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Is Direct Mail Dead? Not Even Close

By Shravya Kaparthi, Director, Experience Analytics

Direct mail is a decidedly old-school marketing vehicle — but make no mistake, it’s far from dead. In fact, building a custom direct mail campaign can help differentiate your brand in our otherwise cluttered, distracted, and high-density marketing landscape.

When I was pregnant, a lot of automotive brands and home loan services predicted that we would need a bigger car and a home. Having said that, I loved receiving custom personalized mailers from brands that knew I was about to embark on the life-altering journey of parenthood. From samples for essentials like infant formula to promotions for prenatal massage services, the direct mail I received made me feel special and seen. And I’m not alone in my affinity for direct mail.

We’ve seen a new appreciation for the physical world after the deluge of email, SMS, and social media brand communication over the past couple of decades. More than 40% of Americans across age groups say they eagerly anticipate checking the mailbox each day. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly aided in that resurgence. During the lockdown, mail played an even more crucial role in American homes and routines. Indeed, an April 2020 survey of consumers confirmed that receiving physical mail made them feel more connected and less alone.

Direct mail helps you genuinely connect, own the conversation, and most importantly, get a response from the audience. Even still, it can be challenging to know where direct mail fits into an integrated marketing campaign. As with any marketing tactic, it depends on the mood, context, and expectations.

Not Your Mama’s Direct Mail Strategy
Thanks to the proliferation of and access to data signals, it’s possible to map out key events at a household level and reach consumers with the right message, at the right time, with the most pertinent context. For instance, after my family moved, local hair salons and boutiques reached out with direct mail offers to welcome us to the community and help us absorb the local culture. Super-relevant coupons from home improvement stores and maintenance services also arrived. This wasn’t dumb luck; it was a data-driven programmatic strategy.

Direct mail and programmatic capabilities may seem diametrically opposed, but with the kind of data and behavioral segmentation and targeting layers that we now have to reach people at a household level, direct mail can be more programmatic than almost any other channel.

For a few industries (like utilities, financial services, and healthcare-patient services), direct mail seems like an obvious choice. But it's equally imperative to break through the clutter. Direct mail is not all bills and coupons: An average American household receives two pieces of mail per day, making it yet another opportunity to make a meaningful connection. Using a combination of data signals — especially from behavioral and attitudinal data points to more “need-state” signals like pre-move or life-stage changes like downsizing, adding a child, etc. — would be more meaningful in experimenting with relevant communication, targeted offers, and timing.

Marrying the Physical and Digital

One of the best things about direct mail and digital is that they can (and should) coexist. In fact, a survey of 2,000 consumers found that the vast majority — 85%, to be exact — want brands reaching them through both digital and physical channels. When you connect your direct mail efforts with your digital marketing ones, you enhance the entire campaign and drive better results.

Consider the USPS’ Informed Delivery feature, which adds a digital channel to physical mail. Subscribers receive images of the front side of their mail items every delivery day via email, the app, or an online dashboard. Brands can use the program to boost their direct marketing objectives and synchronize cross-channel campaigns. For instance, you could create a campaign with a particular mailer where recipients view the image of the mailer alongside a tailored banner with a targeted URL promoting the offer.

Strategies like this also allow you to measure your campaign success more accurately. Because it’s a strategic mix of digital and direct mail, you can measure dimensions familiar with the physical mail world (e.g., subscribers, saturation, etc.) and digital metrics (e.g., open rates, click-through rates, etc.). Armed with this data, you can more precisely determine the attribution of physical mail and its potential halo effect on other related channels.

Reenergizing Direct Mail as a Channel

Over the past decade, we’ve watched integrated marketing evolve into dynamic, connected touchpoints that are automated with microtargeting and progressive profiling. It’s time to reenergize direct mail as a channel in delivering high-precision content at a household level when and where it’s needed in order to create powerful ongoing engagement. If a brand can differentiate, there’s a tremendous opportunity to break through and connect.