Going Solo: Postcards and Solo Mailings

As catalogers struggle to deal with the new postal rates, there’s been a lot of talk about reduction: Many mailers plan to offset costs by reducing trim size, circulation, and page counts. But the rate hike may inspire one type of increase — an increase in the use of postcards and solo mailers.

Just about every postal rate increase sparks renewed interest in postcards and solo mailers, notes Sarah White, spokesperson for Thirdwave Research, a Verona, WI-based provider of database and strategic marketing solutions. “Postal rates have been going up for so long, people have been looking at alternative strategies for some time,” she says. “It has a lot to do with the analytics on the back end. We’re seeing our clients do some interesting things with postcards based on past purchases and then personalizing the postcards.”

Postcards and similar types of direct mail “can minimize your costs and serve as a pathway to becoming a customer,” says Chris Carpenter, CEO of Sun Prairie, WI-based Royle Printing. “But from a merchandising standpoint, a catalog isn’t going to be replaced by a postcard.”

What postcards and solo mailers can do, however, is serve as a cost-effective replacement for and complement to some catalog mailings as part of an overall contact strategy, much as e-mail already has for many multichannel merchants.

Postcard pluses and minuses

There’s no question that postcards are highly economical to mail, at about $0.25 apiece and as little as $0.15 if they are drop-shipped deeper into the mail stream. That’s certainly less than the price of mailing a First Class letter ($0.41 as of May 14) or a typical catalog, according to Todd Kintopf, manager of distribution and postal affairs at Royle Printing.

And recipients are likely to look at postcards: According to a U.S. Postal Service study released last month, postcards were found to have the highest read rate among all direct mail media, including letters and fliers.

But mailers should be aware that postcards need to have a “compelling, actionable message that is relevant,” says Chris Haag, director of sales for Royle Printing. “Where we’ve seen them used has been around a specific event for a cataloger who also has retail locations, driving traffic to both.”

If you want to spread the word about a special offer or the launch of a product line, postcards can be very effective, Haag says. Postcards can also serve as coupons, invitations, announcements, save-the-date reminders, thank-you cards, follow-ups, special offers, inserts in magazines, admission tickets, mini-newsletters, bookmarks, and quick-reference guides. And since messages have to be clear and succinct on a postcard, Kintopf says, mailing a specific message to a targeted audience on a postcard or a solo mailer can be a very good lead-generation tool.

That’s what sports apparel supplier A4 uses postcards for. “We use a catalog and Website, and we only mail catalogs to existing customers,” says CEO Mark Wertens. The Vernon, CA-based company mails about 75,000 catalogs, usually 28-36 pages, each year. “With the postcards, we hope to generate demand.”

Don’t expect the postcard to act as a stand-alone prospecting tool, however. Instead, think of it as a traffic driver or the first part of a two-step acquisition tactic.

Because the amount of selling space on a postcard is limited, “you’ll be hard pressed to acquire a customer with it unless you use it to drive people to the Website or to request a catalog,” says Shari Altman, president of Altman Dedicated Direct, a Rural Hall, NC-based consultancy specializing in acquisition and loyalty marketing.

That’s not necessarily a drawback, though. “Postcards are inexpensive enough that they can allow catalogers to significantly expand their prospecting universe,” Altman continues. “Potentially, you can use a postcard to reach markets where you can’t afford to send solo mailers or a catalog.”

Wertens agrees. “We’re looking to find ways to find new leads to send more catalogs,” he says. “Using postcards is very economical, and it’s a very high-impact vehicle to do that. We can do it repetitively and look at the nature of our offer. Printing catalogs can be very expensive. We like the flexibility of postcards.”

Another attractive aspect of using postcards, Wertens says, is the speed of the production process: From conception to mailing takes only about three weeks.

“Much of what we do is graphic,” adds Wertens, referring to the assorted styles and personalization options of A4’s uniforms, “so postcards are an easy way to reach our customer base.”

Indeed, the graphics of your postcard are critical to ensuring that the card stands out from the rest of a recipient’s mail, especially given its small size. Altman advises using dramatic visuals and colors to make the offer pop, and be sure that the message is clear.

As for the offer itself, Altman says to make sure it’s a solid one — for a lead-generator, for instance, try $5 or $10 off or free shipping for a first order — and establish a time limit for the offer to drive immediate response.

A common mistake among catalogers using postcards is trying “to squeeze a catalog onto a postcard,” says Keith Goodman, vice president of corporate solutions for Modern Postcard, a Carlsbad, CA-based provider of mailing products and services. “We run into this a lot in the consumer electronics industry where they try to cram 30 products onto a postcard.” Instead, Goodman advises, “Put your coolest, most universal loss leader on the postcard.”

And particularly if you’re cutting back on catalog frequency, says Goodman, take advantage of the ability to customize postcards. “It’s very hard to short-run catalogs, but it’s very easy to do customized versions of postcards, like for new product offers based on past product purchases,” he explains. “It gives you an opportunity to create a highly personalized message.”

Solo acts

Thirdwave Research’s White says many of her company’s clients use solo mailers. “We’re certainly seeing them test the smaller mailings with personalized URLs driving customers to a personalized landing page,” she says.

Solo mailers can be postcard-size, though letter-size pieces are more common. As the name indicates, a solo mailer “really requires one offer, one thing,” says Altman. “The recipient either responds or doesn’t respond. With an envelope mailing, you almost certainly diminish your results by offering multiple things.”

That puts a lot of pressure on the product that you’re building your solo mailer around. “To do this you need a strong hero product,” Altman says.

