It’s an activity most of us take part in every day, as mundane as folding laundry or taking out the trash: We walk to the mailbox and take out the day’s mail. Then we sort, keeping the important stuff and tossing the junk. Each piece of mail gets maybe a half-second’s glance before getting saved for later—or tossed forever.

For you, this might be one of the least memorable parts of your entire day. But for the businesses behind the mail that makes it to your home, it couldn’t be more important.

That half-second is all they get to make an impression. And you might be surprised by all that goes in to making that moment count.

Making your mail stand out

Let’s start at the beginning. They say that the success or failure of a direct mail campaign rides on three elements: the creative, the offer, and the list.

We’ll start with the creative. You’ll want to start concepting a campaign at least a month before you want it to hit mailboxes. This will include brainstorming sessions in which you’ll determine the goal of your campaign. (Do you want people to donate money? Come by your store? Refer you to a friend?) You’ll need to enlist people to do the design work and the copywriting. Once you’ve got a concept, allow about a week for designers and writers to work.

As you develop your design, remember the half-second test. Your piece must stand out among all other mail that people receive. This means that your design must be:

  • Unusual – If it looks like every other piece of mail in the stack, it’ll get tossed. Your piece has to stand out.
  • Appealing – Attractive, uncluttered designs and well-written, engaging copy make readers want to read more. So content can’t be an afterthought.
  • Distinctive – Wait, who’s sending me this again? Your mailers should clearly and confidently convey your brand.

Delivering a meaningful message

Part of the content of your mailer will be an offer, or a call to action. What do you want readers to do after they look at your mailer? This, too, must pass the half-second test. It must be:

  • Relevant – Are you offering something readers actually want? Using a home-grown mailing list and tracking recipients’ preferences can help you answer this question.
  • Easy to understand – “20% off a purchase of $50 or more” is hard to understand. “Save $10” is easier.
  • Time-sensitive – You want readers to act fast, not set your offer aside and forget about it. So always include a deadline before which they’ll have to act.

Making sense of your list

The third element of a successful mail campaign is your list: who receives the mail you send. There are lots of ways you can go about choosing and subdividing your list. The most important distinction to know is whether your list is homegrown (meaning contacts you’ve collected yourself) or purchased from a list-building service. Homegrown lists often mean a better understanding of what people want, but purchased lists can increase your reach.

Whichever you choose, “list hygiene” is the best way to ensure your finished pieces pass the half-second test. Your mailings should be:

  • Personalized – People pay attention to mail that’s customized for them. You can personalize by a recipient’s name, industry, age, and more.
  •  Clean – Addresses change, and it’s up to you to keep up. Don’t waste your mailing investment on pieces that will just come back with a “return to sender” message.
  • Timely – Remember the time limit you put on your offer? When sending out mailers, think about holidays and weekends—as well as how far your mail has to travel.

Finally, your mailers are sent out. All your hard work comes down to the moment people check the mail. Will you draw them in with an attractive design? Make them an offer they can’t refuse? Arrive in their mailboxes at precisely the right time?

Pulling off a successful mail campaign isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always cheap. It’s an investment of time and money, and that’s why it’s so important to do it right.

When that half-second comes, have you done everything you can to ensure you’ll get a second glance?