Honor thy mailing list: A lesson in direct mail prudence

A school district in Wisconsin learned a tough lesson about direct mail recently: Don’t skimp when it comes to your list.

When the Milton School District tried to use direct mail to send surveys to all residents within the district boundaries, their initial mailing missed more than 2300 homes.

What went wrong?
The school district developed the survey to gather input from all Milton residents about the instructional, operational, and facility needs in the district. However, rather than sending to specific addresses, the school district used an online map to mail the surveys to all households within three zip codes.

The problem? Postal delivery routes don’t align with district boundaries.

Though the three zip codes selected for the mailing represented a majority of residents in the school district, district officials missed four of nine delivery routes included in one of the zip codes. The error left 2486 residences that were supposed to receive the survey, but did not.

A lesson learned
With the snafu, employees of the school district, including communications supervisor Jerry Schuetz, had to scramble to hand-deliver copies of the survey to residents, send surveys via email and print a second batch to be mailed to those who hadn’t received one.

The goal of using the zip codes as a mailing key was to send the surveys in manner that cost the least for taxpayers – but the cost of the second mailing and man-hours spent to correct the error were not accounted for.

“The time we have spent correcting this was time that could have been spent doing other things,” said Scheutz. “It’s a process that we’ve learned from and a process that will help us be better in the future.”

The best way to learn is from someone else’s mistake
So what can YOU learn from the Milton School District’s mistake? Here are four lessons:

  • Work with someone who lives and breathes direct mail.
    Whether it’s your first time using direct mail or your fiftieth, it’s important to have the support of a partner who understands all the complexities of postal zip codes, delivery routes and mail requirements. The Milton School District was working with a research firm to help conduct the survey, but didn’t have the support of a business that could help with the mail side. If you want to do direct mail right, partner with an organization who can guide you through the process strategically and keep you up-to-date on changes within the Postal Service.
  • If possible, send your direct mail to addresses, not zip codes.
    Even better, send your direct mail to people, not addresses. In theory, using zip codes is a great idea for those who want to reach a geographically large area; however, with the complexities of postal delivery routes within any given zip code, it’s a much better idea to rent a list that contains specific addresses within a radius of a designated point.
  • Don’t skimp on costs when it comes to your mailing list.
    It’s not particularly fun to think about, but your mailing list may be the most important part of your direct mail campaign. If your message is going to the wrong people – or, as in this case, not getting to the right people – then the format, message or creative won’t matter. If you aren’t reaching the right audience, your response rate and your ROI will suffer. Ultimately, the cost of a failed direct mail campaign will outweigh the cost of doing it the right way.
  • Don’t forget about your own customer list.
    The Milton School District does have a database that includes families in the district. They could have used this list in conjunction with a rented list to ensure that their entire audience was reached. The benefit of using your own customer list? It doesn’t cost you anything (as long as your data is kept up-to-date). Plus, when you’re using direct mail to sell products or services, you’re much more likely to get business from an existing customer over a new one.

And a bonus tip, because we’re feeling generous:

  • Be as specific as possible with your mailing list.
    It’s not usually enough to use geographic parameters alone to select your mail list, though this case is an exception. Get to know the people in your target audience based on characteristics that are likely to affect their buying decisions: age, gender, income, marital status, occupation, etc. Ask yourself who might be in the position to buy your product and then talk to your direct mail provider about how you can narrow your mailing list to include only those people. This helps you bring down the size of your list and avoid spending money on people who won’t (or can’t) use your product or service.
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