How to Create a Promotional Snail Mail Campaign

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It’s important to promote your design business. This is especially true when economic times are challenging, you’ve got news to announce, or you’re simply hungry for growth. Many forms of promotion are available to the modern designer – with banner ads and Google AdWords among the most popular. In this digital age, it’s easy for web and graphic designers to overlook one of the most effective and fun forms of promotion: the mail campaign. In an era when people are accustomed to communicating electronically, the value and meaning of something you can hold in your hands is greater than ever before.

The promo mailer is perhaps most popular among illustrators and graphic designers working for editorial clients, which means that it is a powerful, untapped resource for some web designers. Likewise, it was probably a much more common practice ten years ago than it is today due to the rise of online promotion techniques – but those who ignore its potential are missing out on a tool with the power to gain new clients, increase web traffic, and attract publicity for your business and events.

3D Mailer by Ultra Design Co.

This promotional mailer for Ultra Design Co.1 includes 3-D posters (complete with 3-D glasses!). Designed by Humberto Howard/UDC

Common types of mailers include postcards and brochures, but designers featured in this article have produced everything from faux newspapers to toys and even promotional eyepatches.

In other words, this can and should be much more than just another opportunity to promote your work. It is also an opportunity to have a heap of fun, think outside the rectangle, and even present former and potential clients with a unique objet d’art. If you give them a piece of art and design that they’re unlikely to forget, then they’ll be unlikely to forget you.

How to Create a Postcard

Magnetic State postcard

Promo postcard by author and designer Dan Redding at Magnetic State2

The type of mailer that you send is limited only by your imagination, but the most common form is the postcard (we’ll look at other forms momentarily). Postcards come in a variety of sizes (standard is 4.25” by 6”) and are available on cardstocks in a variety of weights and finishes. There is no right or wrong way to create a postcard design, but one steadfast rule is that your greatest talents and skills should be in the spotlight. You’ll probably only have a moment to connect with the recipient of your card, so be bold and communicative.

Your design work should go on the front – perhaps your strongest portfolio piece, or a small selection of them – along with your name, URL, and a list of services provided: ‘Illustration and Design,’ ‘Graphic Design and Web Design,’ etc. The back of the postcard usually includes a designer’s logo along with contact information. Some designers will print a huge logo or alternate design back here, while others will leave enough space for a personal, handwritten note. No matter what your design, make sure to consult USPS guidelines3 to ensure that your design is acceptable for mailing (any quality printing company can assist you with this).

Avoid the Trash Can

If your postcard looks like every other advertisement out there, it will probably end up in the recycling bin. In fact, it might not even make it past the intern that sorts the mail at that publication you sent to. Then it will get recycled, and in a week, your beautiful work will be five percent of a toilet paper roll on a shelf in a Wal-Mart in New Jersey. You don’t want that.

Postcard by Jay Vollmar

This beautiful, hand-silkscreened promo mailer by Jay Vollmar84 has a personal touch.

If your card makes it past the perils of the wastebasket and reaches the hands of your addressee – perhaps an Art Director at a record label or the CEO of a startup company – then you’ve done well. If he or she reads both sides and likes it enough to tack it onto the bulletin board for future reference, then you’re in great shape. And if you get a phone call the next time that Art Director has a freelance job, then you’re golden.

Your design work is not junk – it’s your passion – so your promo shouldn’t be junk mail. Make your promo memorable and personal. When it lands in the hands of Steven Q. Client, present Mr. Client with a design that is compelling and appropriate to his industry. Write him a note that is friendly and courteous while reminding him that you hope to hear from him the next time an appropriate freelance project arises. An even better way to make a great impression and stay out of the rubbish bin is to make an unusual or useful product instead of a postcard.

Print Your Design

If you’re very industrious (and you’ve got a good printer), you might print your postcard yourself. But for most designers, it makes the most sense to pay a professional printer to print a few hundred copies of your design.

Choose a print company that will provide accurate colors, high-quality printing, and accessible customer service. There are many of these available on the web; one fine example is Modern Postcard5 (author’s note: I am not affiliated, just a satisfied customer).

