Indicia, Stamp or Metering: Which is right for your Direct Mail?

If you compare a direct mail outer envelope to a suit of clothes, giving the first impression that gets people to engage and go inside your direct mail envelope, your postage method is like the shoes being worn with that suit. You can’t hide them, and you want them to match in personality and purpose with the rest of the ensemble, and make you look good. Ignoring what kind of postage method you are using ends up being a mistake that is costing you responses. Choosing between indicia, stamp or metering seems simple enough, but shouldn’t be an afterthought.

I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to develop a lot of direct mail test packages for varied clients with different approaches. Learning results after has allowed me to learn what works and what doesn’t in different situations. It’s a humbling but valuable experience you can only get with testing, trial and error.

You may be trying to put a new direct mail package or campaign together, and will decide on what postage method to use. It’s good to know why you’d use indicia, stamp or metering, and how experienced creative professionals decide which one to use. It’s not difficult, but if you look at a lot of the direct mail you receive, you’ll see postage method is often overlooked.

Indicia, Stamp or Metering. A look at costs and production

While costs between indicia, stamp or metering for USPS will vary depending on your mailing quantities, they are so far apart to prohibit consideration of all of them for a mailing. Here’s a quick overview of each from a production perspective:

Indicia: Cheapest and least amount of pre-production logistical considerations when are pre-printing or imaging at the same time as other art on the outside of the envelope. There are also some discounts that vary depending on how your packages meet different USPS criteria.

Examples of mailings using indicia

Important: Lookalike Indicias that fake the look of a meter, with the little eagles and other details — use them with caution, because they may not be accepted at the post office if you don’t do your due-diligence ahead of time. Having a truckload of mail that you have to pay more to meter or stamp because of an unacceptable indicia makes for a rough day.

This is an example of a “Lookalike” indicia made to appear like metered postage.

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Postage Stamps: It’s not much more in cost to mechanically affix stamps, but you need to be sure there are enough stamps purchased and ready to use at the mailing house. Today there are both traditional ‘lick and stick’ water-based adhesive stamps, and pressure-sensitive stamps. And you can choose from several different stamps for bulk mailing. For Presorted First Class, you can choose between the American Eagle or all-American Diner designs. For Presorted Standard/bulk mail, you have the choice of the New York Public Library Lion or Atlas Rockefeller Center.

Examples of Direct Mail envelopes using Stamps

If you can use one stamp, you can use multiples, too! I’ve seen creative examples of direct mail that get attention by using more than one stamp, to add the look of ‘hand-done’ authenticity.

Multiple stamps used on this fundraising direct mail package.

Metering: Like a preprinted indicia, metering offers expediency because there is no need to pre-order and pay for stamps in advance. Running mail through the postage meter is an additional step done after the mail is inserted and sealed, and doesn’t take a lot of time to process. But you do have to have the postage meter ‘loaded’ by prepaying your anticipated meter total.

Example of metered postage on a direct mail package

Indicia, Stamp or Metering. How to decide which option to use.

While times have changed, people really haven’t when it comes to the way humans interact with a direct mail outer envelope. Curiosity and credibility go hand in hand. If something on the outer envelope doesn’t help build both, it sends danger signals to the reader that something isn’t quite right.

Questions to ask, and guidelines to use for selecting which postage to use in your direct mail.

Consider the direct mail style and format

Ask yourself some important questions to help determine and match postage method to your direct mail tone and message.

Who is the sender, and what is the mailing, sending organization’s personality?

  • Is this direct mail intended to feel like it’s personal me-to-you, as if sent from an individual at the sender’s organization?
  • Is it promotional, with lots of graphics right from the outside? Is it a self-mailer, not an envelope?
  • Is it a serious, business-like ‘non-marketing’ style letter or is the package intended to look like an important, official notice?

The semi-breakable rule about what’s best:

While it’s good to experiment with using indicia, stamp or metering, it should be done with a dose of common sense, too. There is an accepted rule(backed by a LOT of anecdotal support) that I’d like to call semi-breakable:

Stamps and meters on direct mail out-pull a pre-printed indicia.

Why do I say this rule is semi-breakable? Because when you choose which postage to use, you need to consider the totality of your outer mailing envelope.

If you are sending a self-mailer, you are not fooling anyone about the source, so the only net ‘lift’ you’re counting on is that some tactile aspect of the stamp is generating interest. That’s slim. I recommend going with indicia on self-mailers. For envelopes, I like to recommend that the less promotional the envelope, the more the personal the postage. Stamps are a go.

Are you mailing for a non-profit or fundraising?

For Non-profits and fundraising envelope packages, stamps take on more importance, and have a long tradition of helping lift response. Perhaps the more personal feeling that someone in a little office somewhere put that stamp on an envelope kicks up the idea of helping others, and primes us to go inside the envelope. You may disagree with the reason, but it’s hard to argue against all the successful nonprofit organizations who use stamps in their control packages.

Putting punch into your Low-key or “Official” direct mail package

If the package I’m creating is intended to feel extremely businesslike and ‘low-hype’, perhaps with no outer tease line, graphics, I recommend Metering. I think metering provides the impression that the sender is a serious business. It isn’t a business working off a kitchen table, because they can afford a good-old postage meter and a mail room somewhere.

Of course, what readers think may not be accurate, but the net effect can be powerful! These are visceral reactions to a piece of mail in someone’s hand, and it all happens in milliseconds.

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The right postage, the right package, the right purpose.

Picking the right postal method is important, and it’s part of what makes good and great direct mail work. If you give postage the attention it deserves along with other elements of your outer envelope, then make the balance of your package honest, accurate and interesting, you’ll have a new lead or sale that is qualified and engaged. After all, quality leads or sales are what direct mail—and direct marketing, is all about.

What do you think?

When it comes to postage choices, what are you mailing, and what have you found works best for you?

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I’m a creative problem-solver helping clients who use Direct Marketing but need more effective lead generation and deeper customer relationships. You can learn more about me on LinkedIn.