Direct Mail: Is It Old Fashioned If It Still Works?

I still get a lot of sneers if I bring up the idea of direct mail to a client. Comments range from “Does anybody still read that stuff?” to “Aren’t postage rates outrageous?” The simple answers are “yes” and “no.”

Morpheus says Direct Mail WorksI still get a lot of sneers if I bring up the idea of direct mail to a client.

Comments range from “Does anybody still read that stuff?” to “Aren’t postage rates outrageous?” The simple answers are “yes” and “no.”

Let’s start with a few statistical facts (courtesy of the USPS Household Diary Study):

  • 42 percent of recipients read of scan direct mail pieces: That means that nearly HALF of your target audience is actually stopping, for a few seconds, to read your message. If you’ve designed it properly with a strong and relevant offer/call-to-action, you might achieve a 1 percent, 2 percent or even 14 percent response rate (yes, I’ve achieved that!). Digital ads, in comparison, are lucky if they get a 0.14 percent ad clickthrough rate — and then, once they get to the landing page, you’ll be lucky if you convert 2.35 percent.

I know the argument: Yes, but I’m exposing my digital banner message to millions of targets and it doesn’t cost me the same as direct mail does.

Let’s Do the Math

  • If you executed a direct mail campaign to 10,000 targets, and achieved a 1 percent response rate, you’d gain 100 customers.
  • To gain those same 100 customers, you’d have to run a banner ad that reached 3,035,700 targets (and let’s face it, you’re probably reaching a lot of non-targets in that number too).

The great thing about direct mail is that you can still rent or create a highly targeted list of prospects relatively inexpensively, as there is no wasted circulation. You’re only sending your message to prospects who meet your criteria — and therein lies the rub. Many companies aren’t clear exactly who they should be targeting, so they rent a list that is so broad that it has no chance of delivering a successful ROI.

Take a Bite Out of Postage Costs
If your only targeting criteria is to reach households who live in a specific zip code, or a specific neighborhood, you don’t even need to rent a list. The USPS offers a service called “Every Door Direct Mail.” By leveraging this new service, marketers can save thousands of dollars on postage — in fact, you can reach your 10,000 targets for as little of $0.29 per household.

Tactile, Targeted and Oh-So-Clever
Business-to-business marketers, who always benefit from targeting vertical market segments, should have a digital presence on sites where their known prospects visit — but have you looked at the overwhelming and competing messages on these sites lately? It seems you cannot even visit a site without being slapped in the face with an invasive pop-up ad, or flashing banner ad. Since 72 percent of Internet users say pop-ups are “very annoying,” and 49 percent find banner ads as annoying as pop-ups, your brand could probably benefit from moving into a distraction-free zone — which is what direct mail truly offers.

When direct mail arrives, your recipient must at least touch it — if only for a moment before recycling it — but if you’ve crafted a targeted and meaningful message, it will get opened. And that’s where many marketers fail. They don’t truly understand how to craft a direct mail piece that works.

Grabbing someone’s attention isn’t as simple as mailing a postcard — or a letter in an envelope. Although I’ve seen both of those tactics work when done intelligently. Three-dimensional packages can be an excellent way to get attention, especially if you’re selling something that’s expensive and your initial goal is to get an appointment for your sales force.

The Direct Marketing Association hosts an annual awards show (the ECHO’s) for excellence in direct response work. Take a gander at their case studies and study what works and, more importantly, why. Then tell me that direct mail doesn’t work.

Author: Carolyn Goodman

A blog that challenges B-to-B marketers to learn, share, question, and focus on getting it right—the first time. Carolyn Goodman is President/Creative Director of Goodman Marketing Partners. An award-winning creative director, writer and in-demand speaker, Carolyn has spent her 30-year career helping both B-to-B and B-to-C clients cut through business challenges in order to deliver strategically sound, creatively brilliant marketing solutions that deliver on program objectives. To keep her mind sharp, Carolyn can be found most evenings in the boxing ring, practicing various combinations. You can find her at the Goodman Marketing website, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @CarolynGoodman.

30 thoughts on “Direct Mail: Is It Old Fashioned If It Still Works?”

  1. As is usual with Carol, right on the money. My only question is whether Every Door works as well as targeted lists. Example: lists can target households with children, so if you sell a product only bought by people with kids, with Every Door you reach a lot of households without children.

    1. Thanks! I think there are limitations with Every Door, HOWEVER, that said, I was on the EDDM website recently that was letting me pick households by age of children, and while that wasn’t something I needed, I am curious as to whether they are really suggesting that it’s an option! I’ll be curious to know if anyone has had this opportunity or experience with EDDM…

  2. Carolyn,

    Fine piece. Really good. Have downloaded it and will quote you often!

    One addition to your numbers is the annual Winterberry Group pie chart.

    Take a look at the right—at 3:00 o’clock.

    Mail is direct marketing’s 800-pound gorilla, big enchilada and top banana.

    A whopping $45.7 billion-dollar industry.

    In the immortal phrase of Marv Albert: “Yessss!”


    Denny Hatch

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! One more thing I realized I should have added: Direct mail is the ONLY marketing channel that GUARANTEES your target will touch your message (even if it’s only for 1 second before throwing it in the recycle). Which is why you have to have your act together with a brilliant offer. But of course, I am preaching to the MASTER of DM. 🙂

  3. Fathim, I don’t mind posting the comment and asking for help with your dissertation, but just to make sure you’re aware, almost all of our audience is from the US and Canada. I’m not sure we’re going to be very helpful about cinema marketing in the UK.