Don’t be wasteful. Check your printer’s environmental policy (a responsible printing service will make this available). Investigate their commitment to sustainability, recycling, and environmentally friendly products. Make your mailers count. Send to recipients who will be interested in your services.

Think Outside the Rectangle

Some designers eschew the pedestrian postcard in favor of a more adventurous option. Here are some creative promotional items that defy expectations.

Labzeus Mailer

This lovingly crafted mail package from Labzeus/Brian Neumann includes his portfolio on a flash drive. According to Mr. Neumann’s website6, “The project involved package design (custom folder with die cuts), letterpress & foil stamping (letterset & folder), giclée printing (fold-out poster, 2-sided), chemical etching (flash drives) and hand embossments (sticker seal and poster front). I also sourced mailer boxes, custom labels and had branded packing tape created to round out the piece.”

Publico Eyepatch

Promotional ‘business card’ eyepatch designed by Paul Coors7 for the now-defunct art gallery Publico

Paul Rand Buttons

These small buttons are emblazoned the famous logos of design hero Paul Rand. Why not make small gifts or accessories featuring your own work?

Paddleball by Jay Vollmar

Promotional paddleball toy by Jay Vollmar84

Hawk Krall's Megapack

Philadelphia illustrator Hawk Krall9 sends out ‘mega-packs’ of colorful food-themed goodies. “I get the best response from these,” says Hawk. “I send out about 150-200 of these to my best/newest contacts, made up of 3 or 4 postcards, stickers, tearsheets, hot dog magnets, etc.”

Hugo and Marie Mailer

This newspaper-style promotional brochure from Hugo & Marie10 garnered the consultancy lots of attention both online and off.

A word of advice: if you design an unusual item, says designer Derek Sussner11, “take a mockup to the design consultants at the USPS before you show up with 700 things to mail, especially if they are dimensional, fragile, or out of the ordinary. That early consult can save some time, energy – and often, postage costs.”

All About Mailing Lists

So now you’ve got a few hundred copies of your beautifully designed postcard/portfolio brochure/novelty treasure map. Where do you send them? You need a mailing list. A good mailing list is something that you can purchase or develop on your own.

Your mailing list should consist of both former clients and potential clients. You’re contacting former clients to say hello and to reinforce your presence in their minds. You’re contacting potential clients to introduce your work and convince them to visit your site, call you, and ultimately, hire you. With any luck, some of those potential clients will be transformed into enthusiastic former clients list by next year.

Jon Weiman Mailer

Postcard by Weiman Design LLC12

How to Buy a Mailing List

Just like printing companies, a simple web search will turn up many companies that sell mailing lists. In fact, many printing companies are ‘one-stop shops’ that will not only print your mailers, but can also sell you a mailing list and even stamp, address, and send your items for you. If you choose this route, make sure the company you buy from is a reputable one. Get their representative on the phone and ask them what they can offer that’s suitable to your target audience. Make sure their lists were compiled recently and contain accurate information. If the list is over a year old, how many of those contacts have changed employers or positions? If one name is spelled wrong or one office incorrect, your mailer will end up at the bottom of the wastebasket – along with the money you spent developing and printing it.

Postcard by Sam Kuo

This postcard by Sam Kuo13 represents the theme of Halloween in New York City. Mr. Kuo has designed many clever mailers14 that acknowledge pop-culture phenomena and current events.

How to Build your Own Mailing List

For many designers, D.I.Y. (do it yourself) is an ethos to live by. Researching and compiling your own mailing list can be a highly effective and personal way to customize a list to the specific needs of your business. Sending to former clients and contacts is the easy part. But who else can you send to?

In order to build your own mailing list, you’ll need to identify a target audience. If you’re an editorial illustrator working for magazines, you might go to a bookstore and copy down the names and office addresses of art directors listed in the masthead of magazines you’d like to see your work in. If you’re a web designer, you might identify a target market (perhaps you specialize in promotional websites for filmmakers and videographers). Start Googling relevant companies and checking Contact pages for address listings. Don’t be afraid to get on the phone, introduce yourself, and politely inquire about an appropriate contact person who you might send to.

