An Introduction to Mail Merge and Its Uses

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Mail merge is a tool that simplifies the creation of a set of documents that are similar but contain unique and variable data elements. This is accomplished by linking a database that contains those data elements to a document, which contains merge fields where that unique data will be populated.

Mail merge saves you time and effort by automating the process of entering standardized pieces of data such as names and addresses into a document. For example, you could link a form letter to a group of contacts in Outlook; this letter might have a merge field for each contact's address and one for the corresponding contact's name as part of the letter's salutation.

Uses of Mail Merge

Mail merge, for many people, conjures thoughts of junk mail. While marketers undeniably use mail merge to generate large amounts of mail quickly and easily, many other uses may surprise you and change the way you create some of your documents.

You can use mail merge to create any type of printed document, as well as electronically distributed documents and faxes. The kinds of documents you can create using a mail merge are virtually limitless. Here are some examples:

  • Catalogs
  • Inventories
  • Invoices
  • Labels
  • Envelopes
  • And, of course, letters

When used smartly, mail merge can improve your productivity greatly. It also can boost the effectiveness of the documents you create. For example, by customizing letters with recipients' names or other elements that are specific to each recipient, you present a polished, personal image that sets the stage for the outcome you desire.

Anatomy of a Mail Merge

A mail merge consists of two main parts: the document and the data source, also referred to as the database.​ Microsoft Word simplifies your work by letting you use other Office applications such as Excel and Outlook as data sources. If you have the full Office suite, using one of its applications as your data source is easy, convenient, and highly recommended. Using contacts you have already entered into your Outlook contacts, for example, will save you from re-entering that information into another data source. Using an existing Excel spreadsheet gives you even greater flexibility with your data than the data source Word will create. 

If you have only the Word program, however, you can still use the mail merge feature. Word has the ability to create a fully customizable data source for you to use in your mail merge.

Setting Up a Mail Merge

A mail merge may seem complicated and complex -- data-heavy documents that rely on large databases certainly can be. Word, however, simplifies the setup of a mail merge for common uses by providing wizards that walk you through the process of linking your document to a database. Generally, you can complete the process in fewer than 10 fairly easy steps, including finding and correcting errors. That's fewer than preparing your document manually would take, and with much less time and hassle, too.