    Sorry, -Thorin

  4. Carolyn,

    Great article and thanks for empirically laying out the rationale as to how direct mail can still be an effective strategy in the marketing mix. Your “do the math” example is quite enlightening and makes a strong case for using DM. I remember in the early days of digital ads that CTR’s were approaching 5%. At that time, the banner ad was heralded as the greatest direct response tactic ever created! Over time, as click thru rates declined, the value proposition of banner ads changed and it was no longer positioned as a direct response play, but rather the argument shifted to “look how many eyeballs” we can drive. And voila – the digital ad became the best new “Branding” tool available.

    Fast forward to today and we still have banner ads and direct mail along with a boatload of other choices in which we can reach our customers. Your point on targeting is right on the mark (and yes that was a pun). At times I feel as marketers we opt for what is fast, easy and cheap without regard to results. Volume digital media buys without targeting is the modern day equivalent to yesterday’s tactic of saturation mail. Sure, you’ll reach a lot of people, but don’t expect to drive the level of response rate that you could if you took the time profile, segment,test, and redeploy. And that goes for both digital and print channels.

    The one thing I would add to the consideration process for evaluation on choosing digital versus DM is this. Each of the available options we have today as marketers have unique functionalities. Our job as marketers, or agencies working on behalf of marketers, need to ensure we’re using the right channel to drive the type of response we desire. Whether it be direct response, brand awareness, or viral/sharing there’s a channel out there for you to use (and most likely it is a combination of several). I recently discussed the importance of choosing channels based on function (you can see it on LinkedIn here: ). My point was not to post another “Is Direct Mail Dead Yet” article, but to show the importance of choosing the right channel based function to elicit the action you want your targeted audience to take. This concept of channel functionality along with your best practices approach to executing DM should be a consideration for anyone launching their next campaign.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking!

    Len Mazur.

    1. You make some excellent points, Len. thanks for sharing your article — and I agree that choosing the right channel in the first place is the key to success of any campaign.

  5. Agreed, direct mail is a booming business for us and too say it is old fashioned goes against what we are seeing when many of our clients are using the newest technologies integrated physically/directly with the mail piece like these…not too mention the new USPS discounts that can be attained when combining tech and mail. Great article Thanks for getting people too listen;)

    1. Thanks… and I love the work Structural Graphics does. It helps us bring innovative ideas to life that really grab the target’s attention in a fresh and innovative way — and the interactivity it commands is something digital marketing can never achieve.

    2. Grabbing someone’s attention isn’t as simple as mailing a postcard — or a letter in an envelope. Although I’ve seen both of those tactics work when done intelligently. Three-dimensional packages can be an excellent way to get attention, especially if you’re selling something that’s expensive and your initial goal is to get an appointment for your sales force.

  6. Carolyn, while I agree that print is still very much alive and has it’s place – I would question your data on targeting and conversions. The ability for small business (any size really) to access Big Data and use that information to digitally target their audience, and to adjust that audience and message on the fly will generally allow for far better targeting. Maybe I’ve just always worked with the wrong direct mail companies, but I’ve never seen a list that starts with over 6,000,000 people and then start applying demographic, behavior and interest parameters using an “If/then” approach narrows that list to a highly targeted group of less than 1,000,000. Targeting is very precise in the digital world. As far as conversions – well, they are all over the board. As with all advertising it depends not only on the market you define, but the execution. Same for direct mail – you make the comment that less than half the people who receive the piece will even scan it, and of those the conversion rate could be anywhere from 1 to 14%. No matter the media – the campaign must be executed well.

    1. Lack of access to Big Data is a myth. There are plenty of ways to identify and target your audience without trying to reach 1,000,000 people or spending your entire budget. I don’t know what business you’re in, Daniel, but I would be happy to speak with you offline and give you some free advice. The reality is, targeting ONLINE isn’t nearly as precise as the digital world wants you to believe. And even if you can target, doesn’t mean they’ll click… but they WILL have to touch the direct mail piece and make a decision about it.

      I agree wholeheartedly that no matter what the media, the campaign must be executed well… and that’s where most business fail entirely — especially in direct mail.

      1. I may have miscommunicated – I didn’t say access to Big Data was lacking. Quite the opposite. What I inferred, and still believe is that utilizing that data in a direct mail piece isn’t as simple or cost effective as in the digital world. I’ve had tremendous success with digital targeting – but you do have to understand the data you’re working with, it’s source and the level of accuracy you can expect for individual elements. As I said – I do believe there is a very good place for print advertising. I use it today, and encourage clients to use it for specific purposes. I also believe that your comments about the ability to target and convert using digital platforms aren’t entirely accurate. It’s OK – you seem very knowledgable about print and a genuinely nice person – we probably won’t agree on everything though.

  7. To your point about 3-dimensional packages, I couldn’t agree more, you have to differentiate yourself. Our company has taken things a few steps further when it comes to sending out the perfect direct mail piece that will not only be unique and memorable, but successful. It is called TV in a Card and allows you to hit your desired target with not only a beautifully printed piece, but when opened, a HD TV screen plays your message. It is not something you are hitting 1,000,000 people with, but from 50 to 50,000 they are affordable depending on your budget. It is really neat to work with a product that I have never had a customer call back about and complain was a waste of time and money. Most of the calls I get back from customers are re-orders. We not only invented the TV Brochure, we are the #1 provider in the world. You can see more at:

  8. Great article! I recently purchased a franchise with Money Mailer and your article has given me more knowledge on how to be a better advocate of this known marketing strategy. You should take a look at our CEO, Gary Mulloy explain a coordinated effort of digital & print in the 21st century. Direct Mail is alive and well…it works!

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