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What Is Direct Mail Marketing?

Mailbox IllustrationType “What is direct mail?” into Google, and you’ll get two kinds of responses: a brief definition of direct mail, or a list of components for a successful direct mail campaign. But neither of these adequately answer the question.

In this article, we’ll be going more in-depth than a simple definition of direct mail. In addition to defining the term, we’ll show you what direct mail looks like and explain how it ultimately ends
up in the mailbox.

Our goal is to give you a solid understanding of what direct mail is and how it works at its most basic level. We’ll dive into the specific components of a successful direct mail campaign in future articles.

Let’s get started.

Direct Mail Definition

Direct mail is a form of direct marketing in which physical promotional materials are sent to prospective or existing customers in the hopes of attaining their business or nurturing an ongoing relationship.

In plain English, it’s when a company or organization sends out advertising mail to attract new business or pass along relevant information to previous or existing customers. It usually includes an offer to entice recipients to respond.

Direct Mail Categories

There are two kinds of direct mail: shared mail and standalone mail. As their names imply, shared mail is when you share marketing space with other businesses on the same mail piece, and standalone mail is when your advertising message is on its own mail piece.

Shared Mail

Shared mail – also known as marriage mail – is a type of direct mail where multiple companies share advertising space on the same mail piece. The cost of postage is split between each advertiser, making it very cost-efficient, sometimes as cheap as a few cents per household.

Examples of shared mail include coupon envelopes like Valpak, advertising circulars, wraps, and inserts like RedPlum, and advertising magazines like Clipper Magazine.

There are numerous size and placement options available for your ads in a shared mail piece. For example, you could choose a full-page advertisement in a circular, or have a postcard-sized ad stuffed inside an envelope alongside other offers.


  • Very low cost
  • Broad reach since they’re distributed to everyone in a particular area


  • Your ad is amongst dozens of other ads and can get lost in the shuffle
  • You’re likely to appear alongside your direct competitors
  • Cannot be personalized for each recipient
  • Typically has lower response rates
  • Sent to predefined mailing areas on set schedules you have no control over
  • Cannot be sent to a targeted list of recipients

Standalone Mail

Standalone mail refers to any direct mail piece that isn’t grouped together with other advertisements. Standalone pieces are often more expensive than shared ones because you’re not splitting the costs with other advertisers.

Examples of standalone mail include postcards, informational brochures, newsletters, restaurant menus, credit card offers, and other sales letters.

There are endless possibilities regarding the format and presentation of a standalone direct mail piece, which we’ll get into below. As long as you meet certain USPS mailing size requirements, the only limit to how creative you can be is your budget.


  • One-on-one communication with the recipient
  • Countless format and presentation options
  • Ability to target audiences based on demographics, geography, psychographics, etc.
  • Can be personalized for each recipient
  • Typically has higher response rates
  • Can have broad reach or be targeted to a specific audience


  • More expensive than shared mail

Direct Mail Formats and Examples

Direct mail comes in many forms. Below are some of the most common types of direct mail, as well as some examples you may have seen in your mailbox.

Cards and Postcards

  • Most common form of direct mail
  • Low cost
  • Work well for reminders, thank-you’s, prospecting, and promotions
  • Numerous size options available
Postcards Illustration
Envelope Mailers Illustration

Envelope Mailers

  • Used to send mail that is confidential or that has more than one component (letter, brochure, order form, etc.)
  • Envelopes usually have teasers on the outside to get you
    to open them
  • Cost more than postcards or folded self-mailers
  • Various options for envelope color, size, and material

Folded Self-Mailers

  • Don’t need to be mailed in an envelope
  • Made from a single folded sheet of paper or cardstock
  • Typically tabbed or glued to keep closed
Folded Self-Mailers Illustration
Catalogs & Booklets Illustration

Catalogs and Booklets

  • Multi-page mail pieces with a bound edge
  • Almost never sent in an envelope
  • Showcase products and additional marketing content

Circulars, Inserts, and Wraps

  • Commonly used to distribute print coupons and product advertisements
  • Typically printed on lightweight paper
  • Inserts and wraps appear inside or around larger pieces like newspapers
Circulars, Inserts, & Wraps Illustration
Parcels & Dimensional Mailers Illustration

Parcels and Dimensional Mailers

  • Packages or irregularly shaped mail items meant to grab attention
  • Can be very costly, but effective
  • Best when mailing to a small group of high-value prospects

Direct Mail Strategies and Delivery Methods

So, you know what direct mail is and what it looks like, but how does it end up in people’s mailboxes? While you can technically send direct mail through delivery services like FedEx or UPS, almost all direct mail in the U.S. passes through the United States Postal Service.

Mailing Strategies

Most direct mail marketers decide between two mailing strategies before sending their campaigns: saturation mailing or targeted mailing. Their choice of strategy determines what delivery options they have when mailing through the USPS.

Saturation Mailing

Saturation mailing is when you mail to an entire ZIP code or carrier route. Most saturation mailings are sorted in walk-sequence order and meet the 90/75 rule. Saturation mailings are sent in bulk via Marketing Mail or the USPS’ Every Door Direct Mail® (EDDM®) program.

A saturation mailing is ideal for consumer-facing businesses like restaurants, gyms, and home service providers that sell things most people want or need at some point. However, when you mail to everyone in a particular area, you have to accept that not all recipients will be receptive to your message.

Targeted Mailing

Targeted mailing is when the advertiser mails to a segmented list of addresses using geographic, demographic, and psychographic filters, among others. While a targeted mailing is often more relevant to the audience and can result in greater engagement and response, it tends to be expensive, especially as you add more refined filter criteria (also known as selects).

Targeted mailing requires building and maintaining or renting a mailing list, which can get expensive, but there are many brokers and providers who can supply you with a list.

Benefits of Saturation Mailing

  • Lowest postage rates
  • Ideal for businesses that offer goods and services most people need
  • You can use median demographics for carrier routes to loosely target your mailing
  • Perfect for drawing large crowds, building brand awareness, and announcing new events, locations, or products

Benefits of Targeted Mailing

  • Ability to segment your list by almost any criteria imaginable
  • Reaches a more specific, qualified audience
  • Opportunity for personalized messaging (variable printing)
  • You could mail fewer pieces than a saturation mailing and get the same or better response

USPS Delivery Options for Saturation Mailing

  • Marketing Mail (formerly Standard Mail)
  • Every Door Direct Mail® (EDDM®)

USPS Delivery Options for Targeted Mailing

  • First Class
  • Priority Mail
  • Marketing Mail (formerly Standard Mail)

Postage Discounts for Direct Mail

Discounts are applied to postage costs depending on how much prep work you do for the post office. Whenever you save the post office time or money, you get a postage discount.

Actions you can take to receive postage discounts include:

Postage Discounts Illustration

  • Presorting, or grouping, your mail together by ZIP code
  • Standardizing and verifying deliverable addresses using CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System) certification software
  • Running your list through the National Change of Address (NCOA) database
  • Formatting your mail pieces to meet USPS machinability standards
  • Including an Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) to meet USPS automation requirements

Many list providers, mail houses, or direct mail marketing companies can provide these services for you to ensure you’re paying the lowest possible postage rates.

Now that you know the types of direct mail, their formats, and how they’re mailed out, you’re well on your way to understanding the complexity of direct mail marketing. In our next article, we’ll dive into the specific components of a successful direct mail campaign.