4 Questions You Must Ask Every Direct Mail Vendor

Your team’s direct mail campaigns should not be slowed by inefficient, manual processes. With so many print and mail vendors available, it can be tough to find a vendor who fits your requirements today and can grow with you in the future. Asking the right questions in a vetting process can save a lot of headaches later.

We’ll introduce a framework to help you gauge your internal requirements. Then we’ll dive into four of the questions we’ve found most effective. Next time you launch a direct mail program, be certain your vendor gives the right answers!

Before You Engage a Print & Mail Vendor

There are three key considerations you should understand in order to choose the best vendor that fits your needs:

  1. Resources: Have a clear idea of how much execution you’ll own in-house. You’ll need to identify what resources you have internally and the services for which you’ll rely on a print vendor. From list cleansing and attribution to design consulting, print vendors specialize in a variety of services. Identifying your needs and mapping them to a vendor’s strengths up front will help you get to market quickly.
  2. Cadence: Print vendors typically optimize their operations to support batched versus triggered use cases; it’s easier for them to staff and manage low-frequency, high-volume scheduled sends. This is also reflected in their pricing: the main factors are size of a batch and frequency of sends. Before you jump at the lowest cost option, consider how timeliness of execution and delivery impacts the relevance of the mail piece. Long turn times and delays in delivery may detract from or negate the goals of your use case.
  3. Data: Lastly, you need to decide on the content of your mail piece; your mailing can be static (identical copy and artwork for every recipient) or personalized based on recipient data. Your ability to personalize the content depends on the depth and accessibility of your data. If your team can easily plug into your customer data, then personalizing and iterating on content will be effortless.

Now that your ducks are in a row, let’s get into evaluating print vendors.

1. How do I send order details to my print vendor on an ongoing basis?

The mechanics of data transfer to your vendor can impact almost every aspect of your mail campaign. Make sure to ask your vendor how they’ll be facilitating your orders.

A good answer to this question is via API or web-to-print storefront. These methods enable programmatic, bi-directional information flow. You should have visibility into what you ordered and whether it successfully arrived, without any reliance on human interaction.

If your operation is small, having a vendor customize a storefront might be right for you. But if your company is a sophisticated enterprise, you should be in the market for an API solution. There’s no need to batch by design or send dates, because the order information is self-contained in each API call. Each piece of mail can be composed and triggered on an individual basis. This allows you to align the timing of mail delivery with digital events in your customer lifecycle. An API will empower your team to retain control without introducing inefficiencies.

A bad answer to this question is via email or FTP. If your print vendor uses email or FTP as their preferred method for order placement, you are immediately handcuffing your operation. When sending hundreds or thousands of files to your print vendor per day, the throughput rate of your transfer mechanism can become a critical bottleneck.

Since email and FTP are both one-way streets of information, you’re often reliant on manual reviews by the vendor. Any time data transfer requires human checks, you open yourself up to errors and time lags. With this lack of visibility and cumbersome batching and mapping process, the timeliness of your mail piece becomes secondary to managing execution.

To manage the back and forth, typically your print vendor will ask that you batch your data by design template. You’ll email them a native design file and a related .csv containing all variable recipient data. While this solves for throughput and may seem relatively straightforward, it limits the variability of the eventual mail pieces.

2. What steps does my vendor take to provide visibility into delivery windows?

You’re looking for three pieces to this answer: the vendor’s cadence of updates, their tracking capabilities, and the level of automation in their process. The best solutions will offer you full visibility on your schedule, rather than leaving you dependent on your print vendor account manager.

A good answer to this question is offering a track and trace solution. Each mail piece has a unique IMB (intelligent mail barcode) that the USPS scans along each stop in the mail stream. Sophisticated print and mail vendors offer products that let you log in to see your mail’s current location, based on IMB tracking. This kills two birds with one stone: fully automated tracking capabilities that you can leverage for updates on your own time.

Products like track and trace allow you to keep your vendor accountable for turnaround times, in addition to offering pinpoint delivery dates for tightly coordinated outreach efforts. The accountability offered by track and trace helps you stay vigilant, turning the mailstream into an open book.

On the flip side, a bad answer to this question is offering mailing reports. These manually composed reports contain estimated delivery dates based on when the mailings began their journey. Static mail reports, since they offer little visibility, make it much harder to plan mailing jobs for optimal results.

It will be harder to tie other channels of customer communication to your direct mail campaign if delivery is inconsistent. For instance, without visibility into delivery data on a per record basis, it’s almost impossible to trigger a concurrent campaign to reach that customer with a follow up email or text message in a relevant timeframe.

Alternatively, if you’re running a promotion, the offer window may close before the mail even reaches the mailbox. Even prepping your teams to field incoming calls related to a mailed offer becomes more art than science if you don’t know when exactly that mailing arrives.

Ultimately, you need real-time visibility into delivery to effectively deploy an omni-channel strategy.

3. What printing capabilities does my vendor have?

Digital presses allow for personalized mail pieces and rapid iteration

You’ll encounter two types of commercial printing: offset and digital. You’ll find printers who just do one, and printers who do both (often employing a hybrid approach). There are no objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ answers when it comes to evaluating a vendor’s production capabilities. However, you should ensure the presses used by a given printer will align with your design, volume and timeline goals.

When you’re looking to send out a large batched, static mailing offset is the way to go. These presses specialize in printing high volumes of a static image. The higher the volume, the lower the per piece cost will be. On the flip side, you lock in one design and identical content across all recipients of that batch.

If you want to use customer-specific data to personalize mailings and trigger sends, you should choose a digital print vendor. Digital presses take in digital files similar to email. This allows each mail piece you’re sending to be completely unique.

Since there are no volume or batching requirements to run these machines, digital print shops are ideal for anyone looking to personalize their mail piece and/or iterate on their designs on a regular basis. The print industry as a whole has shifted towards digital machinery in the last decade to keep up with customer asks around personalization.

4. What happens if equipment failures occur at my vendor’s production facility?

You can’t plan any kind of campaign without some failsafes in place. Choosing a direct mail vendor is no different. A single print vendor means you introduce a single point of failure to your direct mail program. Have prospective vendors walk you through their disaster-recovery protocol in the case of outages and machine failures.

A good answer to this question is your orders will be re-routed to other facilities that your vendor operates. A print vendor that has multiple production facilities and can quickly route orders between them will be able to adhere to your agreed-upon production schedule. If things don’t go out on time due to a failure on their end, your vendor should be offering you some kind of incentive to retain their services.

A bad answer to this question is sitting tight until it’s fixed. If a vendor with only one production facility experiences machine failures or outages, customers have to sit on their hands. Choosing a vendor without redundancies means any mechanical issue can compromise everything from timeliness of delivery to quality of the mail pieces.

Bottom Line

This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but it is a practical framework. You should hold your direct mail vendors to the highest standards of visibility, speed and redundancy.

At Lob, we’ve used this framework in evaluating every vendor who is part of our Print Delivery Network. Our print and mail APIs allow our customers to securely send data, receive notifications, and track mail. Every day, mail is programmatically routed across our nationwide Print Delivery Network to optimize for speed, cost, redundancy and deliverability.

If you’re interested in learning more, we’d love to hear from you!