into the marketplace – and how your target audience perceives you in comparison with your competitors. Are you the lowest-cost provider with an entry-level product? Or are you the highest-cost provider for a more sophisticated audience?

4. Sales Process Integration
Direct mail is a sales function and needs to fit into some part of your sales process – lead acquisition, lead conversion, customer nurturing/sales. Keep in mind the reason you’re doing this campaign is to improve efficiency, save time or save money. How will this promotion replace or improve what you’re already doing?

5. Audience Profile/Segmentation
Before you start looking for lists, get a picture of who you want to reach. An audience profile will help you sketch out a detailed overview of your best prospects. It will include both demographic and psychographic descriptions that help you to narrow your list search.

6. Mailing List Selection
With your profile(s) in place, there are many choices for mailing lists. First, there are multiple types of lists – compiled lists, responses lists, managed lists, web-based lists. Second, there are multiple providers within each type of list. Third, every list has multiple segmentations allowing you to narrow you focus on your best prospects.

7. Offer Development
The offer is the most important element in driving response quantity and quality. Understand the differences between lead generation and order generation offers – it’s essential. If an offer needs to be created (e.g., a white paper), complete that step before you go into the mail.

8. Format Selection
Formats fall into two broad categories – envelope mailers and self-mailers. Envelope mailers typically have a letter and reply card, but can also include a brochure and other inserts. Self-mailers, including postcards, come in many different sizes and arrangements. All formats come with different advantages and different costs.

9. Testing Strategy
Testing is often viewed as a pre-mailing step, but we believe it should be an ongoing part of your overall mailing program. Continue to mail what you know is working, but always look for ways to improve. Dedicate a small percentage of your mailing (10%) to trying new things and always test against your “control” mailing.

10. Main Selling Points
Make a list of the main selling points of your product or service. Selling points are the benefits, or “reasons why” someone would want to buy. Some selling points are clearly more important than others, but there is usually one selling point that stands apart as the main reason why your target audience will buy. This is often called the Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

11. Creative
Creative is the most talked about step in this process because it’s the most visible. But the focus needs to be on the persuasiveness of the message – not its creativity or cleverness. Moreover, adjustments in the creative should be judged on improvements in response quantity and/or quality.

12. Personalization
Personalization can be applied at different levels – from a simple addressing of the envelope to multi-part addressing and letter customization to variable data printing (vdp). Personalized landing pages (pURLs) should also be considered. Personalization can improve response but will also increase costs.

13. Response Channels
It’s always best to give your readers multiple ways to respond. Your choices are reply mail, an 800 number, a fax reply, a dedicated landing page (or pURL), your website, email, mobile text or walk-in? Walk-in response is typically limited to retail or trade show response.

14. Production
Production covers all those services needed to get your mailing out the door. This includes your mailing list provider, data processing service bureau, printer, mail house and the postal service. Postage is an important consideration – will you be mailing first class or standard (bulk rate)? If you’re using a landing page or pURL, where will it be hosted and who will collect the data? If you’re using reply mail, have you arranged for a business reply permit?

15. Budgets
A direct mail campaign should cost between 50 cents and $1 per piece depending on complexity and quantity. (Some mailings – especially 3-dimensional packages – will cost several dollars or more per piece, but they are the exception.)
When looking at your budget, separate out your fixed costs from your variable costs. Your creative and project management costs are fixed budget items. These costs remain the same regardless of quantity. Your variable costs – for lists, printing, mailing, and postage – will change with quantity.

16. Schedules
A direct mail campaign typically takes 5-10 weeks to get into the mail. The most time-consuming step is the creative which can take 2-6 weeks depending on the complexity and the turnaround time for approvals and revisions. Beyond creative, you also need to plan for printing (usually 2-3 weeks) and mailing services (1 week). Naturally all of these services can be rushed.

As for delivery times, expect delivery in a few days if you’re mailing first class. With standard postage (bulk rate), your mailing may take 10-14 days (sometimes longer) depending on the location of your target audience.

17. Response Tracking and Measurement
If you’re only doing one mailing at time with no tested elements, this is pretty simple. You just count the number of response you get – from all response channels. But what if you have overlapped mailings or you’re testing different lists or different offers or creative? Then you need to develop tracking codes to identify the source of each response.

18. Response Analysis and Adjustment
The most common analysis is the response rate, but this doesn’t take into account the quality of the lead or the cost of the lead. We prefer analyzing programs on a cost-per-lead or cost-per-qualified-lead basis. If the sales cycle is short enough, we can also analyze according cost-per-order.

Based on the response, this is also a time to make adjustments. If you need more leads, you can adjust your offer to make it appealing to more people. If lead quality was a problem, you can add some qualifying questions to your offer to improve lead quality. If the cost per response is an issue, you may want to look at direct mail formats that cost less.

19. Follow-Up Strategy
Only in some cases does a direct mail stand alone. Most direct mail programs – especially those that produce leads – need to be supported by a follow-up strategy that may include additional mail, email, phone or face-to-face sales calls.

We strongly recommend setting up an email nurturing program that stays in touch with all new leads – even if the leads are immediately turned over to sales. This can include email “drip” programs and email newsletters.

Caution: Make sure your lead nurturing program is in place BEFORE you send out your mailing.

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."