Demystifying Direct Mail: Common Misconceptions and Practical Solutions
In the digital age, the art of direct mail marketing often gets overshadowed by its online counterparts. Yet, this traditional form of marketing remains a potent tool for businesses. As someone deeply entrenched in the direct mail business, I’ve encountered numerous misconceptions that business owners hold about this method. Let’s debunk these myths and uncover the true potential of direct mail marketing. Possible solutions are offered in consideration of mailing misconceptions.
Misconception 1: Direct Mail is Outdated
One of the most prevalent myths is that direct mail is a relic of the advertising past, gone the way of slide rulers and carbon paper. Given the plethora of advertising options, it might come across as a throwback to an era where there was more emphasis on the printed word (i.e. less design) and few distractions whereby recipients were more invested in what was presented to them. Even web SEO gurus like Neil Patel have posted online articles that contradict any notion that direct mail is archaic (“Direct Mail: 13 Reasons Why It Isn’t Dead”)
On the contrary, direct mail has evolved, necessarily, blending modern design and targeting techniques. In an era where people’s email inboxes are flooded, with email marketing auto-directed to Gmail’s Promotions folder even in the best of circumstances, a well-crafted piece of direct mail stands out, offering a tactile experience that digital mediums can’t replicate.
Suggested Solution# 1: The mailpiece is only as good as the approach. So, avoid a rather traditional approach that uses long copy (too much text) at the expense of imagery or a more direct message. Pretend you have no more than 2 – 3 seconds to make your pitch. Include your URL web address (essential!) and have a time-based “call to action” (example: “free expert consultation until June 1st”).
Misconception 2: Direct Mail is Ineffective
A better way to rephrase this is “Does Direct Mail get my business a reasonable ROI compared to other advertising options?” The answer is “yes”, but of course, it’s a qualified yes. The fault isn’t in direct mail itself, but in how it is used.
Let’s use an analogy of duck hunting. If you were to go “hunting” for new customers (“ducks”) and you didn’t know exactly where to find ducks, that would be a problem. You could just shoot your 12-gauge marketing efforts into the air and hope you hit ducks, but obviously isn’t very effective. Yet, many businesses use direct mail in a similar fashion. They saturate ZIP Codes, with poor messaging, and little sense of altitude-appropriate appeal, and then assign a sweeping, categorical statement to the entire direct mail advertising vertical. Direct mail isn’t direct if you don’t provide direction.
Suggested Solution #2: Be like Captain Kirk on Star Trek and “send a probe” instead of sending the USS Enterprise. Using another analogy, launch a “PT-109” swift boat before directing the entire aircraft carrier. If you are clear on your audience, and message and have a compelling offer, then start small and wait to send the mothership until you get feedback from the “Away Team”.
Misconception 3: It’s Too Expensive
Another common belief is that direct mail is prohibitively expensive. To be clear, perhaps the most expensive thing you could do is to do nothing because nothing kills a business like the absence of awareness. The real question, again, is for what the budget that my business has, what is a reasonable return on investment (ROI) for the effort?
While, yes, costs are higher than digital methods, the ROI usually justifies the expense. Direct mail offers a tangible, personal touch, often leading to higher engagement and response rates compared to standard digital marketing strategies. Talk is cheap, so let’s look at a recent study done by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA).
In January 2022, the ANA released its 2021 study titled ANA Response Rate Report 2021, and the findings were summarized with “New ANA Study Shows Marketers Still Favor Email For Direct Ads (and Direct Mail Still Leads in ROI by a Wide Margin)” In a nutshell, the ROI takeaway is this: direct mail return = 112%; SMS (text marketing) = 102%; and, email marketing = 93%. It is also worth noting that both SMS and email marketing have restrictions on marketing, requiring recipient consent, making direct mail more flexible. To rephrase, the per-customer “acquisition cost” was optimally better with direct mail over other advertising options, even though direct mail, on a per mailpiece basis, might have appeared more costly.
Suggested Solution #3: Try all three yourself, on a smaller scale, using ONLY existing clients. This might not be simple or easy for everyone, but see for yourself – send 1,000 emails, 1,000 SMS text messages, and 1,000ct pieces of direct mail. You would need to measure the response similarly, and a unique, dedicated web page would work. For the direct mailpiece, a QR Code might assist the outreach and provide parity for electronic response.
