It’s happened to the best of us: you spend hours creating the perfect postcard campaign, crafting compelling copy and creating an eye-catching design, only to find that it doesn’t look so great once it hits the mailbox.

Why does direct mail get damaged?

Are postcard scuffs and smudges really inevitable?

Unfortunately, yes. The very thing that makes direct mail convert so well also makes it quite vulnerable to damage. Direct mail is a real, tangible object that must be handled by individuals and machines en route to its destination, and there is always a risk that it will be marred somewhat along the way.

However, there are steps you can take to help prevent your direct mail from damage. But before we get into that, let’s discuss why direct mail damage happens so often.

Damaged Direct Mail: Why it Happens

Chances are you find smudges or scuff marks on pieces of mail in your mailbox more days than not. This is because mail does not always fare so well on its journey through the high-speed rollers and sorting machines at the post office.

Every day, the United States Postal Service delivers nearly half a billion pieces of mail. In order to do that, USPS processes 20.2 million pieces of mail every hour. To accomplish this mammoth task, the postal service relies on heavy-duty sorting machines, which grip and roll mail as they sort it into the correct zip code bins. Your direct mail may go through several of these machines on the way to its final destination. This equipment can sometimes leave scuff marks or toner behind. In more unusual cases, they may even crumple or tear mail.

direct mail scuff example
This direct mail postcard has several damaged spots. There are vertical lines and a small crease in the black background at top, indicating it was gripped too hard when pulled through a roller. Ink is smudged off some of the lettering. There is also a typo at the bottom of this postcard, an avoidable error the consumer is more likely to notice than the scuffs.

This is why people often choose to hand-cancel their sentimental or otherwise special personal mail, such as wedding invitations. When you hand-cancel mail, a post office employee stamps your envelope over the postage by hand, thus ensuring the postage cannot be reused. But the default is for mail to be machine-cancelled, which can produce wavy lines and scuffs on the mail. Of course, it just isn’t very practical to hand-cancel a large direct mail batch.

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How to Protect Your Direct Mail from Damage

While some direct mail damage is inevitable—and in fact consumers expect mail to show some wear and tear—there are steps you can take to make sure your mail arrives in the best possible condition.

  1. Always mail a sample piece to yourself. The first step is to mail yourself a few proofs of the direct mail piece before mailing to customers. Try mailing it to a few different addresses if possible. This way you can verify that the postcard is printing the way you hoped—that the colors on your screen are matching up with those in ink, for example. If your direct mail arrives damaged, you may reconsider things like headline or CTA placement, selecting less vulnerable spots.  
  2. Avoid solid black backgrounds. We’ve found that solid black backgrounds show postcard damage more so than white or color ink backgrounds. We advise against solid black backgrounds if you are concerned by postcard damage.
  3. Select UV protective coating. The most effective thing you can do to prevent direct mail damage is to use a protective coating on all of your postcards, on both the front and back. At Inkit, all of our postcards are printed with thick UV protective coating. This adds a smooth, protective layer that helps the postcards slide through the sorting machines smudge-free. This does not guarantee that your postcards will always arrive in pristine condition, but it does reduce the risk of damage.

Lastly, Don’t Sweat Direct Mail Damage

Direct mail damage can be difficult to accept, particularly for marketers who are more used to digital channels. When you’re working in email, any imperfections in a message can be diagnosed and corrected before the next mailing—if not sooner. In social, you can preview your ads, seeing exactly what your customers will see, before they go live. This just isn’t the case with direct mail.

The postal service faces a gargantuan task each day to sort and deliver our mail, and while this massive operation is very impressive it is also imperfect. Addressed mail with an Intelligent Barcode is typically machine-sorted three to eight times before delivery. When mail is identified as undeliverable, it can be machine-sorted up to an additional eight times before being returned to sender. That leaves many opportunities for the machines to leave grime behind on your postcards.

The good news is, consumers are very used to receiving mail with scuffs and smudges. They are most likely to simply tune out such noise and focus on your marketing message the same as if the postcard wasn’t damaged.

So, don’t become too worried if you’ve noticed small amounts of direct mail damage. However, if you are an Inkit customer and you are noticing excessive postcard damage, please let us know so that we can contact the Postmaster. Sometimes, USPS needs to better clean and calibrate sorting machines so that excessive grime on the rollers doesn’t cause direct mail damage.

To learn more about our protective UV coating and our direct mail offerings, or to mail yourself a sample postcard, schedule a demo of Inkit’s direct mail software today.

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