Hawk Krall Postcard

Postcard by Hawk Krall15

High and Low

When selecting targets for your mailing list, choose a wide range of recipients. You should choose people and organizations similar to those you’ve worked with before. These potential clients are likely to be suitable to your size, price range, and services. You should also contact your ideal clients – look for your ‘dream job.’ If there are any companies you’ve always wanted to work with, now’s the time to do some research and get in touch. Be resourceful and be professional.

Snail Mail is Your Friend

Whatever you decide to send, calculate accurate postage for each item and buy correctly valued stamps. When in doubt, take your item to the post office and ask questions.

If you’re sending postcards, buy postcard stamps from the postal service. In the U.S., these stamps are cheaper than standard first class stamps and will save you a good deal of money on a bulk mailing.

Send your mail so that it will arrive on a Tuesday or Wednesday (this rule also applies to your email newsletter). Not only is mail volume lighter after Monday, but work volume is lighter, too. Your recipient is likely to have a smaller amount of mail competing with yours for his or her attention on these days. He or she is also more to have a few more moments of attention to devote to something besides the day’s pressing work tasks.

Examples from Sussner Designer Co.

Sussner Design Company16 (aka SDCo) is a design firm that’s been doing superb (and award-winning) work in Minneapolis, Minnesota for over ten years. Derek Sussner – the company’s “proud owner guy,” according to their website – was kind enough to answer some questions about SDCo’s inventive promotional materials for this article.

Sussner Brochure

Sussner Design Company Promotional Brochure

“We printed about a 1,000,” Derek says of these newspaper-like brochures of the firm’s design work. “Of those, we mailed out 700. We use the rest as our portfolio when we meet with new clients, or to send to new people we come in contact with. Reflections17 printed them for us. We have a great, long-standing relationship with them. We create all of Reflections’ promotional materials – so we print our own self-promo materials for trade. These brochures/mailers have been pretty successful for us. And they are a great way to stay in front of people we haven’t talked to in awhile.”

SDCo. Anniversary Poster

Sussner Design Co. Ten-Year Anniversary Poster

When Derek is asked whether he purchases his mailing lists or generates them in-house, he responds, “Both. The mailing list that works the best is the one we keep in-house. We add people we work with, have worked with in the past, people we’ve met and/or submitted proposals for, colleagues, industry partners, and a few networking friends. We also purchased a list (and we’ve renewed it several times). From what I can tell, we’ve never generated a face to face meeting from the purchased list.”

Happy Hour Spinner

Sussner Design Company Happy Hour Spinner

The Sussner ‘happy hour spinner’ is a whimsical, functional, and extremely clever item that allows the user to put his or her happy hour destination in the hands of fate. The item was the follow-up to a Lunch Spinner, which Derek hopes to re-create soon. “We’re also looking to create a version the can be customized by the recipient – so they can be used by our out-of-town clients and friends.”

Derek’s says the company’s goal for promo mailers “is always that people keep them – and even better – display them on or around their desk. And the best scenario is that it causes them to write you an email or call you with a new project. I also like it when the leftover promos have a life span so you can continue to use them, hand them out, or send them with other capabilities presentations.”

Sussner Moving Announcement

Moving announcements and event notifications are other common types of promotional mailers.

Derek’s advice on the most important attribute of a successful mailer is simple: “It has to grab someone’s attention. Hopefully, it slows the motion of the arm down – if someone notices it on their way to throwing it in the garbage.” The truth of the matter is that all printed promotional matter – no matter how clever – is ultimately disposable. That’s why promo items need to create a mental and emotional impact on the audience’s mind as quickly and deeply as possible.

In Conclusion

Exceptional design work is promotion in itself. Keep your clients happy and follow your own path as an artist and craftsperson. Word of mouth will keep clients and fans of your work coming back to hire you or check in on the evolution of your creative talent. In fact, a designer at one popular screenprinting and graphic design studio contacted for this article said, “You’ll be interested to discover that we actually do not have any promotional material! Our posters have worked as an effective promotional material for us for years. Don’t ask me how, but they do.” The truth is that this award-winning studio stays on top because its designs are exceptional and original each and every time. It has also been in business for many years – accruing clients, awards, and publication in popular design magazines all the while.

