10 Tips for Effective Direct Mail Campaigns for Libraries

Direct_Mail_Campaigns_for_LibrariesBoth marketers and political operatives use direct mail, promotional pieces sent directly through the mail to a target audience, to get ahead in their campaigns. Direct mail is a communication tactic that utilizes a wide variety of mailed materials that includes brochures, catalogs, postcards, newsletters and sales letters to sell products and services, acquire customers or to inform an audience in a political campaign. In fact, large companies and political campaigns of all sizes across the country deploy direct mail pieces. Reliance on this tactic as a means to reach target audiences may be surprising in the digital age where Facebook ads and email campaigns are ubiquitous and low cost. However, direct mail is still used effectively whenever it’s necessary and appropriate. Librarians can take advantage of this method of contact and learn when, where, and how to use direct mail to reach their audiences effectively to benefit their libraries.

I have used direct mail a number of times as a librarian and library administrator and as the political director for EveryLibrary, where I have worked on a number of political campaigns for libraries. During my time as the Administrative Librarian in Sunnyvale, California, we embarked on a direct mail campaign in which hundreds of nonusers in our community received a piece of mail to encourage them to sign up for a library card and use the library. More recently, as political director to a number of political campaigns, I have worked with library ballot committees to build effective direct mail campaigns to encourage high propensity “likely yes” voters to vote in favor of the local library. Through these experiences, I learned a lot about what makes an effective direct mail campaign, including best practices, some of the pitfalls, when to use it and when not to use it.

The good news is that direct mail has a decent response rate. According to the Direct Mail Association, it has a response rate of about 3.75% with a house list (people who have opted-in to receive promotional materials from your organization), and a 1.0% response rate with a prospect list (people who have been identified as potential customers). This may seem like a fairly low response rate, but considering that all digital channels combined only achieve a 0.62% response rate, it is actually fairly high.

Digital Channel Response Rates

  • Mobile: 0.2%
  • Email: 0.1% for a prospect list and 0.1% for house/total list
  • Social Media: 0.1%
  • Paid Search: 0.1%
  • Display Advertising: 0.02%

All of this means that if 100 people receive a piece of direct mail, only a handful of people will take any action at all. So, if your library sends 100 pieces of mail asking residents to get a library card, you can only expect around 5 people to come to the library to sign up for a card. (In fact, this is exactly in line with our results in Sunnyvale, where we sent 750 pieces of mail and got around 25 library card sign-ups.)

The bad news is that the high cost of direct mail can be a significant barrier for libraries. While postcards can be printed fairly cheaply through services like VistaPrint, and brochures and flyers can be printed for a few cents on a home printer, the most significant cost of a direct mail campaign is the postage. A single piece of direct mail can cost as little as 50 cents if volunteers are used to apply stamps and addresses or stuff envelopes, or it can cost as much as $1.50 if you have a vendor do the mailing for you. These costs make direct mail a fairly expensive method of contact when a library or campaign is trying to send hundreds of pieces of mail.

That’s why, if you are planning on executing this type of campaign, you need to be sure that you are doing it as effectively as possible in order to ensure a high enough return on investment. The following 10 tips for direct mail will help ensure that you are spending your advertising and advocacy dollars wisely.

1. Perform A/B Testing

I wrote about A/B testing in my post Library Advocacy: Getting Your Message Out. Before you send out a few thousand pieces of mail, take the time to test a few different versions with small changes to each and monitor which one has the highest returns. In our campaign in Sunnyvale, we tested different designs by sending them to different test groups (split between about a quarter of our entire mailing list). We measured our results and used the design that had the highest rate of return when we mailed to the remaining residents.

Test Group A Mailing
Test Group B Mailing

2. Establish a Well-segmented Audience

Direct mail should only go to people who you know will respond to it. For example, it would be a bad idea to send a piece of mail about attending storytime to residents without children. It would be a huge waste of campaign resources to send mail to nonvoters or worse, opposition voters, in a political campaign. There are many great ways to develop segmented audiences in your community. For example, try using AtoZdatabases.com or ReferenceUSA to build some target audiences with accurate address information. Of course, you can also buy audience lists from many vendors online.

