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?

Author: Gary Hennerberg

Reinventing Direct is for the direct marketer seeking guidance in the evolving world of online marketing. Gary Hennerberg is a mind code marketing strategist, based on the template from his new book, "Crack the Customer Mind Code." He is recognized as a leading direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He weaves in how to identify a unique selling proposition to position, or reposition, products and services using online and offline marketing approaches, and copywriting sales techniques. He is sought-after for his integration of direct mail, catalogs, email marketing, websites, content marketing, search marketing, retargeting and more. His identification of USPs and copywriting for clients has resulted in sales increases of 15 percent, 35 percent, and even as high as 60 percent. Today he integrates both online and offline media strategies, and proven copywriting techniques, to get clients results. Email him or follow Gary on LinkedIn. Co-authoring this blog is Perry Alexander of ACM Initiatives. Follow Perry on LinkedIn.

13 thoughts on “Why Direct Mail Won’t Die”

  1. Gary, I found this such a well-crafted, logical explanation of the role of mail (and print media) in the new digital landscape. Many of my clients are seeking to reconcile digital and traditional media/mail. You’ve done wonderful job of explaining why digital-only is a shaky move.

    Ironic that as marketing continues its evolution in the new online reality print still resonates and builds brands. Kudos for a piece that’s not only smart, but wise.

  2. Well done Gary. I particularly enjoyed the research on the printed word with millennials and how they prefer it over digital.

  3. Excellent synopsis without dismissing digital. So often people with a background in direct just defend direct and see no value for digital. It’s time to be inclusive and always map out the touchpoints for your customer experience and then use the media that is most appropriate. There is never just one approach or one solution. Good article, thanks.

  4. Excellent article and matches my personal experience. I have read over 300 “books” on my (lowest tech older version) Kindle and am grateful to have it, but I miss the full experience of reading a paper book. As a marketer, I use all mediums available. Well executed targeted direct mail still rocks it.

  5. Great post, Gary! Direct mail is a great marketing tool that makes emotional connections and leaves memorable impressions in this fast-paced, always-on world. I absolutely agree that print and digital can co-exist and strength each other – in fact, I think the marriage of these two entities is the best way to get the most out of any direct mail campaign. Print is becoming more interactive and engaging than ever with call-to-actions that incorporate digital touch points, such as Personalized URLs or videos. A well designed, creative piece that focuses on personalization and relevancy will help cut through the clutter of marketing messages and reach consumers in a truly meaningful way. Judy Berlin, Vice President Marketing, XMPie

  6. I totally agree with you Gary. Of course I am like you and prefer reading an actual book. When it comes to Industry publications I like to have a physical copy to read and write on at times. Recently I had a company send me a direct mail piece that caught my attention. Because I received their direct mail piece and opened it, I became familiar with the company name and what they did. A few days later I received an email from the same company and if it was not for the direct mail piece, I would not have opened it. With inboxes being inundated with messages, companies need Direct Mail to give them validity in the marketplace. Love to talk more about it. Donna A. Peterson – World Innovators

  7. At last a clear perspective on how people read and absorb promotional messages ( and other information, as well).
    When you add the tactile nature and ease of retention/presence and pass-on
    `social` aspects, then you are really getting down to what a powerful medium direct mail is.
    All of the now very exciting but complicated media routes have something to offer, but it`s knowing how each performs in relationship to one another and how they can complement, that many professionals still need to grasp.
    And direct mail more than justifies it`s presence in most campaigns.
    Great article.

  8. Bravo Gary. I just shared this on Linked In, a 1st for me. The linked article at the Washington Post is also great info.

  9. Glad to see that the reports of the death of direct mail could be an exaggeration! And thank you for the insight into reading behaviour.

  10. I once had a great professor who said, “direct mail is advertising you operate”. The comprehension factor, the tactile feel of having paper in hand, plus great marketing (targeting, offer, solid creative) cause direct mail to still be a compelling part of most marketing plans for marketers “in the know”.

    Problem is, many digital marketers have have dismissed direct mail. Why? Mostly its to position direct mail against new media, so mail gets bashed as old school, expensive, harmful for the environment, etc.

    I know the answer to the great “digital” outbound vs inbound debate.

    “Somehow” in the future digital marketers will become channel agnostic… if there is a pool of prospects that can be targeted, converted and tracked, all methods of customer messaging will be considered and tested. But then again I am an optimist (and will keep proselytizing the power of direct mail wherever and whenever!)

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