9 Mistakes to Avoid in Direct Marketing

9 Mistakes to Avoid in Direct Marketing

(Updated March 6, 2019)

In planning and executing a direct mail campaign, there are many points where a seemingly small mistake can cost you thousands of dollars in postage, poor response, and lost sales. A way to avoid costly errors is to follow best practices and learn from the mistakes of others. Here are nine mistakes to avoid.

1) Targeting poorly...or not targeting at all

Targeting the right audience at the right time is a huge part of direct marketing. Doing it wrong can lead to sending mail to the wrong people (i.e. people with no interest in you or your offer).

The direct marketing success rule of 40/40/20 states that 40% of your campaign's success is due to the mailing list, 40% due to the offer, and 20% due to the creative. Some people believe that the list can account for up to 60% of your campaign's success. Either way, every direct mail expert knows the list is critical. That's why using a targeted list is so important. Yet somehow, some businesses don't really think it through.


Direct Marketing Success Rule

40% of your campaign's success depends on the mailing list.

You want to target the right people--those who would find your offer relevant. If you're simply mailing to everyone in a geographic area, you'll inevitably reach people who have no interest in what you have to say or offer. This leads to a poor response rate and wasted money.

With so many different targeting options available today, there's little excuse not to target effectively. These include demographics like age, income, and marital status, but also include hobbies and interests.

Indiscriminately mailing to everyone in a certain geography can possibly save you some money on postage up front, but it will not lead to more sales. Recipients may also view your mail piece as "junk mail." You must decide what's more important to you--saving some money or boosting sales.

2) Not Personalizing

Mail recipients--consumers and business professionals alike--want mail that is personalized to them. If you receive a letter or postcard that says, "Resident," are you excited to open it? Or are you more likely to call it "junk" mail and toss it? On the other hand, if the mail piece is addressed to you personally and uses your name in the salutation, doesn't that interest you a bit more?

Names are available on quality, targeted lists. Use them!

3) Mailing to too small of an audience

Like virtually all other areas in business and life, the numbers matter. In this case, mailing to a larger list can yield better results. This even applies to testing. The benchmark response rate for mailing to a prospect list is 1%. If you mail to 5,000 (of the right) people, you can expect about 50 responses. If you mail to only 100 people, you might get 1 response. You might get none. You might get lucky and get a handful of responses. In any case, 100 is too small of a number to get a good response rate, much less a sense of how a larger mailing would perform.

(Update: According to the ANA/DMA 2018 Response Rate Report, the response rate for mailing to a prospect list in 2018 was an unprecedented 4.9%!)

If you were running an online ad campaign, you would never try to target only 100 people or get only 100 impressions. You wouldn't get any results. On some, if not all, platforms, it's impossible to target that small of an audience.

So how many is enough to start? 

I've heard of businesses doing test mailings as small as 250 pieces. This could possibly work if the follow-on mailing will be small, like a local retail store. In many other situations, you'll need at least a few thousand. It depends on what you're trying to accomplish. Is your target market local only? Are you trying to get a certain number of responses? Will this become a national campaign? In that case, it may be prudent to mail out tens of thousands of pieces.

Think direct mail is dead? Check out these 9 reasons why direct mail works.

4) Mailing once and declaring "it doesn't work"

Like any other marketing channel, success in direct marketing takes trial and error. It takes testing different combinations of audience, offer, message, format, timing, and everything else to maximize your results. Even before you get to that point, you're going to start seeing results.

 A major mistake by direct mail marketing newbies is to send out a single mailing once, then declare direct mail doesn't work because they didn't get a flood of new customers.

Don’t give up after one try. Persevere and you’ll see results.

I knew a B2B startup founder who had no experience in direct mail, but wanted to try it for his company. He delegated the entire effort to an intern with no experience in direct mail or marketing. (Yes, you read the right.) They targeted a very small list of businesses one time and didn't get the results they wanted. This demonstrated their lack of understanding of direct mail, not the ineffectiveness of it.

If someone swings an ax one time at a tree and it doesn't fall down, they can't claim that axes don't work. They just don't know how to use an ax...yet.

Don't give up after one try. Persevere and you'll see results.

5) Using old data

Another all-too-common mistake in direct mail marketing is using old data. This falls under the larger category of "dirty data."

Every year, about 12% of the population moves. Your house list will generally reflect this percentage unless you sell to businesses. If you're mailing to your list without updating it every quarter, you're wasting a lot of postage on mail that will never reach the correct recipients.

Ensure your house list is updated regularly using a "Move Update.” If you mail multiple times per year, you should update your list quarterly.

Remember that if "you process the list of addresses through a Move Update method within 95 days prior to the mailing date, you may use it to mail at the discounted postage prices." ("Guide to Move Update," August 2016, p. 40.)

6) Using a list with duplicates

Another common yet easily correct mistake is to use a list with duplicates. At first this may seem easy to control. However, as organizations grow and different departments or individuals maintain separate lists of customers and contacts, it can be easy to have duplicates on a master contact list of all the lists combined. 

How do you remedy this? One way is to remove the duplicates yourself using software you have. Unfortunately, you may fall short if the list starts getting long. If a contact's name is misspelled on some lists and not others, your cleaning attempts may not work. Also, if some lists have a newer address for the same contact, your cleaning attempts may stumble here as well. 

Working with a vendor who has proprietary de-duplication software can help.

7) Going cheap for the print

You're probably very familiar with the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Well, that doesn't apply to direct mail. A potential customer will judge your company very quickly by your mail piece. If it comes off looking cheap, you will not impress the recipient. The same thing will happen if the piece is generally unappealing. On the other hand, a well-designed mail piece can leave a strong impression with your potential customer.

With so many quality options available from numerous printers, it just doesn't make sense to go for the cheapest option. Finding cost-effective options? Sure, that's always a good idea. But in the end, ensure you are creating something that will put your brand in a positive light.

Your mail piece will act as your salesperson in the mailbox. It has to spark interest and arouse a desire for your product or service. Is your mail piece going to be the equivalent of a salesperson in a cheap suit with little information to offer? Or will it be sharp-looking, interesting, and trustworthy?

Remember, you're not just trying to save on costs. You're trying to increase revenue through new customer acquisition.

8) Having a weak offer

The offer is what your potential customer will receive when he or she replies to your direct mail piece. You must offer something of value that gives them a reason to respond. It should compel them to act. A few examples of offers are a free gift, a discounted price, a free consultation, or a two-for-one deal.

This can be an easy next step for your prospect instead of trying to get them to purchase your product or service right away. Or it can be something they receive for making a purchase. Whatever you do, make sure you have a strong, compelling offer.

9) Lacking a clear call to action

A clear call to action goes hand-in-hand with your offer. It informs your reader exactly what you want them to do next, when you want them to do it, and what they'll get in return (i.e. the offer).

You don't want them to read your mail piece and leave them wondering what they're supposed to do. In fact, you want them to not only know exactly what to do next, but to feel a sense of urgency to take the next step.

So, make sure you tell them to "call now" or sign up by a certain date and extend your offer.


Mistakes can be costly. As you move forward in your direct marketing efforts, we hope you actively seek to avoid the mistakes we’ve outlined here. You'll avoid wasted postage, wasted printing, and acquire more customers.

If you need any help with your direct mail efforts, especially in regards to data, data hygiene, or de-duplication, contact us.

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