3. Focus on the “Why,” Not the “What”

In many of the campaigns that EveryLibrary works with, we often hear the library and the ballot committee talk about what the voters get if the campaign passes. They mention things like more seating, better parking, or more study spaces. While it’s true that the community will get those things, those aren’t things that they’ll vote for, take action on, or respond to. Instead, people want a vision for the future, and they want to know why the steps and tactics included in that vision are important. So, if you are sending out mail about storytime, don’t focus on when and where storytime is; instead, focus on why storytime is so important for children in their community. Show them that storytime helps develop early literacy and math skills, which helps prepare students for success in kindergarten and throughout their lives.

4. Use Human Faces

For our campaign in Sunnyvale, we found that direct mail with human faces got a slightly higher response rate. I also found this to be true in political campaigns, and the data holds true across a wide range of marketing tactics. People tend to respond to human faces in media at a higher rate than other images, and a human face showing a strong emotion can quickly create an emotionally captivating piece of mail. For example, check out the mailing piece that was sent out by the California Association of Realtors against a library campaign in Pomona, California.

5. Create a Sense of Urgency

The most effective time to send out direct mail is when there is a deadline or some sense of urgency. If you send out a piece of mail that can be responded to whenever, they will respond to it whenever (if at all). But, if there is an event or a deadline, or a limited time offer, then people will more urgently respond to the mail. For example, in Sunnyvale, staff gave prizes to anyone who brought in the piece of mail and signed up for a library card within a specific time frame.

6. Create It as Part of a Larger Campaign

Direct mail should not be the first time that someone hears from you, and if it’s the last, it’s just as bad. Direct mail should only be used as part of a larger contact strategy. This is especially true in the political campaigns we run when we talk about voter contacts. We want to ensure that voters show up to vote on Election Day, so we contact them a number of times over many weeks or months. Direct mail is just a small part of that contact strategy. For example, voters will see a number of Facebook ads, receive an email, get a phone call, have someone knock on their door and receive a few pieces of direct mail. This ensures that they take action on Election Day.

7. Spend Money and Time on Good Design

I have seen some terribly designed pieces of direct mail. The problem with bad design is that the recipients often overlook the message of the mail or miss something important. A good graphic artist can design your mail to “flow” so that the human eye naturally moves across it in a logical and appealing way. This flow helps recipients quickly understand why they’re receiving the mail and what they should do next. Bad flow can often mean that the mail just winds up in the trash can more quickly.

8. Keep It Short

Don’t write a paragraph when one sentence will do.

9. Focus on ONE Ask

A piece of mail should only ask the recipient to take one action. If they are asked to do much more than that, they will often feel overwhelmed, get confused, or just feel like it’s too much work and not respond to any of the actions. That’s why it’s so important that your audiences are well segmented and different people get the mail that matters to them. As pointed out in a previous example, you can send parents mail asking them to attend storytimes, you can ask nonusers to sign up for a library card or you can ask recent college graduates to attend a class to help them apply for professional jobs. It can often be tempting to tell people about all of the great things that libraries offer, but if you want a higher return on investment for your direct mail campaign, only send your target audience information about one thing they care about.

10. Learn When Not to Use Direct Mail

Face-to-face marketing and in-person political campaign contacts are still the most powerful form of contacting audiences. There is no substitute for taking the time to reach out and talk to your community. If you have the luxury of a high number of volunteers or staff members who can conduct good outreach through phone banking, canvassing, attending community meetings or setting up a table in front of the local coffee shop, then focus your resources there. If your local geography allows for easy canvasing, then a door-to-door library card sign up or voter-contact campaign is more effective. Finally, there are many consultants in both the political and marketing world who make a significant margin off direct mail campaigns. Be forewarned — sometimes these consultants are simply trying to make more money by encouraging your library or campaign to use direct mail when it’s really not the best tactic for outreach.


Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney

Patrick "P.C." Sweeney is a tireless and innovative advocate for libraries. A 2007 graduate of the San Jose School of Library and Information Sciences, P.C. is a former Administrative Librarian of the Sunnyvale (CA) Public Library and Executive Director of EveryLibrary California, a statewide ballot committee to support library propositions in California. He is currently the Political Director for EveryLibrary, the nation's first and only political action committee for libraries. He blogs at pcsweeney.com and he is a sought-after speaker and presenter, as well as a lecturer on politics and libraries at the San Jose School of Information Science.