Art & Design, Direct Mail Products

Exploring Different Types of Direct Mail Formats to Increase ROI


To make sure that your message creates an impact, you need to choose the right direct mail formats. But which direct mail format works best?

In this post, I’m going to provide a quick rundown of the advantages of each of the 3 main direct mail formats, as well as what industry categories they are best-suited for, based on industry statistics. I’ll also consider factors that may affect the ROI of the direct mail campaign, depending on the format used.

What is a Direct Mail Format?

A direct mail format is the type of mailer that helps you get your message or offer to the mailbox of your prospect or customer.

It can be an envelope, with one or more components inside, like a letter, flyer, buck slip, reply device, and maybe, a reply envelope as well.

Or it could be a postcard or folded self-mailer, which both display that messaging and branding up front for all to see.

And other formats include polybags, snap-packs, booklets, or catalogs, each with their own ways of getting attention and engaging customers.

But, not every format works equally well for every campaign. How can you figure out which one is right for you?

Here are three popular direct mail formats and their unique strengths to consider when mapping your strategy:


Why Envelopes Work

To most people, the envelope is direct mail.

Envelope mailers can include several elements, such as the outer envelope (and its teaser), a letter, a lift note, inserts, a brochure, an order form, and a reply envelope. These components support your message in different ways, such as answering objections and providing extra information.

It is also a more personal way to speak to prospects, to tell your story, and what you can do for them.

Who Uses Envelopes

The biggest envelope users are verticals like nonprofits, financial services, insurance, healthcare, and transaction promotions.

Their target audiences require lots of reassurance about data confidentiality and security and most personal information. Also, in many cases, regulations and compliance requirements may also demand the privacy provided by an envelope.

Folded Self-Mailers

Why Folded Self-Mailers Work

This type of direct mail format is more versatile and visually engaging than a postcard. With multiple tabbed or glued folded panels, you have more real estate to tell your target audience about your product or service and what you want them to do.

Who Uses Folded Self-Mailers

Retailers, telecom companies, and some healthcare providers are common users because they need to convey a fair amount of information but without a lot of personalization.

Mail Postcards

Why Mail Postcards Work

Think about it: a 2-sided card that doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting. It gets attention quickly, they are cost effective, conveys a small amount of information, and tells recipients how to respond. That’s it!

Who Uses Mail Postcards

Postcards are very versatile, well-suited for limited uses for most industries, with nonprofits as the biggest exception.

Keep in mind, however, that there’s limited selling space compared to other direct mail formats. Here, the mailer’s job is to focus the reader on something narrow: make an announcement, remind them about a date, tell them about a sale or grand opening, or thank them for a purchase.

Because of this narrow focus, and their cost-effectiveness, they’re perfect for most small and local businesses.

Takeaways & Tips for Direct Mail Formats

Make sure the content matches your objective and audience

Don’t spend extra for a full-dress envelope mail campaign when a self-mailer can do the same job for less. On the other hand, a luxury retailer can damage its reputation and audience expectations by mailing a postcard on uncoated stock.

Use typography and hierarchy to stress important info

No matter which format you pick, don’t go crazy with fonts! Just use one or two that are attractive and easy to read.

Also, organize your copy, images, and graphics to emphasize the most important information. Make it as easy as possible for your recipient to scan your piece, discover your pitch, price or offer, and know what you want them to do.

Check your budget

Got a champagne-size campaign but only a beer budget? You have many options for design, printing, processing, and postage but also a wide range of costs.

Weigh the impact of each on your campaign’s budget versus your campaign objective and other expenses, such as data and list usage, and your offer’s price points.

Watch your timeline

A direct mail campaign has many moving parts and tasks to check off from a schedule. Even a postcard campaign could fall victim to delays or holdups in approvals, printing, or postage. So, plan realistically.

Decide how a direct mail format will fit into your marketing program

Is this format a one-off, just for one campaign, or one of your go-to mailers? Developing a template, with copy and graphic elements that you can swap out easily, can save money on the front end and decrease printing costs for repeat campaigns.

Direct Mail Format FAQs

The most popular direct mail formats may not necessarily be the most effective. Depending on your campaign objective, as well as your target audience, a particular format may work better in driving response and delivering the ROI you need. Here’s more information to help you decide what will work best in your marketing campaign.

What are the most common types of direct mail formats?

According to Who’s Mailing What! statistics, the most common types of direct mail formats are:

  • envelopes (34%)
  • postcards (48%)
  • self-mailers (18%)

Those figures from 2021 (the latest year available) don’t tell the full story, however. The distribution of formats preferred by companies has shifted since 2009. Because of changes in postage and printing prices, postcards have become the most economical choice in many industry categories. Self-mailers too have grown in usage over that time.

What direct mail formats are most effective?

Have you ever heard somebody say “Form follows function?” It means an object’s shape or form should reflect what it’s supposed to do. This approach usually applies to architecture or industrial design, but it can just as easily describe figuring out which direct mail formats are most effective.

As we noted before, envelopes are best for specific categories of mail because of privacy and regulatory concerns. However, when that is not an issue, the best way to think about which direct mail formats are most effective is to say “it depends”.

You need to balance competing interests versus the objective of your campaign. Getting a handle on your audience is an essential first step to help you decide what format will best serve your needs. Other considerations include:

  • Budget (including printing and postage)
  • Timetable or schedule
  • Response rate
  • Return on Investment (ROI)
  • Lifetime Customer Value (LCV)

Your message style, as I noted in the sections above, also guides your choice of formats:

  • Quick, single focus message (postcard)
  • Detailed message (self-mailer)
  • Confidential message and feel (envelope mailer)

You are not locked into any one direct mail format based on your past experience. For example, moving some copy and design elements from one format to another may not have an impact on your response rates. It may also improve your ROI, if printing and postage costs are a concern.

As the late marketer Mal Decker said, “Two rules and two rules only exist in marketing: Rule No. 1: Test everything. Rule No. 2: See Rule No. 1.”

Wrapping it up

Whatever direct mail format you choose, each offers clear advantages for many types of printing and mail projects. The tips above will help you decide the right one to mail for the right campaign at the right time.

Here at, we have decades of experience in working with envelopes, self-mailers, and postcards. We look forward to partnering with you on designing a campaign that takes full advantage of our digital and litho equipment to produce direct mail campaigns that meet your needs and fulfill your campaign objective. Feel free to contact us to talk all about it.

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