Misconception 4: It’s Hard to Measure the Impact
With digital analytics, such as Google Analytics, at our fingertips, business owners often think direct mail’s impact is harder to measure. However, modern direct mail campaigns are highly trackable because there are more sophisticated metrics available. In the past, foot traffic, reply mail (like BRM), and phone calls were the most common metrics. Today, techniques like unique QR codes, personalized URLs, and Call-to-Action web plugins help customize responses. These response tracking mechanisms make it easy to measure response rates and overall effectiveness.
What kind of impact is most important to you? You have to set your own metrics to determine success. Here are some options:
Simple Response Rate: a straightforward number count (e.g. online purchase made, came to the store, called for an estimate, etc.).
Conversion Ratio: Already a customer, but moved in an intended direction (e.g. upgraded subscription, attended a newly offered seminar, tried a new product, etc.)
Anchoring: Recipient demonstration of long-term commitment, sometimes measured in arrears (e.g. became a lifetime member, joined VIP Club, renewed extended service contract, next appointments set, etc.)
Referral: leveraging new customers from existing customers (referral incentives program, identifying how new customers arrived, etc.)
Revenue: success = cash-in-hand, yet minding the cash-related timeframe = is no less important. (quarterly P & L, tickets sold, deposits on future vacation, lay-away, etc.)
Suggested Solution #4: An easy metric is this: use direct mail to drive customers to your website. It will help your online analytics because of the organic nature of uncoordinated direct web searches; and, a dedicated landing page is pretty simple to set up and track. QR Codes can help.
Misconception 5: Direct Mail Doesn’t Reach Young Audiences
Many believe that younger demographics are not responsive to “snail mail”. Yet, studies show that Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z consumers (born between 1997 and 2012) do engage with direct mail as do older generations. [note: the Gen X age range is conventionally defined as 1965 – 1980] Similarly, Millennial and Gen Z audiences also find direct mail more trustworthy than online ads.
A tactile piece of mail can feel like a novelty and break through the digital clutter they are accustomed to. We all know that if nothing else Gen Z is the 1st online generation, so their awareness certainly starts online, but their awareness is also surprisingly sophisticated – they will actually focus on things that genuinely interest them, ignoring pop-up banners and stepping around the web cookies. Micro-seconds count here, so the messaging here is especially important – you can’t use Gen X messaging to attract Gen Z consumers, so get clear on your audience. With Gen Alpha coming up, the logic will likely still hold.
Suggested Solution #5: You guessed it – send a direct mail piece to young adult homes (e.g. ages 20 – 30). For non-profit organizations (who are always looking for younger members), such as churches or service organizations (Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Jaycees), try targeting married adult households maximum age of 35 years old and offer childcare options or children’s inclusion programs. And, you can actually use online references from the Gen Z realm in a mailpiece design to substantiate the direct mail effort (e.g. 5-star rated, Charity Navigator verified, Better Business Bureau A+ ranking, etc.). Personalization also works especially well here, if possible.
Misconception 6: It’s Not Environmentally Friendly
Mindful business owners have had concerns about the environmental impact of printed matter, and this has led some to consider shying away from direct mail. However, the paper industry has made significant strides in sustainability. Recycled materials, eco-friendly inks, greater consumer awareness and efficient messaging to reduce waste are just a few ways direct mail has become more environmentally conscious.
In the printing world, it’s an “open secret” that so much paper content now has at least some recycled content. In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that at municipal solid waste collection points, “approximately 46 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled in 2018 for a recycling rate of 68.2 percent” Further, by 2018, landfilled paper (in 1000s of tons) actually decreased to 17,220 from a height of 43,570 in 1990. Even the USPS is a major force in paper recycling having reclaimed almost 124 million pieces of mail in 2022. In recent years, US Post Offices have dedicated recycling bins to assist with the effort.
Suggested Solution #6: Good news! It’s not necessary to have 100% recycled content in your newsletter, envelope, postcard, or annual report. You can simply ask your printer if there is recycled content in your printed matter and if it is in some way verifiable. If applicable, include messaging such as “this mailpiece contains recycled content” or “please recycle” along with a recycle logo.
Direct mail remains a powerful, relevant, and effective marketing tool in the modern business landscape. Its ability to personalize, its tangible nature, and its surprising reach across various demographics make it a valuable component of a holistic marketing strategy. As with any marketing endeavor, success in direct mail comes down to strategy, creativity, and execution. Let’s embrace its potential and integrate it thoughtfully into our marketing mix.