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Designing Data-Driven Direct Mail for Automation

Written By Amber Breeden

September 22, 2022

With the growing popularity and prevalence of digital marketing, most graphic designers are well-versed in creating email templates, social media posts, infographics, and banner ads. Designing for direct mail is a different beast altogether. And when you’re designing a direct mail piece that’s going to become a programmed template for data-driven automation, well, good luck. Kidding of course! That’s where we can help. 

To design a piece of direct mail that will ultimately become a template, you need to think more like a developer than a designer. It’s not just about how a direct mail piece looks, it’s about how it functions and makes use of the data. Luckily, we have years of experience guiding our clients through this process. We’ve surveyed our team—from programming specialists to project managers—to compile our top eight tips for a smooth transition from static artwork to customized automation. 

Confirm your specs.

Our maximum digital sheet size is 13″ x 19″, which allows for a print area of around 12.5″ x 18.5″. The flat size of your artwork cannot be any larger than this. Your project will be scoped and priced for a specific size, so your project manager can provide you with these details. You will also need to know if your artwork bleeds (artwork that runs outside of the crop marks and “bleeds” off the page). Again, check with your project manager if you’re unsure of how the project was scoped.

Know your data.

The possibilities for variable content are endless—as long as you have the data points to drive it. Want to vary an image based on gender? No problem, provided you have a gender field in your data. Want to reference a recent product purchase? Make sure the information is in your data. Knowing what data you have at your disposal can unleash your imagination or provide boundaries for what’s feasible.

Follow postal requirements.

As with any direct mail, your design will need to follow some basic rules: make sure the address area placement and size follows USPS requirements, keep the postage area clear, and leave space for the barcode in the lower right (if not including it in the address block). We consider these areas off limits in the programmed template, meaning your other variable or static copy cannot encroach on these areas.

The wireframe on the left shows the “do not touch” areas blocked out in red, along with placement for images. The final postcard on the right show was that looks like once content has been applied to the template.

Avoid complex text design.

While the design process for a template is much like it would be for a static mailer, keep in mind that the exact copy you use for the initial layout will change within any variable elements. Therefore, avoid creating any shapes or angles with the text itself.

Pay attention to colors.

Our equipment will convert all PMS spot and RGB colors to CMYK for printing. To maintain the accuracy of your colors, it’s best to set up the artwork in CMYK from the start. If you’re concerned about converting a particular PMS color to CMYK—brand colors in a logo, for example—let your project manager know. We can run them through a calibrated channel to ensure an accurate color match during the set-up and proofing process.

Create a data map.

Using a PDF of your final design, insert a comment wherever there is variable content and specify which data field informs that element. We often receive data files with a lot of extraneous or duplicative information, so this helps clarify exactly which data fields we need to program to which template elements.

Mapping out which data fields feed into which content elements avoids any confusion.

Prep your content.

Once your design is final, you need to make sure that any variable content will fit the layout. For example, if your design features a landscape variable image, then you need to make sure that all images for that element are landscape and have the same aspect ratio as the placeholder image in the design. The same rule applies for copy. If your design allows for 100 characters of variable copy in a given area, then any variable content for that element should be 100 characters or less. Postcards in particular have very limited space for copy, so you have to have good spatial awareness around the variable elements in your design.

It’s also important to make sure you have fallback content in the event a particular data field is missing. If an image populates based on gender, for example, but the gender field is empty, what image do you want to show? It’s a good rule of thumb to have fallback content ready for any variable element just to be safe.

Provide packaged files.

Most designers create artwork using InDesign or Illustrator. When sending the final art, provide packaged files that include all document fonts and links (images). We will program all variable aspects of your artwork into the template, so it’s especially important that we have matching fonts so the static and variable elements look seamless.

If you’re interested in automating your direct mail, check out Banjo, a software tool we created to help our clients take advantage of direct mail’s stellar ROI and results without having to manage the time-consuming, everyday hassle of running manual campaigns.