A classic example of a hero product, Altman says, was the Sharper Image’s Ionic Breeze Air Purifier. (Purifiers at one time accounted for roughly one-third of Sharper Image’s sales.) “If you have a strong hero product, it can be effective for customer acquisition,” she says. Altman speaks from experience: At one company at which she’d worked, “most of our customer acquisition was done with solo mailings and some other solo-type promotional efforts.”

Yankee Candle Co. has used direct mail, including solo mailers, for years, says Richard Ruffolo, senior vice president of brand, marketing, and innovation. The company primarily uses letter-size, trifold mailers that tout featured fragrances as well as contain a coupon. Yankee Candle also uses a scented varnish scratch-and-sniff technology “to create customer trial/interaction with our new fragrances,” he says.

The direct mail pieces “support our store themes, which change every four weeks or so,” Ruffolo says. “Along with major holidays, we use them 9-10 times a year. Usually we aim to have them hit homes at the beginning of the week so that they can impact the next weekend’s results. We utilize both mailers and e-mails, as well as catalogs, to meet our marketing objectives.”

At the South Deerfield, MA-based company’s stores, “some customers tend to shop with a catalog in hand, and a trifold mailer can’t replace that,” Ruffolo says. “Clearly, catalogs are expensive, and we are actively trying to transition our relative ‘share of voice’ — how many catalogs vs. mailers vs. e-mails we send out — toward less expensive vehicles.” Trifold mailers cost about Yankee Candle about half as much as catalogs.

Testing to achieve the right combination of catalogs and solo mail pieces “is the best way to find the optimal mix,” Ruffolo adds. “And once you find the right mix, keep testing, because the market dynamics are not static and will continue to evolve.”

Altman offers several other suggestions: Have a strong hero product; use a copywriter who knows how to write successful direct mail packages; use a graphic designer who knows how to construct a mailing package; consider different formats; research your competitors who’ve used solo mailings and see what they’ve done; and have a strong offer.

Also, she says, never send an envelope mailing without a letter. Otherwise, recipients will wonder “‘Why am I receiving this?’ The one-to-one communication is of more interest than receiving a brochure in an envelope.”

And don’t omit an order form from your solo mailer, since you are trying to generate an order then and there. “Make it clear and easy to complete,” Altman says.

Make mine a mini

Mini-catalogs, with dimensions roughly of 3-7/8 in. × 5 in., can serve as another cost-effective prospecting tool. “They’re smaller than the traditional digest and can be mailed at letter rate,” says Royle Printing’s Carpenter.

Royle has seen specialty catalogers whose product can easily be represented in a smaller format use mini-catalogs as package inserts or at trade shows, because they’re more economical than a full size catalog, Haag says. “The obvious downside is that product images and type will be smaller; the layout and design need to be able to accommodate this.”

Again, most agree that mini-catalogs are not a replacement for a full-size book but another tool to be used as part of a contact strategy. “Catalogers need to be diligent about testing response rates to each of these vehicles, constantly looking for the right balance,” Haag says.

10 Tips to Solo Success

Putting an effective solo mailer together is different from producing a profitable catalog, so proceed with caution. Shari Altman, president of consultancy Altman Dedicated Direct, has 10 tips to help you start or improve a solo-mailer program.

  1. Promote a product that has already had success with prospects on the Web or in your catalog.
  2. Make the most of the mail piece’s space by showcasing the item as a hero product that has a “story” to tell.
  3. Make a highly desirable offer with a strong call to action, including a deadline for response.
  4. Use testimonials to provide proof of the value and benefits of your product and of buying from your firm.
  5. If you’re sending your solo mailer in an envelope, always include a letter that reads like a one-to-one communication from someone at your company or a testimonial.
  6. If you don’t have the expertise inhouse, work with a copywriter and a designer who have experience in developing successful solo direct mail packages.
  7. Ensure that the order form is clear, not overly cluttered, and simple to follow.
  8. If feasible, rent lists of solo-mail buyers.
  9. Assign unique source codes and, ideally, unique landing page URLs for each list to ensure accurate tracking.
  10. Make sure your contact center agents are aware of your promotion before they start receiving calls about it!
Data quality is job one

Data hygiene and addressability have always been critical factors for multichannel merchants, whether mailing catalogs, postcards, or solo mailers. The May 14 postal increase has given direct marketers more impetus to improve the quality of their addresses.

Printer Quad/Graphics helps clients save money by conducting a data-integrity test on mailing lists. “We look at their files and see if there are any address-quality problems, such as does that person really live there,” says vice president of direct marketing sales Eric Blohm. “Seventeen percent of the country moves each year. And we’ll do a suppression list of people who have passed away, are in prison, or on do-not-mail lists.”

Typically, Blohm says, this sort of cleanup corrects or eliminates 4%-5% of addresses. “And when you put a cost to that — paper, postage, manufacturing — it can be significant.” The savings, he continued, enable clients to engage in more-sophisticated audience targeting and segmentation.

For example, if an apparel company sends a solo mailer to a customer who recently bought a blue suit, it might use an ink-jet box to showcase items linked to the suit purchase. “We put customers in different buckets, and for a prospect we’ll send out a larger catalog with more products,” Blohm says. “Or we start changing the vehicle, using a postcard or a solo mailer.”

None of this can be done with poor-quality data, however. “Data mining is critical,” Blohm says. “We’re finding tons of savings in the data quality. But it takes something like this postal increase, where everyone is in a panic mode.”

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