As a digital marketing agency, we don’t really have much to do with direct mail. Although the team members who have worked in marketing more broadly or for a long time have experience with this tactic, we don’t often get any requests to include direct marketing campaigns in strategies.
In this post, I’m looking at the role direct mail still plays in marketing in 2023/4. Or, if it even does have a place in the marketing mix.
Direct Mail – Older Than You Think
Direct mail or you may call it one of any number of terms…mail advertising, mailers, and mailing campaigns have been around longer than you may think and are one of the oldest forms of marketing.
According to Paperplanes, the official birth of direct mail campaigns occurred in 1872, when Montgomery Ward launched his mail business with a one-page catalogue. Richard Warren Sears was another early adopter who started sending brochures advertising watches out to small towns.
As you’ve probably gathered, direct mail as a form of marketing, is sending out a physical publication of some sort, through the mail, to potential customers. It also expands to objects, as free gifts or samples can also be mailed out.
Data from Statista shows that since 2013, there has been a steady decline in direct mail, and a steep drop off since 2020, which I think we can directly associate with the Covid-19 pandemic and a lot of brands halting their marketing spending.
Direct mail did pick back up in 2022 though, with direct mail advertising spending in the United Kingdom reaching 1.1 billion pounds! Royal Mail also confirmed that direct mail spending had gone back up post-pandemic.
So, although direct mail isn’t on a lot of marketers ‘must-do’ lists, it’s still big business and lots of firms are still using the tactic.
Further evidence for continuing use is the ‘junk mail’ that still piles up on my doormat each week, containing everything from takeaway menus to leaflets for local lotteries.
So, yes…companies are still using direct mail in 2023, and as long as people have letterboxes, probably still will.
Let’s have a closer look at some of the strategies that can be used in direct mail, as well as the pros and cons.
Direct Mail Approaches
Direct mail comes in many different forms from the type of mail that is sent to the tactic used behind the campaign.
From catalogues to postcards, letters and leaflets, there are a myriad of ways to send communications to potential customers.
Tactic-wise, businesses can send out blanket mailers to a geographical area where they don’t have much customer data or can send campaigns out to lists of data they possess, based on market research, data they have from existing customers, or, in many cases, data that has been procured through means such as purchased lists. There is strong evidence to suggest that certain people end up with more unwanted marketing mail because they have responded to previous campaigns. In the UK, elderly people are particularly prone to direct mail scams.
One of the major downsides to direct mail, for legitimate companies thinking of investing in a campaign is the expense. When compared with digital marketing strategies such as SEO, or pay per click (PPC) advertising, direct mail is significantly more expensive. You have to physically produce a printed material, and this isn’t cheap. The environmental impact isn’t great either, so much of the mail that comes through our letterboxes is automatically dismissed and thrown away, or if you’re well behaved, put in the recycling bin.
Another issue for those sending direct mail campaigns can be data and proper audience segmentation. You can send out blanket campaigns, but you may be throwing money down the toilet in cases where you don’t know much about your intended audience, their needs or wants.
So When Might Direct Mail Work?
The most successful direct mail campaigns will be based on strong data and an understanding of your audience. The more you know about your audience, the more successful your direct mail campaign is likely to be.
Direct mail can be used by companies in conjunction with social media, email campaigns, and websites. All can be utilised to understand more about your target audience, and how receptive they will be to direct mail.
I know this works…because it works on me! For example, I’ll not name the company, but I have in the past, purchased several rose plants from a well-known plant nursery. Now, several times a year I will receive postcard with special discounts and once a year, the company send me their catalogue. I never feel like these are unsolicited because I’ve dealt with the company before, have made repeat purchases, and quite often, will take up the offers that land on my door matt.
Another successful model I can think of are the companies that send out free sample mailers for big brands. These companies interact with potential customers on social media, asking people if they would like to receive a sample through the post. Whilst still risky because the brands don’t know if the customer will end up buying the product, this permission-based model is more accurate and informed than just sending samples to everyone.
I also think direct mail does still have a role at the local level too and is accessible to smaller businesses. For example, if you set up a business that serves a small geographical area or are holding an event, direct mail could work for you. Of course, there is local SEO too, so it wouldn’t be wise to put all your eggs in one direct mail basket, but smaller businesses could benefit from sending adverts directly to their local communities. This could be done for a lower cost too, as leaflets could be delivered by hand.
As you can see, there are up and downs to direct mail and if it’s a tactic you are considering, you need to put in a fair amount of market research and consider your budget and the potential for return on investment.
You should also consider using direct mail in conjunction with social media or your website so that you can better understand your audience and put markers in place to measure the success of your campaign.