The Self-mailer Challenge
One piece of paper, a thousand ways to get it wrong.
By Gayl Curtiss and Paul Ford
How can something that feels so easy be so complex? Depending on your timelines, production limitations and sales strategy, the suggestion of using a "simple" self-mailer for a campaign could be a mirage that drags you into quite a few production, timing and strategy problems.
The situation typically starts with a job that requires great response on a fast turn. Someone invariably suggests the self-mailer, because it's "just one piece of paper." The creative, printing, bindery and lettershop processes should take at least half the time of a conventional package. What can go wrong?
A good self-mailer is more difficult to create than many think. Why? It has to be the letter, reply, brochure, outer envelope and lift note—all in one. You'll note we said "good," because many self-mailers are not given the creative consideration needed to produce the best results.
When to Use This Format
Carolyn Hansen, creative director of The Hacker Group (THG), points out that self-mailers generally deliver a lower response rate than a traditional package that makes the same offer.
Having said that, Hansen explains that there are a few situations in which a self-mailer could be appropriate:
• Your offer has quick visual appeal.
• Your offer leaps off the page, and your call to action is easy—a simple phone call or Web address.
• Your message is easy to understand. For instance, if you want your prospect to "hold the date" for an event, a postcard or other self-mailer will do.
• Your mailing doesn't need to make a sale. A self-mailer can be the right choice if you're driving traffic to a retail location where a sales associate can close the deal.
• Your response device protects personal information. A perforated reply postcard should not contain a request for the recipient's credit card number or medically- sensitive information (e.g., "Yes! Send me information on how to treat my herpes."). It also shouldn't reveal any information the recipient might consider too private (e.g., "Your criminal record isn't that bad!").
Some basic, tried-and-true design rules apply when creating a good self-mailer:
• Cover or billboard side—Here's where you put your "big photo," headline and offer tease. The only goal of the cover is to get the reader inside the self-mailer. Consider this panel your "envelope," and design it to present your promotional look. Response is significantly better when you use production techniques that allow you to personalize this area, too. People are more likely to respond to a headline that reads, "Gayl, Your time is running out!," than to, "Time is running out!"
• Mailing panel—This is where the recipient's address and offer code (used for tracking) reside, along with housekeeping details, such as indicia and return address. Everyone who gets your self-mailer will look at this panel to see his or her name. Make sure you put a powerful offer headline on this panel, when possible. And personalize it if you can, just like you would the billboard side; we all love to see our names in print.
• Inside panels—The inside of a self-mailer has to serve as a letter, brochure, offer, lift note and response device all in one. So, what you do in here is critical to the success or failure of your mailing. The inside is where you need to connect with your reader emotionally, selling him or her on the ironclad logic of your offer and including a response mechanism. You'll also want to include eye-catching photography to hold the reader's interest.
Sound like a challenge? The raw space you have to work with is one reason why a good self-mailer is hard to find. Ensure you are making an eye-popping offer and that the self-mailer has a simple call to action. If you have more to say, more to show or more to do than can fit on that one piece of paper, reconsider your self-mailer choice early, before you're stuck with the format. That giant poster of a self-mailer can start to look like a postage stamp pretty darned quick.
• A third panel—In most self-mailers with three panels, the third panel acts like an orphan on a brochure. A smart use of this panel is to reiterate the offer and "tease a little deeper," maybe with some tantalizing product or service details or an enticing photo. Again, if you can personalize this panel, you'll be doing your response numbers a big favor.
OK, the production is supposed to be easy, right? After all, it's just a self-mailer. How hard can it be? Well it's just that false sense of well-being that's been the undoing of many production managers. Here are the issues that need to be resolved:
• Know up from down. Mailpiece layout can be a nightmare if you're not careful. And it's more common to make a mistake with the layout than you think. The designer often fails to identify the top and bottom somewhere in the art files or to show the printer how to back up the artwork correctly. Make sure to call out the top and bottom in the art files. You'll really be doing yourself a favor if you can send your printer(s) a backed-up folding dummy so when the job is on press, the pressperson can see what is expected.
