Direct Mail Still Boasts Marketing Advantages

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress

Pundits have been predicting the death of direct mail as a marketing tool for at least 20 years. It would be swiftly overtaken by targeted electronic blasts, online clickable links and a host of other e-tools, they said. Fancy the idea of mailing a printed piece to a physical address!

A statement on the website of the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) doesn’t exactly contradict that assessment, but it at least acknowledges a niche for direct mail:

“Direct mail continues to serve as a key driver in most omnichannel marketing plans,” said the statement. “It’s complemented well by online efforts and fills a much-needed niche. Where online is generally low-cost, low-impact, print is higher cost, higher impact. Where online marketing is passive, direct mail is active. Direct mailings are proactive and tactile – demanding that the recipient DO something with it. The better response rates make the return on the investment worthwhile for both retention and acquisition. However, the 2015 statistics are in and they’re telling us what we direct marketers predicted: 2015 direct mail volume was down while spend was up, most likely driven by postage increases.”

A more sobering statistic was offered by business intelligence website IBISWorld:

“During the five years to 2021, Direct Mail Advertising industry revenue is expected to remain nearly stagnant. Higher expected levels of consumer spending and rising corporate profit margins are anticipated to increase advertising expenditures, but outside competition should continue to hinder significant revenue growth and profit improvement.”

Direct mail: a necessary marketing concept but hardly a way to get rich. Yet, there are printers and marketers who are innovating and succeeding in direct mail. They’re doing it with a solid knowledge of what direct mail is – and what it isn’t – and a willingness to acquire the deeper knowledge of consumer attitudes and psychology that helps target likely campaigns. Of course, they’re also using the post-print tools and techniques available to them in order to drive up acquisition and retention.

Print is intrusive

Direct marketing creative consultant Alan Rosenspan, who has said of direct mail, “It’s intrusive – in the best possible way,” had this to say about the power of a direct mail piece:

“The first thing to remember is that direct mail is a tactile medium. Unlike email or TV commercials or billboards, it is the only form of advertising that your prospects actually hold in their hands. How it feels, how it looks, what kind of paper stock you use – all are important elements that effect response.”

He continued, “For example, a direct mail package announcing the opening of a beautiful new hotel should look very different than an appeal from a charity. The hotel would use expensive, coated stock that would feel expensive in your hands; the charity would usually use thin paper that looks like they need every penny they can raise.”

And size does matter, according to Rosenspan. “Size also is very important. We have found – in test after test – that the larger the size of the envelope, the more it sticks out from other direct mail, and the better it works. It also looks more important. Larger sizes, such as #12 envelopes and 9″x12″ envelopes, are particularly effective. They are more expensive to print and mail, but the improved response is almost always worth it.”

Color compels

Jeanette McMurtry, consultant and principal, e4marketing, urges marketers to delve into what she calls the “psychology of color” in order to understand how color in a direct mail piece attracts or repels prospects.

In a conversation with PostPress, McMurtry emphasized a spirit of experimentation in order to test out various colors – both for a direct mail piece and for an entire brand:

“Create a new ad campaign or brand iconology and produce it in various colors,” she said. “Send it to your customers and ask them which color caught their attention first and what words or thoughts first came to mind. Prospects see brand value differently through different colored lenses.”

According to McMurtry, taking some time to study what colors really mean to consumers – conscious and unconscious minds is time well-spent, regardless of your industry or if you’re B-to-B or B-to-C. “The wrong colors could project the wrong values, and that could be totally wrong for your bottom line,” she explained.

McMurtry also stressed the importance of doing the brand homework first. “Clever words, offers and compelling content will fall short of reaching your goals if your first impression is not a powerful statement about your brand’s values and experiences. Pay attention to the colors you use and the colors that attract your consumers. Soon, you will discover that you change behavior simply by changing colors,” she said.

