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Five Lessons All Marketers Can Learn From Direct Mail

Nov 13, 2018

By Gayle Teskey

A long time ago in a postal system far, far away, direct mail was called mass marketing. It was the 1980s, and companies were dumping billions of advertisements into the mail stream, so much so that those ads fully deserved their eventual moniker - junk mail.

Fortunately, those days are gone. After mail volume increased in the ’80s and ’90s, marketers realized that it was cheaper to reach customers’ email inboxes, and mass marketing fell out of favor. After 9/11 and the anthrax scare, mail volume dropped even more, but I would argue that the decrease in use has largely opened up direct mail’s potential.

To earn the consideration of their audience, modern marketers must use holistic campaigns that rely on diverse means to reach potential customers. For many industries, direct mail remains an excellent opportunity, and according to the USPS’s “Household Diary Study,” it’s staging a comeback.

A Direct Connection

It’s not surprising that many marketers abandoned direct mail in favor of newer, shinier technologies. After all, the postal system has been around for as long as America itself. However, marketers who actually measure their efforts have been returning to mail with renewed budgetary vows.

That 2017 USPS study found that a significant portion of Americans - 11 percent - still lack Internet access but can be reached by “old-fashioned” mail. Furthermore, during a recent multichannel fundraising campaign we executed for a client, the largest donation came from an individual who was a first-time donor and had no email, Internet access, or even a mobile phone. Without an effective mail package, he and others would never have been reached.

Even among Millennial audiences, mail is still responsible for driving conversions. Thirty percent report that direct mail is effective in getting them to take action, while only 24 percent said the same for email.

As with any marketing method, it can take multiple attempts before a prospective customer converts, which is why direct mail functions most effectively as part of a greater omnichannel strategy. When TruGreen decided to make the satisfaction of a beautiful backyard the center of its marketing campaign, it elected to integrate both email and direct mail into the campaign, with similar looks and identical offers across channels. Data from MarketingSherpa reveals that the strategy saved around $800,000 in postage.

The company also sent out direct mail pieces in alignment with weather patterns in its target regions. Prospects in Florida received ads as early as January, while those farther north didn’t get them until later in the year.

Lessons From Direct Mail

It might have started in the mail, but direct response marketing now applies to many other measurable channels, including social media. I think it’s safe to say that Facebook is direct response on steroids. The challenge today is actually wading through the sheer quantity of measurable data to find out what’s meaningful for your business.

It’s not unusual for marketing managers to get lost in numbers of clicks instead of focusing on more difficult metrics such as lifetime value. As a result, not all marketers use direct mail. Fortunately, even those who don’t favor this approach can still learn important lessons from the tried-and-true marketing method:

1. Offer a Limited-Time Value

Before you begin a campaign, come up with the most appealing offer you can afford to give. Generosity will make all the difference, as people don’t like cheapskates any more in 2018 than they did in 1918. In addition, make sure that the offer is only good for a limited time. If an offer is indefinitely valuable, prospects will save it for later and then forget about it.

2. Refine Your Audience

Define your target audience and then narrow it down even further. Your direct mail piece should only go to the most promising customers, and the same is true of your digital offers. When you’re targeting high-value groups on any channel, make sure you customize messaging to yield the highest conversion rates possible to maximize your ROI.

3. Find the Perfect Timing

Timing is everything, and for a direct mail piece, it’s smart to test different seasons. For instance, gardeners are more likely to respond to an offer before gardening season begins. Once the weather gets warm, they are outside planting, not inside ordering! In the case of an email campaign, you’ll even want to test time of day. Many employees start their workday by going through their emails, so try to get yours added to that list.

4. Test Your Message

Why do customers want or need your product? Is it the convenience, the price, or something else entirely? Find out what people are looking for and use that insight to shape your messaging. A particularly compelling feature of your product should serve as the “hook” that gets prospects interested and wanting more information. Your message will never be 100 percent perfect, so feel free to test an infinite number of combinations to continually optimize it.

5. Play Around With Format

Direct mail comes in many different forms, from Slim Jim catalogs and self-mailers to classic letter packages. In the same way direct mail marketers must try a number of different methods to find what works the best, digital marketers should test a variety of digital media formats to optimize their visual combination of links, lists, images, and more.

Direct mail might not be new, but it’s an effective and measurable means of reaching an audience. As more marketers obsess over digital efforts, the door of opportunity for direct mail is opening even wider, and marketers can gain access to customers’ homes in a way that keeps them top of mind. Remember to be patient with direct mail. An offer stuck to a refrigerator for a week is worth far more than one buried in an inbox for all eternity.

Gayle Teskey is the CEO and founder of Membership Corporation of America, a consultative and marketing services organization with a specialization in enthusiast membership organizations and affinity marketing. Since 1993, Teskey’s hands-on approach to leadership has driven MCA to refine the best practices in consumer marketing, membership acquisition and retention, marketing technology, and creative development to meet the needs of today’s membership communities.