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Direct Mail: Far From Extinct

Row of White Mailboxes on a Desert Road

Pop quiz: What advertising method can be targeted, segmented, personalized, automated, and tracked, and has a 5% average response rate?

A. Social Media
B. Programmatic
D. Email
E. Direct Mail
F. Outdoor, Radio, and TV

If you’re paying attention to the title of this article, then you probably guessed correctly that the answer is “E. Direct Mail.” Direct mail is more than five times more effective in terms of response rate than digital means. Yes, today’s direct mail is not your grandparents’ direct mail.

It may be surprising to think of direct mail as hip or even very effective. But, using all the digital means at your disposal to segment, target, automate, and track prospects makes everything about direct mail digital except the actual mailed piece.

In practical terms, what this means is direct mail has all the capabilities of fully digital campaign elements and should be more regularly considered as part of a larger campaign ecosystem. That’s not to say that there aren’t risks or downsides, but used appropriately, direct mail can yield great results.

Wait. How Did We Get Here?

In a phrase: Noise and signal. While overall mail volume is consistently decreasing (less “noise”), direct mail has stabilized in the overall mail market, making it a larger proportion of all mail sent (increased “signal”).

For example, if you’re anything like me, your snail mail volume is typically no more than a few pieces each day. If one of those pieces is a direct mail piece that is relevant to me, then I am much more likely to see that piece of direct mail and take a look at it. In addition, physical mail has to be handled and dealt with on some level (even if I just throw it away), which is the closest thing to guaranteeing that your marketing message gets seen by your intended audience.

Finally, it’s been shown that people flat-out remember print pieces better than digital.

Compare that experience to email, where most professionals receive dozens or even hundreds of emails a day (“noise”) and unless a subject line or sender catches my attention (“signal”), then the email most likely won’t get opened. A user doesn’t even have to delete the email if they are so inclined, as it will just slink off to the next page soon enough and fall out of view forever.

The same principle applies to online advertising where users see so many ads (“noise”), it’s hard to break through and catch their attention (“signal”).

All this isn’t to say that your company should ditch your online efforts and go all in on direct mail. However, if direct mail is used as part of a larger digital marketing effort, you can achieve favorable results.

How Can I Use Direct Mail Most Effectively?

Be judicious and strategic. Direct mail is not all roses and conversions.

One of the primary downsides of direct mail is cost. While you can send emails or run ads to your heart’s content, direct mail costs more per piece to produce and send than email or ads, making your cost per acquisition higher than its digital counterparts. Because of that, it is important that your direct mail piece ties in strategically to a larger multichannel campaign ecosystem. You may only have one shot in a campaign to make your direct mail piece work for you, so make it count or risk wasting your budget.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Direct Mail

The image many people have of direct mail is garish colors and bad font choices for a local business printed on high-gloss paper. While that’s a mostly well-earned reputation, direct mail can come in many forms, from a simple flyer to a fold-out piece with inserts all the way to elaborate kits. What you choose to do really depends on your goal for the campaign (and your budget).

I’ve listed some thought starters that could be used for B2C or B2B marketing:

Awareness and Prospecting

Perform a prospecting campaign with a wide range of recipients to a targeted geographic area or from a purchased mailing list. Depending on your budget, a simple front-and-back piece introducing your business and incentivizing prospects to visit (online or offline) might be appropriate. The simplicity keeps printing and shipping costs down to maximize your reach. The ubiquitous Bed Bath & Beyond 20% off coupon comes to mind, but you don’t have to stop there. As part of the piece, create scan codes or a unique identifier that ties back to the customer information in your CRM to track, report, and market to them more precisely at a later date.

Lead Nurturing

Target non-converted leads already in your CRM. You may want to consider something more robust than a front-and-back piece, that focuses on benefits aimed at overcoming common concerns prospects have about your product or service. You’ll want to make sure you personalize each piece and, of course, put tracking in place for reporting and connecting prospect information back to your CRM. Tracking codes could be a QR code, a special phone number, a vanity URL (e.g., example.com/campaign), or a personalized URL (PURL) that goes to a landing page tied to the campaign.

Digital-to-Analog Retargeting

Set up an automated campaign trigger for unconverted prospects that visit your site, but leave before converting—basically, retargeting that crosses the physical and digital realms. The process is similar to online retargeting, but instead hooks in to existing consumer databases, cross-referencing pixel tracking and IP addresses to link to a user’s physical address. Again, you’ll want to be sure tracking is in place.

Post-conversion or Re-engagement

Using direct mail is a great way to get in front of current or lapsed customers with cross-selling, upselling, or re-engagement opportunities. For example, we have worked with clients who send customers a kit with swag and product literature to introduce related products to grow revenue lines. The kits are tied in to the larger ecosystem through specific URLs and phone numbers to track their effectiveness. Another example of this could be for subscription-based services or products to cross-sell, re-subscribe, or upsell.

Is Direct Mail Good for B2B Marketing?

As with all things marketing, your message needs to be relevant and creative, but direct mail offers a unique way to cut through the noise and get in front of your prospects. Direct mail gives you the ability to work around the tyranny of the inbox that causes many business leaders to avoid entirely any digital communication from outside their company. Here’s one example of how we were able to execute this for a client.

Is Direct Mail Good for B2C Marketing?

Yes. Of course it is. For all of the same reasons listed above.

What’s the Future of Direct Mail?

While I’m not able to exactly predict the future, what is important to note is that much of the recent success of direct mail is due to the fact that it cuts across the grain of what everyone else is doing. Namely, all digital all the time. Direct mail’s recent success is in no small way dependent on the fact that not everyone is doing it at full tilt, which offers an opening for your campaign to be seen and reacted to in the physical realm. If we get to a point where everyone is sending direct mail, we’ll start to see many of the same problems associated with email: too much noise.

The other future risks associated with direct mail are dependent on costs associated with postage, natural resource availability, labor, and anything else that typically drives or sinks markets.

As long as all of the above stays in balance, there’s no reason to think the success of direct mail is going away any time soon.


Jeff Tzucker Team Photo at Element Three

Jeff’s road to becoming a digital marketer was long, starting with a project that helped predict the future of mobile phones even before the iPhone was released. His newfound fascination with technology motivated him to learn HTML and CSS and to start to delve into UI design—and then led him to head the Indiana Pacers’ digital marketing team. His experience on the client side and vendor side of the equation alike gives him the ability to see problems from multiple perspectives, something that helps him craft strategic solutions that make sense for everyone.