Why Direct Mail Won’t Die

You’ve seen the proclamations over the years that direct mail is near death, along with the counter-arguments that it’s nowhere near dead. Today I share a deeper perspective of the reason why direct mail won’t die

You’ve seen the proclamations over the years that direct mail is near death, along with the counter-arguments that it’s nowhere near dead. Today I share a deeper perspective of the reason why direct mail won’t die. It’s as simple as comprehension. Research reveals comprehension is better when information is consumed in print. And there’s more: millennials — digital natives, if you prefer — who today are in their 20s and 30s, prefer print.

Count me among those who prefer to read the news from a printed newspaper rather than my iPad. Books? My concentration is pitiful if I try to read an e-book. Still, I do a lot of reading — or maybe it’s more like scanning — online. I realize there are others of all ages who feel they comprehend content on electronic devices just fine. Or who at least think they comprehend the content. This research reports how students only think they comprehend as well on digital devices (the research suggests they don’t).

One might think that jumping from reading on printed pages to reading on a digital screen is a no-brainer. But biologically, reading has been an evolutionary development over hundreds — even thousands — of years, as suggested in an article in Scientific American.

Our brains evolved to keep the human species alive, eat and reproduce. Reading is a new addition to the mind, biologically speaking. It took unimaginable centuries for the brain to adapt to reading text in print. And now, in just a generation or so, we’ve been introduced to reading on screens, another reading adaption for the mind.

As marketers, we need to recognize which channels are best suited for reading comprehension, and how we can effectively create Short- or Long-Term Memory that persuasively leads to a sale.

In a moment, I’ll outline comprehension effectiveness (based on my experience) of social media, email, websites/landing pages, short video, long video, direct mail postcards, and direct mail packages.

As I see it, there are three stages of comprehension:

Glance and Forget in seconds what we just saw or read (the vast majority of what happens with marketing and advertising messages).

Short-Term Reading Comprehension that evaporates in just minutes or hours.

Long-Term Memory Comprehension that can last several hours, a day, maybe a week, and in a few instances, a lifetime.

We can only stuff so much into our mind and memory. There is a place for “Glance and Forget” channels when multiple instances of “Glance and Forget” impressions build over time to create awareness and anticipation. When we want our marketing efforts to convert to a sale, we need at least the “Short-Term Reading Comprehension” stage. The most successful campaigns, I believe, will make it to the most valuable “Long-Term Memory Comprehension” stage because of telling the story and effective persuasion.

Digital and print channels can co-exist and strengthen each other. Digital is useful for the moment when a person is looking for top-line or summary information, or just a place to make a quick impression (recognizing there is an additive effect of impressions over time). Print is most useful and effective when your prospect is ready to pause, read and more deeply comprehend, leading to long-term memory and action.

My experience, and my opinion, suggests that as marketers, we can best leverage certain channels in these ways:

  • Social Media: Serve readers short, light content. Build your brand, organization and follower base. Don’t expect action beyond likes and shares (which you can’t take to the bank). But social media, in my experience, is good for impressions and building top-of-mind awareness. Keep it curious, likeable and sharable. But don’t expect purchasing action. Unless there is a click to a landing page, it’s a Glance and Forget channel.
  • Email: The best use for email is when you have built your own list of raving fans. Email results are lousy when sent to people who haven’t opted in to your message. So if you’re writing to your opt-in list of customers (or inquiries), write content to provoke curiosity that leads them to click to a landing page, leading to the possibility of Short-Term Comprehension. When the email was only opened, but there wasn’t a click, then it is a Glance and Forget channel.
  • Websites/Landing Pages: If someone searched and happened upon your website, and if the bounce rate is high, you have a Glance and Forget website. If, on the other hand, you have a landing page with valuable content and call-to-action, or CTA (for example, opting in to an email list), you have a shot at Short-Term Comprehension, and in some instances, Long-Term Memory Comprehension.
  • Short Video: A short video will likely be a Glance and Forget channel unless you have a call-to-action leading to a landing page with a CTA or opt-in to your list. When that occurs, you might be able to lead to Short-Term Comprehension.
  • Long Video (or a Video Sales Letter): When viewed all the way to the end, a long video should result in Short-Term Comprehension, and possibly Long-Term Memory Comprehension and a sale, when there is an effective CTA.
  • Direct Mail Postcard: There’s not much space on a postcard, and with so much postcard competition in the mailbox, most postcards are a Glance and Forget channel. A thoughtfully created postcard can result in Short-Term Comprehension, however. And if you have a strong CTA, you can move a postcard message to Long-Term Memory Comprehension if the person acts by either calling for information or making a purchase.
  • Direct Mail Package. The ability to deliver long persuasive copy is the value of direct mail, and is why direct mail won’t die. Let’s not kid ourselves: most direct mail is never opened and goes directly into the trash, making it a Glance and Forget channel to most recipients. But when the recipient is curious upon seeing the outer envelope, opens it, and dives into a long-form letter, brochure, or reads an insert or order device with your offer, you’ve achieved at least Short-Term Comprehension. When the creative and copywriting effectively persuades and sells, you lead your prospect to Long-Term Memory Comprehension. When you do that, you can score the sale.

Direct mail, I’ve found, is usually the best channel for converting and producing sales. Direct mail, when using persuasive copywriting and clarity of design, facilitates high comprehension and works. And that’s the deeper reason why direct mail won’t die. What do you think?