The Best for Your Buck: Choosing a Direct Mail Printer

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If you’re reading this article, you might have already reached out to a couple of direct mail printers and received wildly different quotes for what you think is the same exact project. In some cases, the quotes may be different by thousands of dollars.

Which printer should you go with? How do you know you’re getting the best work for the best price? How do you make sure you aren’t wasting money?

Direct mail printers are not created equal. Don’t only look at the final per-postcard cost.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through the various price-influencing factors for a postcard campaign from a direct mail printer. Then I’ll give you some questions to ask, as well as the answer you’re looking for if you want to save the most money. I’ll also give you an email template you can use to reach out to printers so you are better able to compare their quotes apples to apples.

Quick Start Guide for Direct Mail Printing

If you prefer to watch videos, this 3-minute tutorial gives an overview on the basics of direct mail printer differences and how to compare pricing between printers. After the video, keep reading because I’ll dive into greater detail on each element, and teach you how to communicate with direct mail printers so you can get your project completed at the lowest price.

What Impacts Postcard Printing Costs?

Like we talked about above, a simple quote for "5000 postcards, printed and mailed" can be wildly different from printer to printer. This is because there are a lot of factors that determine price on a project like this, and the "standard options" may vary across printers.

Besides the size, there are a lot of factors that can impact your bottom line across various direct mail printers. There are different capabilities that direct mail printing companies may offer than can influence the price – and they don’t always lay them out for you, or ask you what you prefer, when quoting you.

The 5 biggest price-influencing factors are:

  1. EDDM vs. Select Addresses
  2. Postage options
  3. Specifications and Printing Process
  4. Quantity or Price Structure
  5. Personalization and Technology

Each of these five factors will change the cost of your campaign. This post touches on each of them so that you have a greater understanding of what they mean and whether or not you want to utilize them for your project.

1. Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM):

EDDM is a way for you to send postcards to entire carrier routes (or subsections of zip codes). This type of postcard is significantly cheaper since it goes to every address on a route instead of individual addresses. Therefore, no sorting is needed from the post office – they’ll just hand a stack of cards to their delivery drivers.

While the cost-savings for this method is attractive, you can’t do much personalization, and you can’t target by addresses. For this reason, we don’t recommend EDDM for most businesses, as most people want to do targeted direct mail to increase their results. However, if you are truly on a limited budget, trying EDDM might be a smart move for your business.

You can always test EDDM and move to more advanced targeting when you figure out what worked best from your initial campaign.

Targeting options for direct mail are actually really complex. One of my favorite direct mail methods for local businesses is to target families who have recently moved. Why? When someone moves, they are often re-creating all new routines. They are shopping at different stores, using different banks, and eating at different restaurants.

This is the perfect time to introduce a new business to them. Most direct mail companies can pull a list of new movers in your area to target with your postcards. Add some customized messaging, such as “welcome to the neighborhood!” and watch your response rates soar.

Other ways you can target prospects via direct mail are by income levels, whether or not they have pets, homeowners or renters, first-time home buyers, upcoming birthdays, and new parents. Depending on your business and promotion tactic, any of these strategies could be relevant.

Some direct mail printers do not have list options for you to use. In those cases, they will only accept addresses you provide to them. Their quotes will probably be cheaper than others who provide addresses for you, but you’ll need to weigh the quote along with purchasing your own list.

Doing it all yourself may be the cheapest route, but you will also want to be sure that the list provider you are buying addresses from is reputable. And then that is another partner vendor that you will need to vet in addition to your direct mail printer, so we recommend sticking to a printer that can also provide you with a targeted list.

2. Postage Options

When mailing postcards, you might be surprised by the different types of postage available. The three main types we’re going to look at are First Class Mail, Pre-Sorted First Class, and Standard Class.

First Class Mail is the highest priority mail. If you send something first class in the US, it typically arrives 3 to 4 business days after it was sent. First class mail gets auto-forwarded to someone if they have moved, and also returned to you if the address was bad. First class mail includes tracking information and a guaranteed delivery time.

Did you know that you can get all the same features for 20 percent less cost? Pre-Sorted First-Class gives you all of the benefits of first class, but all mail has to be cleaned by the NCOA (National Change of Address) registry, so your printer will need to be CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System) certified and each card must be presorted.

