This fall, a sales representative for Valpak, the nation's largest marriage-mail company, called on Midwest Construction, in the Des Moines suburb of Grimes, seeking “to drum up some business,” says the home improvement company's vice president, Paul Despenes.

Midwest Construction, which sells windows, siding, and sun-rooms, used marriage mail to good effect during the early '90s. This time Despenes didn't bite. He counted eight coupons from eight home improvement companies in the last Valpak he received at his home. “When we go to market,” he says, “we want to separate ourselves.”

MARRIED OR SOLO Almost 90% of American households receive “shared mail” or “marriage mail.” Valpak alone, with more than 200 franchises and 60,000 businesses as customers, mails to 45 million households in the U.S. and Canada. By sharing the expense of mailing within the same ZIP code, participating companies get a lower cost per piece delivered. It costs pennies to reach a household via marriage mail, while the design, printing, and postage expense of “solo” pieces can be a dollar or more.

Many home improvement companies use marriage mail as part of a multipronged marketing thrust. “We try to hit the same home in a different way,” explains Chris Cardillo, of Castle ‘The Window People,' in New Jersey, which combines marriage mail with newspapers and the Internet to achieve that goal.

Amy King, vice president of business intelligence for Florida–based Valpak, says that window, door, and glass companies are Valpak's seventh largest category of business, and that in 2007, 842 advertisers were roofing/siding companies. She cites surveys indicating that 90% of homeowners receiving Valpak open its well-known blue envelope, and that in 2007, 63% of consumers indicated that they purchased from some source in response to direct-mail marketing.

John Aurgemma, co-owner of Rhode Island Home Improvement, in Warwick, says that RIHI uses marriage mail to supplement its far more important, targeted solo direct-mail campaigns.

Marriage mail, he says, is “a great product” and can help get the word out about the company, but he notes that “it's easy to get lost in the envelope, with the frenzy of so many companies” of all types.

Another limitation for RIHI, Aurgemma says, is Valpak's size restrictions: “You don't have enough space to build a case for your product.”

WIDE REACH, BUT . . . Despenes and other home improvement contractors argue that marriage mail is a good way for companies lacking a sophisticated marketing plan to reach large numbers of homeowners, which is why new companies often favor it.

But Aurgemma says that the “overwhelming majority” of homeowners receiving marriage mail don't use it in a way that benefits his company because they're looking for discounts at local retailers already familiar to them. In fact, pizza shops are Valpak's biggest advertiser.

Valpak states that in a tight economy, with many more homeowners now clipping coupons, its coupon packs will be a more effective way for companies to market themselves.

Aurgemma is skeptical: “If you got a coupon for a small purchase at the grocery store, you could save $10 or $20 a week. I don't know if people are going to put a coupon for a rebate on windows on their refrigerator and use it next week.”