However, for designers that work at new or growing businesses – some of which launched during a daunting economic downturn – promotion is a valuable tool. It can also be a great way to express your personal creative energy between jobs for professional clients.

Besides, Thomas Edison once said “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits,” and Jay-Z said “You can’t knock the hustle.”

So promote, promote, promote!

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.ultradesignco.com/
  2. 2 http://www.magneticstate.com
  3. 3 http://www.modernpostcard.com/knowledge/preparing-materials/mailing-guidelines/postal-regulations
  4. 4 http://www.jayvollmar.com/
  5. 5 http://www.modernpostcard.com
  6. 6 http://www.labzeus.com/
  7. 7 http://www.paulcoors.com/
  8. 8 http://www.jayvollmar.com/
  9. 9 http://www.hawkkrall.net/
  10. 10 http://www.hugoandmarie.com/
  11. 11 http://www.sussner.com/
  12. 12 http://www.jonweiman.com/
  13. 13 http://www.kuodesign.com/
  14. 14 http://www.kuodesign.com/gallery/promotions.html
  15. 15 http://www.hawkkrall.net
  16. 16 http://www.sussner.com/
  17. 17 http://www.printbetter.com

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Dan Redding creates websites and print design at his studio, Magnetic State. Follow Dan on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    Good article as usual.

  2. 2

    Nice article

  3. 3

    Interesting article, was a very good red. Thank You.

  4. 4

    refreshing to see some creative print work! great article. thanks!

  5. 5

    Useful! I was just looking for this..hehe

  6. 6

    Nice fresh idea for an article. I’m going to need to set aside some time to read it completely. I used to work in a print shop where we did mailers, I haven’t really considered them since the web days, but it makes perfect sense to hit people without computers with some snail mail. thanks!

  7. 7

    When you design primarily for the web, it’s easy to get locked into using only the web to advertise. But when linked with a strong call to action, snail mail can be an effective way to advertise and generate business. Nice article!

    • 8

      I think the answer here is that when it comes to advertising, we should try to reach our audience in every front, whether its through our web presence, snail mail, guerilla advertising, or something else we’ve never thought of before.

  8. 9

    Thank you! It’s refreshing to see such fabulous print samples!

    Just to add a couple of ways to save money at the post office. 1) If your printer sells mailing lists, they likely have lettershop services and will have great ideas to maximize postage savings. A very large mailing – especially concentrated in a few ZIP codes – should get some postage savings.

    2) There’s no need for a separate stamp for postcards – use your lettershop’s printed mail permit for that, too and you’ll save a little. But beware – to get the cheaper postcard rate, your card cannot exceed 6″x4/1/4.” Anything larger will be charged at the standard first class rate.

    • 10

      Laurel, you are right about the maximum dimension for a USPS First Class postcard rate being 4.25×6. However, you can mail an oversized postcard at the Standard Mail rate for a similar cost. Provided you or your lettershop has a permit. The First Class single piece rate for a 4.25×6 postcard is $0.28, but even the most expensive Standard Mail rate for a oversized 6×11 postcard (letter) is $0.27, and with concentration as you say, an even better rate could be had.
      See this quick postage rate reference to get a feel for how much cheaper.

  9. 11

    Really good article, very helpful with some useful tips and inspiring images. I’m looking into making something like this at the moment so this is the perfect time to stumble across this article, thank you! I’ve blogged about it here: starttoday.tumblr.com/ :)
    Chloe

  10. 12

    Since I work with interactive, sending print mailers always seemed so backwards to me. I’m much more a fan of creative email marketing. After all, if I can’t show client’s I can effectively execute interactive … However, I’m a huge fan of designing something creative, with tons of thought, for prospects or existing clients. Agreed, always do something spectacular and never go budget for mailers and I think that’s a win.

  11. 13

    This is a good subject and I am happy to see a primarily web focused site address it. I think that a good snail mail campaign can be a really great paring with an email campaign (just an example). With so much bombardment from emails, sending a well designed and well thought out TACTILE piece, could really make a difference with a consumer. Good stuff.

