What is mail merge?

Mail merge is the process of generating multiple personalized documents from a single document template and a structured data source. Microsoft Word has been a synonym for mail merge for years now, but with the raise of cloud computing, new mail merge solutions are appearing.

How does it work?

To put it simply, mail merge is a process where you take a template document and replace the data placeholders with the values from the provided data source. This new personalized document is then saved and process is repeated until we reach the end. In most cases data is provided in a tabular format, so a document will be created for each data row in the table.

To sum it all up, mail merge requires two things: a document template, and a data source. Let's check those two in detail...

Document template

As mentioned before, it all starts with a template. A template is a pre-formatted document with data placeholders that will be replaced with the real data from the data source. In Microsoft Word these placeholders are called MergeFields. Here is an example of a template file created with Word:

Template screenshot
Template document screenshot

As you can see in the picture above, data placeholders are enclosed with « ». The rest of the document is a generic text. Now, you are probably wondering how I created those placeholders? Well, it is quite simple.

For example, I will demonstrate how to add the City placeholder.

First you need to move the cursor to the position where you want to insert the merge field. Next, select Field... from the Quick Parts drop down menu on the Insert tab.

Add field screenshot
Add field screenshot

That will open up a Field settings window where you select MergeField from the Field names list, and enter a field name. I have entered City.

Field settings screenshot
Field settings screenshot

Click on OK and the merge field will appear in your document. Keep in mind that style options like font weight, size, and color, must be defined in the template document. They cannot be dynamically updated in the merge process.

Data source

The second mail merge ingredient is a data source. It can be any structured data, but in most cases it is provided in tabular format, or as a data table. Since we have already used Microsoft Word for the template document, we will use another Microsoft Office product, Excel, for the data source. Here is a screenshot of our data source file:

Data source screenshot
Data source screenshot

In order for mail merge to succeed, placeholders must be matched with the data source values. In case of tabular data like in the example above, merge fields must match the column names. As you can see in the screenshot, the data source contains all the fields from the template file: FirstName, LastName, Street, and City. It also contains an additional column called Email, but that one won't be used for our template. I have added it just to show you that it doesn't matter if your data source contains additional columns. It only needs to contain all the fields from the template. This also shows that you can use one data source for multiple templates. Each template will just use the columns it needs and ignore the rest.

Now that we have all the ingredients, we can start the merge process...


Start mail merge (Step 1)

To start the mail merge process in Microsoft Word, first select the Mailings tab on the ribbon and click on the Start Mail Merge button.

Start mail merge screenshot
Start mail merge screenshot

You have to select the document type from the dropdown menu. For this tutorial we will select Normal Word Document, since we have already created the template document with merge fields.

Select data source (Step 2)

Next, we need to select the data source. Click on the Select Recipients button and select Use an Existing List... from the dropdown menu.

Select data source screenshot
Select data source screenshot

An open file dialog will be shown, where you need to select the Excel file you will use as a data source. In my case, that file is called DocBlender Data.xlsx.

Once you have selected the file and clicked on the Ok button, a small window will open showing a list of all sheets found in your data source file. Select the one that contains the data and click Ok. If everything went well, all other ribbon buttons on the Mailings tab (Edit Recipient List, Highlight Merge Fields, Finish & Merge, etc.) will be enabled. It should look like this:

Data ready screenshot
Data ready screenshot

Modify merge data (Step 3)

For this tutorial, I am going to sort the customers by last name and check how the final documents will look before finishing the merge. We will start by clicking on the Edit Recipient List button. That will open a Mail Merge Recipients window where you can see the list of recipients (customers) that will be used in the merge process.

Mail merge recipients screenshot
Mail merge recipients screenshot

Below the list is a Sort... link. Click on it. A Filter and Sort window will popup and here you will choose the LastName from the Sort by dropdown menu. Afterwards, click OK.

Filter and sort window screenshot
Filter and sort window screenshot

You should be back on the Mail Merge Recipients window and if you check the list now you will notice that the customers are now sorted by their last name. You can close the window, since we are done with the editing.

At the end, we will check how the final documents will look. Click on the Preview Results ribbon button and customer data will replace the placeholders in your template.

Preview documents screenshot
Preview documents screenshot

You can use the pagination buttons to view all customers, or click on the Find Recipient button to search for a specific customer.

Finish mail merge (Step 4)

Once you are satisfied with the results, click on the Finish & Merge button to finish the merge.

Finish mail merge screenshot
Finish mail merge screenshot

A small dropdown menu will appear where you need to select the output. For this tutorial I have selected the Edit Individual Documents... option because that one will generate a new Word document with all customer documents in it.

Output document screenshot
Output document screenshot

That's it! You have successfully completed a mail merge.

The downsides?

As you have seen in this tutorial, creating multiple personalized documents with Microsoft Word is easy. It doesn't require any programming skills and the process is pretty straightforward. Still, using Word for mail merge has some drawbacks:

  • You can only use it locally, on your computer. You cannot perform mail merge on your phone while traveling.
  • You need to purchase a Microsoft Office license for every user and it doesn't matter if you will use it on a monthly basis or from time to time.
  • Sharing and managing template files can be complicated.
  • Using the mail merge option for mass mailing can be time consuming and complicated.

What about an online mail merge alternative?

As mentioned at the beginning, times are changing and some new mail merge options are appearing. DocBlender is one of them. It is an online (cloud) mail merge platform, and because of it you can easily create your personalized documents from anywhere. Even from your mobile phone or tablet.

You don't have to be a software programmer to use DocBlender. On the contrary, it was made with non-technical users in mind so creating and managing documents through its intuitive and simple user interface is a breeze.

Although DocBlender's primary focus is on simplicity, it is still a very powerful mail merge software. It provides all the options that Microsoft Word has and even more. Some of its main features are:

  • Extensive file format support
  • Multiple output options
  • REST API for custom service integration
  • Multiple user support
  • Usage-based pricing

To show this simplicity, DocBlender provides a free mail merge web application. You can use it without registration.