In today’s fast-paced, digital world, we are often glued to our mobile phones and computer screens. As a result, when it comes to marketing, digital campaigns and technologies tend to get more attention than anything else. We find ourselves generating hundreds of tweets and social media posts as we strive to keep pace with the latest trends. Alternatively, we’re designing complex videos for streaming services, or curating extensive email lists and tirelessly monitoring our SEO stats. But while these elements all form essential parts of a successful marketing strategy, they can sometimes cause us to overlook a much older, simpler, and arguably more effective form of advertising: direct mail marketing.
Direct mail marketing is any form of advertising that is sent in the post. In this sense, it is as old as the postal service itself. In the 18th century, for example, companies would send catalogs of seeds to customers who wanted to plant them in their gardens. By the end of the 19th century, the first fully functioning mail-order catalog service had been created. And since at least the end of the First World War, businesses have used postal campaigns to encourage locals into their shops, and non-profits have engaged in letter-writing as a way of raising both awareness and funds.
Nowadays, these older forms of mail marketing have evolved into an expansive operation suited to the demands of the modern world. Direct mail campaigns are capable of targeting a wide array of customers, and they often outperform other advertising strategies. In this article, we’ll explore why this is the case, examining the growth and development of direct mail marketing, the potential returns it can offer businesses, and the different kinds of mail marketing strategies that companies can explore. By the end, you’ll understand exactly why so many companies are switching off their screens and stocking up on stamps.
They say that letter-writing is a dying art, but direct mail marketing is very much alive. In 2021, the industry was valued at $71.57 billion, and it is predicted to grow to a value of $72.67 billion in 2022. Meanwhile, the amount of direct mail being sent is also on the rise. In 2020, an estimated 67 million pieces of print advertising were mailed in the United States. That figure rose to more than 70 million pieces in 2021 (an increase of 4.7%), and the number looks likely to grow again in 2022.
Given this rapid expansion of the industry, companies that don’t engage in direct mail marketing may well find themselves unable to keep up with the competition. This is particularly true when it comes to targeting local customers. In 2020, companies in the U.S. spent more of their local advertising budget on direct mail campaigns than on any other marketing strategy. In total, they spent around $38.5 billion, equivalent to $167 per customer. With such extensive investment, therefore, companies that neglect direct mail marketing do so at their peril.
The reason why direct mail marketing continues to grow is because it often offers much better returns than other forms of advertising. In purely financial terms, reports have shown that U.S. advertisers earn, on average, $2,095 per person from products and services sold through direct mail. That makes for a return on investment of roughly $4.09 for every $1.27 spent.] In general, the majority of marketers agree that direct mail campaigns lead to positive outcomes. In a survey of over 500 advertisers, 59% reported that they had a “good” return on investment from their direct mail campaigns.
Those campaigns yield such good returns because people are more likely to engage with adverts that they receive through the mail than through other channels, such as social media or email. In fact, reports estimate that the percentage of people who open direct mail materials may be as high as 90%. Even the more conservative estimates suggest that at least 40% of direct mail recipients engage with the materials in some way (i.e., by reading or skimming them). At a very basic level, it is also the case that it takes longer to get rid of printed materials than digital materials. Whereas emails can be swiftly deleted with the swipe of a finger or the click of a button, printed mail has to be carried to the bin and recycled. Even if it is thrown out, in other words, printed mail lingers for longer than an email.
This helps to explain why, similar to open rates, response rates are much higher for direct mail marketing than other forms of advertising. For example, whereas 0.6% of people respond to email adverts, the response rate for direct mail is estimated to be between 2.7% and 4.4%. More broadly, direct mail response rates can be anywhere from five to nine times higher than the response rates for other marketing campaigns.
If that weren’t enough, then the customer conversion rate should seal the deal—or the envelope—on direct mail marketing. A report on conversion rates in 2020 showed that 62% of consumers who responded to a piece of direct mail went on to make a purchase from the company within three months. Furthermore, 39% of consumers reported that they had decided to try a new business for the first time because they had received advertising materials through the post. Compared to click-through and conversion rates online, direct mail is in a league of its own.