  12. 14

    Its nice to see people still create interesting and well designed mailers in this digital age. It can be more costly to produce printed materials, but it can certainly be worth it when done right. You can’t beat the touch of an actual mailer in your hand, feeling the texture and smelling the ink. Long live print!

    Thanks for the article SM.

  13. 15

    Awesome article

  14. 16

    This medium is being superseded by the online options. Only excellent innovation can make it effective. These examples show how well it has been used.

  15. 17

    @ModernPostcard

    March 16, 2010 8:13 am

    Thanks for the mention and great article! Here at Modern, we’ve sent countless highly creative pieces into the mail for our clients. Flat, folded and triple cards featuring stunning design, photography, artwork and more. They make great mini-portfolios for mailing, as well as leave-behinds when you do land the interview. Since having an online portfolio is a must these days, creating a tangible, companion print piece actually helps you stand out from the crowd.

  16. 18

    The guy in the first example is Jorge Rivero, I wonder if that designer has the copyrights

    • 19

      That piece was featured in Print magazine’s Regional Design Annual several years ago, and I have spoken with the designer (Humberto Howard) about it for this article. I highly doubt that he has violated any copyrights.

      • 20

        just kidding, that guy was a star in mexican action movies in the 70’s, I’m sure he has no copyrights, actually I don’t think he would care… but now that I think it, I’m not sure if he’s still alive…

  17. 21

    Cranky Pressman

    March 16, 2010 8:34 am

    Good article and a welcome change from the usual self-promotional advice that tends to focus on things like a strongly worded call to action. Any call to action is not even going to be seen if the piece goes straight in the bin. Great ideas, design and production make for memorable (and keepable) promotions.

  18. 22

    The Ultra Design Co link looks like broken?

  19. 24

    Great work toward the end of this post from the folks at Sussner—particularly that last poster!

    I’ve been recently setting up a mailing list system for my portfolio site fusing Campaign Monitor with Expression Engine.

  20. 25

    Here’s an alternate URL for Ultra Design Co.
    http://humbertohoward.com/
    which does work. :)

  21. 26

    For all the designers out there who want a quick way of submitting your artwork to be professionally printed – and avoid going back and forth with a printer on formats, dpi, and other issues – we just launched software that allows you to save it in a print-ready format from your favorite design tool. If you’d like to be one of the first to try it out, please do and let us know what you think! quantumdigital.com/printready

  22. 27

    Thanks for your comments, loyal Smashing readers! It’s great to hear your feedback.

  23. 28

    Good article and a welcome change from the usual self-promotional advice that tends to focus on things like a strongly worded call to action. Any call to action is not even going to be seen if the piece goes straight in the bin. Great ideas, design and production make for memorable (and keepable) promotions.

  24. 29

    This is an awesome article. Smashing Mag should do more of these print design articles, because it is great to know some artists who make art which is more art and little less usability (as in web designing).

    Great tutorial too, Dan.

  25. 30

    Great article. Very inspiring.

  26. 31

    Nice article. Snail mail works. Google certainly seems to think so (I keep getting AdWords coupons in the mail).

    A few more thoughts. Your house list (names of current clients, prospects, and contacts) will nearly always get a better response than an outside list. After all, they already know and like you.

    Purchasing a list is a bad idea. Purchased lists are generally compiled – meaning that they were put together without any action or purchase from the people on the list.

    You’re better off renting a list instead; making a payment for one-time usage of a list owned by someone else. You want something with names of people who actually bought or asked for something, such as subscribers to a trade magazine for your target market.

    The response rate will be much better.

    • 32

      I totally agree with this.

      Last year, I helped a small business with two mailing campaigns. First, we used the bought list. Minimal response. Then, we used the house list-upselling galore!

      • 33

        Thanks for your input, Greg and Jodi! Personally, I have never bought a list so it remains uncharted territory for me. Good to hear your thoughts on the subject.

        Jodi, you should use your AdWords coupon if you haven’t tried the service yet. It’s effective and enjoyable to use.

        • 34

          All lists, even house lists, are compiled in some way, and are subject to data and age issues.

