Does Direct Mail Marketing Still Have a Pulse?

Ah the ever popular debate among marketers – is direct mail dying?

Well, new data from neuormarketing research conducted by several sources may have some marketers scratching their heads. However, as a real-life millennial, who is friends with many other certified millennials, the data matches my experience.

Here is some of the more thought-provoking data from the United States Postal Service:

  • 84% of millennials look through their mail on a regular basis
  • 64% would rather search for useful information in the mail
  • 50% of millennials say they ignore digital ads
  • 15% of millennials say they ignore direct mail (that IS a big difference – but also we shouldn’t assume that 85% of millennials “respond” to direct mail. They just don’t “ignore” it like they do digital ads)
  • 57% of millennials say they made a purchase following a direct mail offer (okay, but that is quite a lot)
  • 87% of millennials say they like receiving mail

Furthermore, the neuro research is just plain neat…

The U.S. Postal Service partnered with the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University’s Fox School of Business (HEY, that’s my business school!) and used brain imaging, biometrics, eye tracking, and questionnaires to measure reactions. See the image below for the findings:

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 3.06.09 PM

More neuro-marketing research from Canada Post found that across all ages:

  • Processing direct mail required 21% less cognitive effort
  • Participants’ recall was 70% higher for direct mail than digital ads
  • Activation in parts of the brain that correspond to motivation was 20% higher

So are you ready to ditch your email marketing campaigns and cancel your banner ad contracts?

Not so fast! Always remember a few important questions that must be asked whenever you’re interpreting data like this:

  • What info is missing from the data? For one – ROI! The cost of print is still, and always will be, much higher than most digital alternatives. Email marketing, although an ever-increasing struggle, still has the highest median ROI (122%) because of its low cost. However, it should be noted here that the ROI for direct mail (27%) is only slightly lower than the ROI for social media marketing (28%).
  • Is this data representative of a black and white issue, or are there some shades of grey? While the data does lead us to conclude that direct mail marketing is still a very viable option – that doesn’t mean we should necessarily pull our money out of digital or other methods for that matter. We must always remember that attribution is a slippery beast. While a customer may tell you, “It was your postcard that made me buy from you!” – we still have to wonder whether they saw several digital ads first, received a recommendation from a friend, heard a radio ad, etc. Perhaps they were already heading in your brand’s direction. It’s quite possible they would have ended up buying from you regardless of the buy-one-get-one-free postcard they received that just happened to encourage them to do it sooner and for less money.
  • The data indicates a majority – but is it enough? We read that 64% of millennials would rather search for useful information in their mail. This means that 36% of millennials (about 27 billion people) would prefer to look elsewhere for info about your brand. That is by no means an insignificant little niche of the population! Just as children learn differently, people are motivated by and respond to different promotional methods in varying ways. Making sweeping generalizations about all people in one demographic because the data indicate a majority, doesn’t mean you should disregard the minority!

So what should you do?

Continue (or start to) use direct mail to connect with people online. If email marketing has a higher ROI, don’t use the expense of direct mail to send someone a deep discount that even further decreases your ROI. Instead, inform people of a new whitepaper they can access by signing up for your email list. Use the postcard, flier, letter, etc, to capture the attention of digital natives and inform them of how they can connect with you online.

Sidebar: Whatever you do, please, for the love of all that is holy in this world, do not – I repeat do NOT – include a QR code on your direct mail efforts. I was so disappointed that, after all this valuable info, the USPS (as well as Marketing Profs one of my favorite resources) suggested including a QR code. Here is my favorite article about why QR codes are the most destructive piece of garbage to ever enter the world of digital marketing. I digress…

Suggestions for ways to use direct mail in the year 2017:

  • Make it non-promotional. Especially beneficial for non-profits, sending out newsletters or simple greeting cards can go along way. Can you calculate the precise ROI of sending birthday cards to your most loyal customers each month? Not likely, especially not without including a discount (which then turns the piece into a promotional piece). In my opinion a coupon code is not always appropriate, but if you do include one, just keep it small – don’t lose sight of your ROI and the value of your product. On the other hand, when it comes to print pieces that are mostly relationship building efforts, you can “sneak” in some promotional content. At the non-profit for which I work, we do include a donation envelope and an “upcoming events” section in our tri-annual newsletter, but that takes up less that 10% of the content of the newsletter. The rest is just engaging storytelling and some informative updates about ongoing projects.
  • Keep it simple – unless it’s a newsletter or magazine, give your postcards and letters only one call to action. Just because the data says that people have better recall with print materials, that doesn’t mean we should overwhelm them.
  • Target strategically – I don’t believe in purchasing address lists. I never understood why it’s illegal to add someone to your email marketing list without their consent, but it’s perfectly fine to buy their home address and send mail directly to their private residences. But spam issues aside, we know that it’s easier and cheaper to sell to existing customers than it is to non-customers. I would venture the same is true for leads who have showed interest in your brand. Segment your mailing list based on interest and relationship, and do not take advantage of the addresses in your database. If you’re going to cross-promote your products, you should have data (or at least sound reasoning) to backup your theory that customers of one product will be interested in another.

So in conclusion, direct mail is alive and well, but as with all things in marketing, capitalizing on its many benefits is both a science and an art.


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