• Understand the imaging technology. This sounds boring, but make sure you check on these aspects:
a. Is your paper too thick to laser? Have your production facility verify the stock on which you are lasering is compatible.
b. If you're planning on using spot or flood varnish, make sure your vendor verifies that its equipment can personalize on a stock that has varnish.
c. When you request a bid for "inkjet" personalization, make sure your vendor understands your intent. Some inkjet equipment can personalize anywhere on a side of a self-mailer, while other inkjet equipment can only image in 1˝ bands in limited locations. You need to be clear when you request a bid—and before you select the vendor—that the vendor's equipment can deliver on the self-mailer your design team has envisioned.
• To tab, or not to tab, that is the question. To qualify for automation postage rates, the open side of your folded self-mailer has to be sealed. The two most common options are tabs and glue. At THG, we rarely use tabs, since they are ugly, cover printing and usually rip the self-mailer when the recipient tries to open them. Release, or "fugitive," glue is our preferred method, since it easily releases and doesn't cover up any sales "real estate."
• Give the ink some time to dry. Yes, production is all about speed. However, self-mailers usually are printed on dense, thick and coated stock. That means you have to allow adequate time for the paper stock to dry, so that mailpieces can continue down the production assembly line and be successfully personalized and folded. Remember, you often are printing large, color solids on coated stock, then putting the ink-heavy materials through a heat or roller process to be personalized, and finally jamming it through folders before at long last it's allowed to rest before being dropped into the mail system.
So, don't underestimate the work involved to produce a successful self-mailer. But by all means learn to make the most of this mailing style's versatility and lower cost investment.
Postal Regulations Regarding Courtesy and Business Reply Cards
Oversized Outgoing/Incoming Postcards/ Reply Cards: All postcards greater than 4-1⁄2˝x 6˝ must be at least .009˝ thick instead of .007˝. This can be a problem for some vendors, because lasers—especially web lasers—have a difficult time imaging on material this thick. Inkjet personalization is the best option in lieu of lasering. Any postcard that is greater than 4-1⁄2˝ x 6˝ (thus considered oversized) does not qualify for the postcard postage rate. Maximum letter rate (before a mailing is considered a flat) is 6-1⁄8˝ x 11-1⁄2˝.
Regulation Outgoing/Incoming Postcards/Reply Cards: To qualify for the postcard rate, all postcards must be at least 3-1⁄2˝ x 5˝ and no more than 4-1⁄2˝ x 6˝ to be mailed at a thickness of .007˝.
Quality Control for Business Reply Cards
The Hacker Group (THG) process for the approval of postage paid business reply cards (BRCs):
1. All THG proofs or client-supplied artwork for a BRC are to be presented—either in person, as a PDF, or via e-mail or fax—to the receiving post office location for its review and approval. (The proper post office location and phone number can be determined by calling (800) 275-8777; press 1; press 6; and then enter the BRC ZIP code).
2. Before artwork is sent to the printer, the sign-off from the USPS Mail Classification Department must be attached to the proof for verification during final proofing.
3. The issue of whether the artwork is client-supplied does not relieve THG from its responsibilities. Incorrectly prepared, client-supplied artwork should be corrected, and problems brought to the attention of the account manager. It is THG's responsibility to ensure all reply mail artwork is produced to USPS specifications.
4. The USPS approval is to be retained in the job jacket along with all other important proofs.
5. THG verifies that everything on a BRC, including the P.O. Box, Permit No., barcode and ZIP +4, are correct so the returned postage-paid cards are processed at the postcard rate (23 cents for postage, not including fees) and not letter rate (37 cents for postage, not including fees).
Quality Control Issues for Self-mailers
• Is the laser copy going to be at least 2˝ above/below a perforation?
• Do the variable sentences have enough space to laser longer-than-usual names?
• Is the business or courtesy reply automation compatible?
• Do you have the correct ZIP+4 for the response type?
• Does the reply device have enough room to laser longer-than-usual names?
• Does the reply device backup correctly in the layout?
• Are the perforations clearly called out on the artwork?
• Remember: Folded self-mailers can't be mailed into Canada through the USPS; remove all records mailed into Canada.
Gayl Curtiss is the general manager of and Paul Ford is a senior writer for The Hacker Group, a subsidiary of FCB Worldwide LLC, located in Bellevue, Wash., a suburb of Seattle.