Direct Mail Makes a Comeback

by Brittany Willes, editor, PostPress
Conference organizers continue to use printed mail pieces to drive attendance.

The direct mail industry may be sympathizing with American writer and humorist Mark Twain, who once was said to declare, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

After years of lower volumes affected by the predicted takeover of digital communication, direct mail has re-established itself as a vital means of connecting marketers to their potential customers. Strategic consulting group Winterberry Group forecasted direct mail to be a $47 billion industry in 2016, up again after a 2.9 percent increase in 2015. This year’s increase will be driven partially by the presidential election cycle and the Olympic Games, but much of the resurgence is driven by neuroscience that has proven consumers remember the message of printed pieces better than information found online.

Driving sales with touch

Contrary to popular belief that humans use only 10 percent of our brains, more than half of the brain is dedicated to processing and storing sensory experiences. “Touch is the only sense that puts you in direct contact with your subject,” said Dr. David Eagleman, host of the PBS series The Brain. “Unlike sight and hearing which operate at a distance, our sense of touch provides a very up-close and personal way of interacting with the world. With 2,000 sensory receptors in our fingertips alone, it’s little wonder that so much of our brain is devoted to tactile sensations and associations.”

In a series of short videos distributed by Sappi North America, Eagleman explains how haptics, or the neuroscience of touch, can affect decision-making. According to Eagleman, after an eight-year decline, paper catalogs have experienced a comeback after businesses discovered that online marketing alone led to decreased sales. Why? Because approximately 75 percent of online purchases were made after customers looked through the paper catalog.

“The research suggests that catalogs are enough to drive ownership imagery,” Eagleman said. “Touching a nicely crafted catalog is sufficient to trigger the ‘Endowment Effect.’ Somehow the tactile experience of touching a piece of paper is a surrogate for touching the thing itself. Touch ends up being a really important part of our decision-making.”

Even as more people flock to place orders online, printed materials continue to be a driving force behind those sales. According to statistics compiled by the Print Industry of America, printed materials ” including brochures, ads and direct mail pieces ” account for more than 85 percent of print industry revenue. By contrast, only 13 percent is derived from non-print revenue. As the novelty of Internet ordering and paperless settings fades, people are once again craving the physical interaction of printed materials.

Digital communication not always favored

Perhaps because we live so much of our lives online, it’s understandable to assume most people prefer digital communication over paper. Recent studies, however, show the opposite is true. Even millennials, who have mostly grown up unaware of a time before cellphones could be used to take and share pictures of your dinner with hundreds of people instantaneously, have been found to prefer print over digital in many situations.

In 2013, the American Forest & Paper Association prepared “Documenting the Value of Paper: Literature Review,” which examined several studies showcasing when and why students who have grown up with digital still prefer print medium. For instance, when looking at college students:

  • Students prefer to study using print texts rather than study on screen. (Ackerman and Goldsmith, 2011)
  • A study of 91 undergraduate students found that they do not prefer e-texts over print textbooks ┬ôregardless of their gender, computer use or comfort with computers.┬ö (Woody, Daniel and Baker, 2010)
  • In a 2009 Student Public Interest Research Group survey, 70 percent of students preferred print textbooks to e-texts “when cost was not a factor.” (Weinman, 2009)

Despite their familiarity with digital communication, millennials perceive paper as being the more trustworthy medium. After all, anyone can post anything online, but print requires time and money on behalf of the distributor and therefore is seen as more likely to be factual and, in the case of direct mail advertising, more official.

When it comes to marketing communication, customers still prefer direct mail over email and internet advertisements. Surveys show that direct mail is still responsible for the majority of customer contact and retention. According to the AFPA’s prepared document:

  • 74 percent of consumers surveyed by Pitney Bowes in the US, UK, Germany and France “welcome a monthly offer sent to them via postal mail.” (RIT, March 2012)
  • According to the DMA 2011 Statistical Fact Book, over 50 percent of U.S. consumers report they read direct mail received from retailers and find it useful. Sales driven by direct mail other than catalogs increased $20 billion from 2010 to 2011. (RIT, 2011)

In fact, customers who have access to a printed catalog are likely to spend more money online than those who did not.

Environmental claims disproved

The phrase “go green” has been widely circulated the past few years, with more and more companies urging customers to go paperless as a way to become more environmentally friendly. Many companies moved away from paper advertisements and promotional materials, relying heavily on email and websites to connect with customers. As a result, many people grew to assume digital communication produced less waste and less toxicity for the environment. As with most things, however, the truth of the situation is not so cut and dried.

According to a 2013 report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Small Network Equipment Energy Consumption in U.S. Homes,” approximately 88 million households have a high-speed Internet connection, which necessitates use of a modem and (most often) a router. These two small devices “consume an average of 94 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity every year,” which is “more than twice the annual consumption of a 14-inch ENERGY STAR-certified laptop computer.” That’s a lot of energy draw for a supposedly green device, considering the amount of energy used when transmitting data is virtually the same as when sitting idle.

As reported by the NRDC, in 2012 alone the US “consumed approximately 8.3 billion kWh of electricity, equivalent to the annual output of three large (500 MW) coal-fired power plants. This resulted in 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or the equivalent annual tailpipe emissions of 1.1 million cars.” There’s no denying that digital communication has an environmental cost and cannot claim to be the only sustainable option. Paper communication, in fact, is much more sustainable than digital and is not nearly the environmental hazard that many believe it to be.

Two Sides North America, a global initiative devoted to promoting sustainability and dispelling common environmental misconceptions, has long argued that paper is in fact one of the only truly sustainable products. As stated in Two Sides’ Myths & Facts brochure: “Paper is made from wood, a natural resource that is renewable and recyclable. These features, combined with the North American paper industry’s advocacy of responsible forestry practices and certification, use of renewable biomass and advances in efficient papermaking technology, make paper one of the most sustainable products on earth.”

While some might argue that not enough people recycle to justify the continued use of paper, the reality is that recycling in the US has increased dramatically as a result of increased access to community recycling services, including curbside and drop-off access. According to the AFPA: “Paper recovery has fostered a dynamic marketplace that allows recovered fiber to find its highest-value end use. That, in turn, helps to encourage more recycling.” In fact, people in the US recycle paper more often than any other material. The AFPA reported that 65.4 percent of all paper consumed in the US in 2014 was recovered for recycling.

Thus, the common misconception that paper communication is less green is simply that: a misconception. It is far more likely that the true motivation behind companies pushing to go green is related to cost. No doubt it can be cheaper for companies to deliver advertising and promotional materials digitally. However, it’s important to remember that the cheaper delivery method has been shown to have a negative impact on sales without a coordinated print component – not the desired result.

Opportunities for print finishers

Humans are incredibly tactile beings, and the look, feel and smell of paper engages our senses in a way that digital just can’t. However, that doesn’t mean the two can’t work well together. We buy online because it’s typically cheaper and faster, but we still enjoy the physical sensation of flipping through a catalog or admiring a creative piece of direct mail advertising. And, as it turns out, those physical sensations drive increased sales.

The current US Postal Service incentives offer a terrific reason for print finishers to remind print customers, ad agencies and graphic designers of the resurgence of direct mail (see article).

If we were to ask Mark Twain what he might have to say on the subject, it’s possible he would have replied with another of his famous quotes, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” In this case, the opportunity is right in front of you.