Personalize It—With Handwriting

It's a brand new marketing year, full of opportunity to do things differently. In a marketing environment that is more challenging than ever, designers, agencies, and their print service providers are tasked with coming up with increasingly targeted, well-matched solutions to help their clients get the biggest bang for their buck.

There are many traditional ways of boosting response rates—using colored envelopes, over-sized postcards, 1:1 four-color personalization, lumpy mail, or personalized handwriting in direct mail pieces. It is the latter that I want to talk about this month.

Imagine! Real Live People

I recently ran across a company called Direct Mail By Hand, that not only offers this service but is methodical about tracking response rates. This pretty much guarantees that I pay attention. (By the way, last month I wrote in this column about the power of social networking like LinkedIn for business networking. Guess where I heard about Direct Mail by Hand? LinkedIn!)

When I say "personalized with handwriting," I'm not talking about using a handwriting font. I'm talking about using real handwriting. This company uses live people (home moms, students, retirees, and others who are carefully screened) to handwrite addresses and personal notes.

As readers of my reports, columns, and blogs know, I'm a big fan of personalization. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear to consumers how easy it is to personalize communications—to the point that they take it for granted. With today's digital communications, they think, "Of course it's personalized. Why wouldn't it be?"

That's why real handwriting stands out. It is obvious that the address or note is written by a human being, not a computer. Somebody took the time to put a pen to paper. For this reason, recipients—at least initially—are more likely to see this as a personalized contact and feel obligated to at least read the pitch.

Three Case Studies

Let's look at three mini case studies.

A non-profit in San Francisco has been using this approach in its fundraising solicitations. The non-profit, which provides education, wellness programs, practical assistance, and emotional support for those suffering with cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses, has achieved a 6.75 percent to date. Among first-time donors, the response rate is 12 percent higher among people giving for the first time. Thus, not only has the program raised more money, but it has disproportionately brought in more donors.

Another non-profit uses this type of personalization to fund schools in developing countries. In one campaign, it used handwritten envelopes with a personalized message to get a 163 percent increase in response and increase its average donation size by 41 percent. This resulted in a 369 percent increase in the total donation dollars.

Another client markets equipment to physicians. Just by putting the original flyer in a hand-addressed envelope with a live stamp, it was able to boost its response rate by 40 percent. Now, it is looking to test personalization on the flyer itself (such as on a handwritten Post-It note) that says something like, "Dr. [LastName], call me to save $100 before Feb. 15—Jeff (415) 550-1709."

How Much Does It Cost?

How much does something like this cost? It depends on

  • the number of words being written,
  • whether the message varies from recipient to recipient, and
  • frequency of the project.

To give some ballpark numbers, for envelope addressing (which includes folding, stuffing, sealing, stamping, and mailing), Direct Mail By Hand typically charges from 60 cents plus postage down to 38 cents plus postage for quantities of 15,000 or more.

While this isn't a high-volume approach, the company does have the capacity to do more than 250,000 pieces per month and regularly does jobs up to 20,000 pieces, although most are between 2,500 and 10,000. One thousand pieces can generally be done in three to five business days. Ten thousand might take seven business days. What's nice using handwritten personalization is that it is realistic, even at very low volumes. Your client could do a test mailing of only a few hundred pieces. It could break a full mailing into handwriting personalization vs. non-handwriting personalization to test its effectiveness. It could use this approach only with its top 10 percent of customers or donors or the bottom 10 percent, if it wants to try to bring those customers back into the fold.

Of course, any testing requires that your clients get their databases into shape. But that's something you want to encourage them to do anyway. This might be just the incentive they need!

Heidi Tolliver-Nigro is an industry writer, an analyst specializing in digital workflow and technologies. Her e-mail address is