          I think the original advice still stands, buy from a known and reputable vendor. Buying your list from the guy who printed your mail piece might not always be the best idea; his strength is likely printing, not keeping up to date with the best sources for quality lists. You can get some high quality lists out there, provided you know who to ask.

        • 35

          @Dan, I’ve redeemed it and set up the account. Just have to execute (ship!) now.

          @Matthew, you’re right, no list will be perfect, 100% deliverable, and I probably wouldn’t get one from a printer either. However, the trouble with purchased (rather than rented) lists is twofold.

          One, nobody on that list got there by buying something – or even raising their hand and saying, “I have a problem, help me”!

          Secondly, they’re not as up-to-date. People tell banks, Amazon, credit card companies, etc. when they move. Nobody tells InfoUSA. I’ve heard that the nixie rates (mail sent back because of a bad address) on their lists are as high as 27%! A good list would have an error rate of about 2%.

          So, you’re spending money on something that starts with two strikes against it. Wouldn’t you rather start with no strikes?

          • 36

            In the US, any list no matter how you get it, should be run through NCOALink to catch people who have moved. There is a small cost associated with this service, but it more than pays for itself if you consider all the money you have wasted (printing, postage, lost opportunity) when your mail piece doesn’t get delivered to your target. 44+ million change of addresses are filed in the US every year – even my Christmas card list gets out of date.

            A good list vendor, for that matter, should be running their data through NCOALink weekly to avoid selling you a list with out of date addresses.

            If you are interested, you can find a white paper about address updating, and other info about NCOALink here.

  27. 37

    Great article, though I’m disappointed to see that you haven’t included DubLi’s latest promo campaign!

  28. 38

    Great article, going to use some of these tips ASAP. Thanks!

  29. 39

    Helge-Kristoffer Wang

    March 17, 2010 5:29 pm

    Great, not just great.. Fantastic article! I love these kinds of articles, and I’m going to make good use of the tips you just came with!

    Thanks alot from a Norwegian designer!

  30. 40

    Wow… SO helpful. I’ve been recently considering doing my first big mailer and this has given me so much to chew on. Thank you!

  31. 41

    Another thing is that a lot of Art Directors tack postcards and printed promo stuff to their wall, so they end up looking at it every day.. and it becomes more substantial than the zillions of images that they click through on the web every day.

    Although it really depends on the AD/Client.. I’ve also had some people who I sent mailers to for years with no response, and then sent a quick email and a had a job the next day! Basically you need to do it all.

  32. 42

    This is refreshing to see. We were doing a different self promo each month in 2006 when business was slow. Although some of the promos were expensive to produce, it only took landing that one client that we’ve had since that has more than paid off. If you want to see some of our pieces, you can visit our website at http://www.creativeinstinct.com/portfolio.html and click on Self Promo.

  33. 43

    Great post, it’s amazing how rarely people think about snail mail campaigns. I actually created MailFinch (www.mailfinch.com) as a joke just a few months ago and we’re already sending over 20K pieces a month.

    If any of you guys are interested in trying to design something that could go out on standard letter size sheets or ledger sized booklets (essentially 4 letter sized pages), I’d be happy to comp you in exchange for some detailed feedback on the service. :)

  34. 44

    Great article, useful comments and a very good handling on the author’s part of the overall conversation. Future articles on everything print are more than welcome.

  35. 45

    Great article. very inspiring. thanks you very much for good article

  36. 46

    hanskfroschauer

    March 27, 2010 1:36 am

    Great post!

    How bout more post about direct mails, sales-letters and other print-related marketing-material? It’s fairly easy to find inspirational material for web design, but I have yet to find a good direct mail-inspiration-site…

    Cheers!

  37. 47

    Great material.

  38. 48

    Another great printing article by smashing magazine. Snail mail campaigns can be really successful because not too many companies are doing them anymore which will make you stand out. The point is – you can put money into online ads as well as into snail mail – people will still read both!

  39. 49

    It’s articles like this that make the internet so flippin’ rad! I’m interested in creating my first mailer, so this helps me navigate this task. Thanks Dan! And thanks to the caliber of your readers, the intelligent comments were of serious help as well. Thanks Every-One!

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