Amid tighter budgets and higher postal rates, more direct mailers are pondering whether or not to test the self-mailer format. "I think direct mail budgets (and client requests) have been trending toward smaller, more cost-efficient formats for some time, well over a year," states Steve Penn, CEO and executive creative director of Penn Garritano Direct Response Marketing in Minneapolis.
Yet not all marketers have witnessed a significant move to self-mailers, especially among sectors traditionally unfriendly to the format. "I really question the validity of this trend," comments Russell Kern, founder and CEO of The Kern Organization, a direct marketing company based in Woodland Hills, Calif. "I have not seen large-scale, highly successful direct mailers use a self-mailer. And I've never seen a self-mailer beat a traditional letter kit for any length of time. The [recent] DMA study of mailers also shows the same thing."
However, in some markets, employing the self-mailer makes plenty of sense. Here are some key questions to ask before going forward.
1. Where exactly are self-mailers trending upward?
"Retail and consumer direct mailers have been using postcards and self-mailers to drive retail traffic and online activity for the past several years, but where I've noticed the biggest trend is in lead generation for business-to-business marketers and not just in any particular industry, but really across the board," says Penn, whose company last year downsized a 9˝ x 12˝ control package for a B-to-B client to a 6˝ x 9˝, and this year is testing trifold self-mailers.
Although new postal regulations concerning flats have made it difficult for magalog and tabloid mailings, they remain the standard format in some markets, says Bob Bly, a copywriter based in Dumont, N.J. and author of "The Copywriter's Handbook." "For financial newsletters, magalogs are the most popular DM format. For business opportunity, digests are working. For nutritional supplements, tabloids have worked well. For B-to-B lead generation, postcards have become very popular—much more so than trifold self-mailers with tear-off BRCs," he explains.
Kern says self-mailers are also good for educational marketers, auto dealers, traffic generation activities and catalog marketers. Matt Cote, an account manager at Ballantine, a New Jersey-based direct mail company, mentions trade-show marketing and travel/resort-related industries that frequently employ self-mailers, along with some publication testing as well.
Accordingly, as seen in the Target Marketing Group's Who's Mailing What! Archive, the self-mailer is growing within the publications field, with 18.4 percent of publishing efforts using self-mailers so far this year after only 13.4 percent did so in 2007.
2. Why is self-mailer usage going up in some markets?
"Postage rates. It's the cost. It is, I think, that simple to a large degree. In consumer mail, the trend has usually been to mail smaller but smarter because of the volume. It can be a tremendous cost to large mailers," explains Penn, who says it remains to be seen whether increasingly smaller formats can perform as well in B-to-B situations. "A fair amount of real estate is often required to tell complicated stories ... especially when it comes to selling big-ticket purchases like machinery or technology."
Ryan Cote, director of marketing at Ballantine, concurs. "I look at self-mailers as a simplified mail piece. They're easier to produce and generally cost less (depending on many variables of course) ... but they still allow for a variety of response vehicles: toll-free number, Web site address, PURL, tear-off reply card. We even have some publication clients testing a double postcard self-mailer with a BRE glue-tacked inside," he reveals.
For Kern, he's witnessed a trend to use self-mailers where variable data printing comes into play. "Thus for mailers who have audiences under 500,000 and can afford a 15-cent to 25-cent cost per package given their profit margin, they are using self-mailers," he illustrates.
3. In what markets should the self-mailer format be kept to a minimum?
Anywhere letter packages remain the norm, self-mailers have a tough road to haul in terms of both response rate and, certainly, longevity. "I far prefer letter packages to self-mailers, and so do most prospects," says Nancy Harhut, senior vice president/managing director of relationship marketing at Hill Holliday, a full-service marketing company based in Boston.
Kern says, "For direct sale, drive to the phone, I'm not a fan of [self-mailers]. I'm just an opinion of one, but having the responsibility to mail over 500 million pieces of mail and seeing hundreds of tests a year, I can't say I've seen self-mailers be a workhorse for any of my clients. Maybe it's because we have such scale [that] we can produce a letter kit cheaper than a self-mailer."
In fundraising, for example, one would expect to see a rise in self-mailer usage because of postal costs hitting that sector so hard. Accordingly, Save the Children sent out a successful triple postcard back in November 2007 (profiled in the February issue of Inside Direct Mail). But no shift has occurred in the sector, yet, with the percentage of efforts that are self-mailers actually sinking to its lowest level in the past five years in the Who's Mailing What! Archive to 4.1 percent this year.
4. What are the best ways to maximize this format?
Just as there are many new players in the self-mailer game, there are equally many new ways to play it. "Where self-mailers can seem to work with our clients (notably telecom[munications] and finance) is with retail-like offers, where the message is simple ('do this before X date' or 'go to this URL for a special offer') and the format underscores it," says Harhut.
For the B-to-B market, Bly agrees, partly because he says marketers are convinced that executives have no time to read. "Their self-mailers have minimal copy—typically a headline, three to five bullets and a Web site URL—with an emphasis on creative color graphics," he describes.
That design emphasis is key, of course, for self-mailer success. "It must have an arresting mail panel, a cover that makes you want to open it, then a clear presentation of the offer, which crescendos into the call to action. All easier said then done!" admits Kern.