Since customers can be turned off by a company that sends excessive numbers of emails, it’s logical to assume that they might also be annoyed to come home to a mailbox filled with flyers. The fact is, though, that people are generally less averse to direct mail than other forms of advertising. One reason for this is that direct mail typically (though not exclusively) targets customers who are already very likely to be interested in the goods or services being offered (either because they have expressed an interest in the business before or because that business is local to them). This may also be why so many people say that they find direct mail less invasive than other forms of marketing. Indeed, one survey of American consumers found that 73% of people preferred to receive materials via direct mail because they were able to read them on their own time and at their own convenience. They could save the materials until later and did not have to make an immediate decision about a purchase. They found direct mail, in other words, to be a much more amiable and respectful form of communication than other kinds of advertising.
Studies have also shown that people of all ages like to receive mail in the post. 90% of Millennials, for example, report that they love getting letters. This makes sense and fits with that generation’s more general affinity for physical media: even though Millennials grew up in the digital age, many of them still harbor a nostalgia for the analogue world that it replaced. One only has to look at the increasing popularity of vinyl records, print media, and even video cassettes to see that this is true. In keeping with this love and nostalgia, moreover, Millennials tend to trust printed materials more than other media forms, and 57% say that they have previously responded to an offer or promotion sent via the post. At the same time, older generations like Gen X (those born between 1965 and 1980) also seem to value marketing that comes by mail. In one survey, 70% of Gen Xers stated that they found print mail to be more personalized than digital advertising and that they would be more likely to read postal communications than emails.
Even younger generations like Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) are likely to engage with marketing materials sent by mail, particularly if those materials have some kind of interactive or digital component, such as a QR code directing people to a website, a social media account, or am online video. It is worth noting, in this regard, that direct mail campaigns that make use of these kinds of digital elements and QR codes have often been successful. In a survey conducted of 218 campaigns of this kind, 35% of them had a profitable return on investment. Direct mail marketing that makes use of QR codes and digital content has the potential to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, sparking communication with younger consumers in a new and creative way.
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, direct mail marketing has proven to be even more effective in recent years, following the outbreak of COVID-19. During the pandemic, with the transition to remote working and the imposition of lockdowns, one-third of consumers reported that they felt worn out by technology and the overuse of screens. As a result, print marketing materials came to be seen as a form of relief from the screen-intensive lives that people were leading. Physical mail offered a refreshing break from the endless Zoom calls, Teams meetings, and email chains. As the world became more dependent on computers, people came to crave the comforting physicality of communication in print.
These facts and figures clearly show that direct mail marketing is an effective and often welcome alternative to digital advertising, but it is worth noting that some kinds of postal advertising can be more effective than others. The most common types of direct mail are letters in envelopes, postcards, print catalogs, and self-mailers. A self-mailer is any sort of promotional material that is sent without an envelope (such as a flyer or a brochure). While all of these materials can be used to good effect, postcards have become the most popular form of advertising in recent years. Specifically, whereas from 2009 to 2012, most companies favored letters in envelopes, envelope use dropped by 15% in 2021, and postcards became the preferred form of advertising.
Whatever style of mail marketing a company chooses to adopt, however, one thing is certain: personalization makes all the difference. Including recipients’ names on promotional materials can increase response rates by as much as 135%. This makes sense given that, as mentioned, one of the main benefits that consumers associate with direct mail marketing is that it feels more personalized and suited to their needs.
The last thing to remember when it comes to direct mail marketing is that, like all advertising campaigns, posted materials tend to be most effective when they are combined with other forms of advertising and communication. This is shown by a report about the recent rise in successful catalog campaigns, published in 2020. The report found that sales of products increased by 49% when customers received both a catalog and an email about those products. There were also 125% more inquiries from customers who received both kinds of marketing materials. Such dramatic increases clearly show that direct mail is most effective when used in tandem with other forms of advertising.
The direct mail marketing industry has seen massive growth in recent years and shows enormous potential for development, particularly as we navigate our increasingly digitized, post-pandemic world. Even though those who belong to the youngest generation, and who are about to enter the marketplace, have grown up entirely enmeshed in the information age, print media still looks set to play an important role in the future of communication and advertising, and companies can seize on its potential to create connections and drive sales in a world of digital natives. By combining the power of new technologies with the old and trusted methods of marketing by mail, advertisers and companies can continue to develop and exploit the opportunities offered by this personalized and tangible form of marketing. If they do, they might just find that there’s life in the art of letter-writing yet.