4 Keys to Direct Mail Success

There are dozens of variables that factor into a direct mail campaign. Trying to figure out which ones will have the most impact can be overwhelming. But direct mail doesn’t have to be complicated. We’ve boiled direct mail success down to four key components: the list, the offer, the creative, and tracking methods. Whether you’re just starting out with direct mail or struggling to find success, concentrating on these four keys will put you on the right track.

The 40/40/20 Rule

No article on the keys to direct mail success would be complete without mentioning the 40/40/20 rule. In the 1960’s, direct marketing pioneer, Ed Mayer, developed this simple rule for direct marketing campaigns.

The 40/40/20 rule argues that 40% of your success depends on the list (who you’re sending your mail to), 40% on the offer (what’s in it for your audience), and 20% on everything else (format, design, copy, etc.). You should base the time and money you spend on each of these areas according to its percentage.

Let’s take a closer look at these three parts to learn why they’re essential to successful direct mail campaigns. We’ll then discuss tracking methods, which are how marketers determine the effectiveness of their mailings.

Key # 1: The Mailing List

If you’re not presenting your product or service to the people who want and need it most, your campaign isn’t going to be successful. In fact, the list is so important to the success of your campaign that modern marketers argue the 40/40/20 rule is more like 60/30/10.

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Finding the right list doesn’t have to be complicated. Many businesses already have an in-house list with the names of their existing customers and prospects. You’ve already put time, money, and effort into compiling these types of lists, and as long as you keep them up-to-date and accurate, they’ll serve you well.

If you need to drum up new business, there’s also the option of renting or buying a list. As long as you have a good understanding of who your ideal customers are, you can reach out to a list broker or full-service direct mail company. They can help you analyze available lists and acquire one that fits your needs. For more on this topic, check out our guide to learn how to get a mailing list.

Building a mailing list of well-qualified customers and prospects is the single most important aspect of any direct mail campaign. Reaching the right people will maximize your response rates and keep your costs manageable.

Key # 2: The Offer

You may have the most fine-tuned list ever, but all the time and money spent on your list will be a waste if nobody responds to your direct mail. We’re talking about the offer, and you’d better have a strong one if you plan on having any success with direct mail.

Essentially, the offer is something of value that you provide to your audience in exchange for their response. Think of it as the bait you use to catch the fish. It has to be attractive enough that recipients will feel compelled to respond. An offer so good, they can’t refuse.

Make sure your offer clearly tells customers what you’re giving away and how it will benefit them. You’ll also want to include a strong call to action (CTA), which tells consumers how to get your offer. Always consider the customer’s point of view. What do they need right now? How can you meet that need at an affordable price point while doing it better than everyone else?

Crafting an offer that works for your business and sending it to the right people almost guarantees you’ll get responses.

Direct Mail Offer Examples

While an offer can really be anything of value, here are a few examples of common offers you’ve probably seen in your own mailbox:

Coupon Example
Coupon Example
Coupon Example
Coupon Example
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Key # 3: The Creative

While the list and offer are by far the most important components to focus on, the creative elements of your direct mail campaign also matter. After all, the creative is what ultimately ends up in your audience’s hands. So, you need to make sure you at least understand the basics of good design, copy, imagery, and format selection.

Use eye-catching colors that are on-brand and don’t clash with one another. Keep your copy concise, and always use legible, attractive fonts. Ultimately, your mailpiece should be simple, easy to read, and have a clear offer and call to action (i.e. “call now” or “visit a store today”).

Many direct mail users are quick to blame the design or format of their mailing if the results are worse than expected. And while the creative elements of your mailer are important, understand that the list and offer are far more impactful. Make sure you nail down the perfect list and a solid offer before worrying about your creative.

Key # 4: Tracking Methods

One component that’s often overlooked but is extremely important is having a tracking method. If you don’t track the response to your direct mail, it’s impossible to measure your results. Plus, you’ll never know how well your campaigns are performing beyond obvious increases in sales or leads. If you don’t have insight into the successes and failures of your direct mail, you won’t be able to improve your results in a meaningful way.

Make sure every point of contact listed on your direct mail piece is unique and trackable. This helps you attribute sales and leads generated to the right campaign. Some of the most popular direct mail tracking methods include:

  • Trackable phone number
  • Trackable URL (website address)
  • Campaign-specific email
  • Coupon codes
  • QR codes

If you’re not sure how to set up tracking methods or measure the results of your direct mail, check out our guide on how to track and measure direct mail campaigns.


The list and the offer are the most important parts of any direct mail campaign. If you can reach motivated customers with a product or service that clearly benefits them, you’re likely to succeed. But that’s not to say you should discount all other factors.

A well-designed mail piece will help catch potential customers’ eyes, while clear and compelling copy will help push your audience to take action. And tracking the response to your direct mail helps you accurately gauge your success, making it easier to prove ROI and tweak future campaigns.

While there are many variables to consider in any direct mail campaign, focusing on these four keys – the list, the offer, the creative, and tracking methods – will drastically improve your direct mail results.