Pre-sorting means that the mail is already sorted by zip code before it arrives at the post office. Your direct mail printer will also bundle it depending on its 5-digit or 3-digit zip code (in select areas, this 3 digit pre-fix is applied and is used for sorting.) according to USPS specifications. They will also provide documentation with it to show that it is pre-sorted in order for the mail pieces to quality for the Pre-Sorted First-Class rate

Standard Class is cheaper than both First Class and Pre-Sorted. There are some downsides to using standard class – it takes 10 to 14 days to arrive and does not come with guaranteed delivery times. Your mail is not tracked at all and won’t be returned to you if it wasn’t delivered. In order to qualify for standard class pricing, your printer will usually require you to mail a significant quantity (200 – 5k+, depending on your direct mail printer.)

If you run a non-profit, you can qualify for even cheaper postage – but you’ll need to fill out a PS_3624 form to qualify.

If you are printing a large amount, you are not a non-profit, and you don’t need your postcards to get to your prospects immediately, Standard Class is probably the best option for you, postage-wise. If you do need your postcards to arrive more quickly or want some insight into tracking information, then you will want to ask about CASS certification and Pre-Sorted Postage.

Some direct mail printers vary a lot with their standard postage options, so you may be able to save a significant amount of money if you ask about these options.

3. Specifications and Printing Process

We recommend printing in color, back and front, on 120# or 14pt paper that is UV coated. These specifications will ensure your card is sufficiently thick, and also has a protective coating that helps prevent the postcard from getting too damaged by USPS sorting tools.

But I want you to feel good about the product you’re ordering, so I am going to break down what each of these components means. For those outside the printing industry, it can be shocking to realize how many different qualities paper has.

[Photo: Creative Commons, Paper,  shttps://www.behance.net/gallery/2293750/Paper-folds]

120#/14PT

The term “14pt” refers to how thick the paper is. The most common thicknesses are 14pt, 16pt and 100lb. 14pt stock is the most commonly used for business cards and postcards. It also tends to be the most economical, as well as durable. 14pt offers the best mix of price and durability. You may also see 14pt paper referred to as “120#” or “120lb”. It is the same quality of paper, just by another name.

If you do want something more luxurious feeling, or a postcard that will truly stand out, you might consider 16pt stock, which is thicker. Be wary though – you will pay significantly more for it.

For projects where thinner paper is appropriate, 100lb (or 12pt) paper stock works well. This is the type used typically for brochures, for example. It is more economical than 14pt, but it will not hold up well through the mailing process. If you are concerned about budget, try to find other areas to cut from instead of paper quality, as no one will respond to your message if they cannot read it!

UV coating

UV coating is probably the most obvious specification – it is a special coating type on the paper to help increase its durability and protect your design.

UV coating is a very glossy coating applied to a paper and then dried using ultraviolet light. It’s high-shine finish will help your piece stand out, and it does help protect your project from getting damaged easily. Adding this coating does not prevent your postcard from being recycled either, so you can feel good about keeping it green.

However, there are times when UV coating can’t be used. For example, if you are ordering a bunch of blank postcards that you hope to write a message on, be sure not to have that side coated. Also, if you are using thinner paper, this type of coating won’t hold well on it (in fact, most reputable printers won’t UV coat thinner papers.)

Printing Type

If you are sending a smaller batch of postcards (less than 100,000), your postcards are likely to be printed using a digital printing process. This process involves toner mixed with varying degrees of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots to create the image. This will probably work fine for your needs, but it is important to understand that digital printing does not allow for an absolute Pantone match.

If you are sending more than 100,000 postcards at one time, you’ll want to do offset printing. It is a different process than what you’ll find most printers using – so you’ll want to seek out printers who do offset specifically. This allows you to do large scale projects at significantly cheaper prices.

Additionally, offset printing does allow for Pantone matching. If your specific branding is extremely important for your postcard project, then you’ll want to look for a direct mail printer that offers offset printing at the quantity you are looking to use.

Offset printing prices decrease as the unit number increases because even though the initial cost of setting up the machine and plate is high, a longer run is more cost effective. Digital printing has less setup cost, but a higher cost per unit.

4. Quantity or Price Structure

For most printers, the more you print, the cheaper it will be. Where those price breaks actually are will vary a lot depending on the printer. You’ll want to ask about their pricing structure, as you may be able to save money (or send out more postcards for the same amount) by adding a few more cards to your project.

Also keep in mind that the biggest price break will likely be the quantity point where the direct mail printer switches from digital printing to offset printing. If you are not concerned about sending a larger batch of postcards, asking about where that point is will likely result in the most savings for your project.