Beyond color, McMurtry takes note of the power of such postpress techniques as foil and embossing and the ability of these techniques to yield, for example, upscale, exclusive-looking invitations, etc. “When something like that arrives in my mailbox, it makes me think I’ve been chosen for something exclusive. That makes me feel good,” said McMurtry.

Direct mail also may benefit from what it is not – it is not email, said McMurtry. “Digital overload is always a concern, in that it can lead to consumers tuning out. In contrast, we still open our mail.”

Folding effects

Graphic arts and finishing supplier MCD, Madison, Wisconsin, ( offers high-impact options including foil stamping, embossing/debossing, specialty UV coatings, diecutting, gluing and folding and inserting, according to Vice President of Sales Sean Hurley. According to statements on MCD’s website, direct mail campaigns have quicker and higher response rates than digital alone. Brands that combine direct mail and digital channels can expect a double-digit uplift in conversion.

One very striking recent project for MCD involves a telescoping direct mail brochure for carmaker BMW. “The BMW telescoping slider is designed so we can automate the gluing and folding. It is entirely automatically assembled,” said Hurley.

“This design was patented and developed by MCD, Inc. It features a diecut hook tab and lock to pull each slide forward. The body of the slider is wrapped around each insert slide piece. We produce one-pull sliders up to four-pull sliders, depending on the amount of print area needed,” he added.

“The best direct mail campaigns often are unique and interactive,” said Hurley. “Perceived value and enhanced brand awareness contribute to success, and if customers see an increase in response with an enhanced direct mail piece vs. standard direct mail, it justifies the rate of investment to the buyer”

Where does Hurley see the influence of direct mail going within the next three to five years? He listed the following:

  • more personalization,
  • campaigns targeted to individuals and
  • utilization of specialty enhancements and distinctive marketing techniques to increase response rates.

Rosenspan agrees on targeting, personalization and segmenting: “As they say, one size never fits all – and the same direct mail package can’t possibly appeal to every person. The more you break up your list, into groups of similar industries or like-minded individuals, the more successful you will be. Many companies build a response model of dozens of variables that will produce the best average response. But, they may be ignoring important segments of that model that may respond much better to a more personalized approach.”

Whether direct mail is used on its own, in tandem with electronic marketing or as part of a spectrum-wide campaign, brand owners need to be up-to-date on all available direct mail enhancements.

“Companies will begin turning back to direct mail as the limitations (and poor response) of electronic media become more pronounced,” concluded Rosenspan. “Hopefully, they will begin to understand that sending out email may be faster and cheaper, but it just doesn’t have the impact of a well-crafted direct mail package.”

“I also believe more companies will understand that all marketing decisions should be based on the value of a customer. If a customer might be worth thousands of dollars to you, isn’t it worth investing more to acquire them?” he asked.

Post Office Promotes “Irresistible Mail”

When you stop to think about it, the US Postal Service has quite a large stake in the success of direct mail marketing programs.

The postal service has sponsored the Irresistible Mail Award to, as it says, “showcase the most innovative and creative work in direct mail advertising.” The postal service is encouraging those who have managed, designed or printed an outstanding campaign in the last 12 months to enter. The program offers four quarterly awards and a Grand Champion who will be recognized at the annual National Postal Forum.

Criteria for the awards track closely with the techniques marketers commonly use. The entry description says, “Innovative pieces may include features on the following list or something even more revolutionarys,” including:

  • items with unique shapes (2D or 3D), sizes, textures or colors designed to be noticed in the mailbox
  • design and messaging on the outside of the envelope/self-mailer designed to increase open rates (e.g., transparent envelopes)
  • digital interactivity (ability to link from mail piece to digital experience through QR codes, AR, URLs, PURLs, NFC, etc.)
  • video in print
  • physical interactivity (ability to manipulate the mail piece through folding, etc.)
  • multisensory engagement through olfactory (scent); texture of the envelope, paper or ink; specialized inks (water-, heat-, light-sensitive or conductive inks) or personalization (greeting, content).

The contest rules, the submission form and past winners can be found at