However, for some printers, there may be additional factors that influence the price structure in addition to quantity. For example, at Scout, we provide strategy and design services in addition to printing and mailing. Therefore, our pricing for a project would probably look a bit different than a direct mail printer who is only printing your design and mailing it for you.

5. Personalization and Technology

For all marketing channels, personalization is the king. Did you know that you can actually add personalization to postcard projects? Some printers will not do personalized printing (also known as variable printing.) Those printers aren’t very tech savvy, but that may be OK if you aren’t interested in this type of project.

If you do want to improve your conversion rate by up to 5x – you’ll want to add personalization.

One campaign case we’ve seen is from companies such as those who offer carpet-cleaning. They divide customers into those with pets, and those who have children, because those are the two groups who are most likely to hire their services.

For the group with pets, the front of the postcard has a picture of a dog with muddy footprints on the carpet. For the group with children, there is a child on the front with a dripping ice cream cone. While the customers may not even realize this difference or that this is targeted to them specifically, it is a subtle way for the business to connect to the lifestyles of their potential customers.

A more complicated targeting option we’ve accomplished at Scout included running a campaign that included the first name, address, a heat map of the customer’s roof from space, a personalized calculated savings per year based on that customer’s roof, and a phone number with an area code unique to each city.

[VISUAL: EcoVolt Postcard from Original Post]

We’re not trying to brag or anything, but wouldn’t you pay extra attention to a postcard you received in the mail with a picture of YOUR roof on it?

With a tech-savvy printer, the options are limitless. And a truly good direct mail printer should act as your partner on your project, giving you ideas that will be effective and increase conversions for your business.

If you do want to invest in a more complex personalized campaign, you’ll need to ask the printers you’re considering about their API for personalization. Many printers claim to have this type of capability, but it’s often low quality.

Many direct mail printers are not up-to-date on the latest technology. If you are a more advanced marketer, you will definitely want a printer with API capability. While we won’t recommend a specific API, you can contact me and I’m happy to talk more about Scout’s.

Obviously, the more complex your personalization is, the more your campaign is going to cost. That being said, if you can gain significant returns by spending a bit more – wouldn’t you do it?

Questions to Ask Direct Mail Printers

If you want to find the direct mail printer that is going to be able to offer you the best services at the lowest costs, I’ve put together this list of 8 questions to ask. The answers to these questions will help you decide if the printer is right for your needs or not.

  1. What types of targeting options do you offer for audiences, or do I need to provide my own list?
  2. What are my postage options and what is the cost associated with each?
  3. Are you CASS certified?
  4. Can you print on 120#/14PT paper that is UV coated?
  5. [If your project is large] Do you have the ability to do offset printing?
  6. Where are your price breaks when it comes to postcard quantity?
  7. What are my personalization options with your company?
  8. Do you have API capabilities?

How to Ask for Postcard Quotes from Direct Mail Printers

If you don’t really care about a direct mail printer’s capabilities, and just want to compare costs across printers, use this email template.

This template will help you request quotes from direct mail printers based on your needs, and also allow you to compare your options directly.

Use this email template:

Hi, My name is {your_name}, and I’m looking for a direct mail printing quote. Here are the details of my campaign. I am sending a {regular/EDDM} direct mail campaign with {number of cards} {size of card} {one time/every month}. Can you please provide a quote for printing this project, as well as your postage options? Thanks, {your_name}

As you start collecting quotes, you can put them in a spreadsheet so that you can see them all in one place. Once each printer has responded, then you can reach out to whoever offered the lowest price for your project.

Choosing the Best Direct Mail Printer

Choosing any partner to work with your business is a lot of work and can be nerve-wracking. You are going to invest money in any campaign you choose to launch, and you want to be able to trust your printer with your business’s money.

This article has talked a lot about figuring out what a direct mail printer’s capabilities are, and how to get your project quoted at the lowest (but still quality) price. If all you care about is how much they are charging, then you probably have the tools to hire a company for your project.

We recommend, in addition to asking about their technologies and price breaks, that you keep in mind vetting them the way you would any other business you intend to partner with – read reviews online and ask others in your circle if they have worked with the company before.

Working with a direct mail printer should be considered similar to any other business partnership. You want to find a company that cares about your success, offers a lot of support, produces a quality product, and sticks to their word.

Questions?

I would absolutely love to hear your questions and thoughts. If you are still struggling with comparing direct mail printing quotes or want to brainstorm personalized postcard ideas for your business, I want to hear from you. Call or email me – or chat with me by clicking the bottom right button.

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