Direct Mail is Dead; Long Live Direct Mail!

Pat McGrew

There are some who say that direct mail marketing is dead.  

Their reasoning takes many tracks and varies depending on where you sit in the marketing universe. For some the talk track goes like this: The move into online marketing using web banners and email has been swift and widely accepted by the brands and consumers; we no longer need to go through the pain of developing creative and tolerating the costs associated with printing and mailing direct mail marketing. For others the talk track is more accommodating to the value proposition of direct mail campaigns, but print is put on the back burner because of the line item costs that seem to not apply to internet-based marketing. Considering the pressure that most marketers are under to produce greater results with fewer dollars, it is not surprising that direct mail looks less attractive when faced with competition from social media and other customer-facing channels.

 At this point in the story it would be easy to declare Direct Mail Marketing to be dead and the future has arrived with the cost-per-engagement models of online marketing. It might be easy, but it wouldn’t be accurate. There is ample evidence in the market to show that keeping direct mail touch points in your marketing mix pays off. Look at the Direct Marketing Association Statistical Fact Book for any year or reports from The Winterberry Group ( – registration required) and you will see that direct mail marketing campaigns still play an interesting role in driving customer engagement.

The first learning is that the role of direct mail has changed. It has shifted from driving direct orders to setting the hook that drives prospects to an online forum where offers can be refined, more data can be gathered, and the call to action finalized. You may have seen the term O2O … Offline to Online … to describe the relationship. In fact, the more accurate description is O2O2O – where the life cycle of the customer engagement can start in either galaxy, online or offline, be directed to the alternate, and then pulled back to the original touch point.  Think of an email where a response generates a catalog to be mailed which then guides the consumer back online to place an order. Alternatively, think of a catalog mailed to a consumer that encourages him to place an order online, which then causes products to be shipped through the mail.

Why is this important? Because it provides the multiple touch points to cement the customer relationship where at least one is tangible!

Let’s Make DM that Sizzles

Take a step back from the theory and look at your own mailbox. It is likely that you will find everything from letters that look like they were mass produced to incredibly slick brochureware using the full power of data-driven marketing. Some may have come to your mailbox because marketers bought a list of contact details while others may have come in response to your inquiries online, in a store or over the phone. Remember, this is happening to your customers and prospects just as it is happening to you.

For the teams that have created, printed and delivered these pieces to your mailbox the goal is to get you to take an action they hope will result in a sale. As the recipient, you may be asking for more than a sales pitch to open your wallet. You want to be engaged, intrigued and rewarded. Normally the marketing team has to sort this out on their own, but new programs from the USPS in 2013 offer marketers the chance to be rewarded with postage discounts for using new technologies to engage customers through the mail.

Take the time to design your mail with a mobile coupon, a click-to-call promotion or even Augmented Reality and you could reap the benefits while adding sizzle. By using these new approaches to customer engagement you can have conversations on many levels through a single direct mail piece. Not really sure how it all works? Here is an idea of how to take advantage!

The Singing Telegram Isn’t Dead

The original technology for communicating essential information across distances was the telegram. In its first instantiation it involved the use of Morse Code over wires, often relayed from station to station until it arrived in the hands of the target recipient. Enterprising marketers adopted the idea of the telegram to create Singing Telegrams, delivered in person to send congratulations and felicitations. It was truly one-to-one marketing, but a bit harder to use for mass campaigns. What if you could, today, send a singing telegram to every one of your customers through the mail?

In fact, some of you may have already done this! Using the Emerging Technologies Promotion the USPS is offering a deal when you use Near Field Communication, RFID chips, Authentication, or, my personal favorite, Augmented Reality. And that is where the Singing Telegram comes in. With the right programming and the right planning, you could send a “Singing Direct Mail” to your customers and prospects. And, if you work with the right partner, you could even personalize it!

Digital printing can allow you to make sure the information in your materials is relevant to the exact recipient who will be opening the mailbox. By tailoring the information based on data you already have on consumers or even the location of the market with variable data printing, you can increase the response rate. Personalized pieces paired with new and different direct mail technologies will break through the clutter to make the most of your investments.

If this sounds hard or like science fiction, consider that it’s been done for half a decade for high value campaigns. The technology is available, but no one is teaching how to do it in school, at conferences or in the market. Technologies like HP Reveal (formerly Aurasma), Blippar/Layar, Reality Blu and Solimar, as well as  others provide the infrastructure technology that links specific images (no QR Codes, no SNAP codes, no bar codes, just the image) to online content that may be as simple as a link to a web page or as complex as a link into a 3D interactive world. You can do what the Partnership of John Lewis in the UK did and link your direct mail and display advertising to your current TV commercial online, and then open a portal to your web shopping page so customers can buy what they saw in the commercial. Or, you might do what Macy’s did with wedding invitations that come to life when using the right Augmented Reality browser, activating a link to the RSVP page to attend and the Macy’s shopping portal to buy the perfect gift.

The opportunities are endless, and the technology is well vetted. This is a great time to be linking print and pixel campaigns. The USPS announces their promotions on their PostalPro website. Keep an eye there for the latest news!

(Some content originally appeared under Pat McGrew's byline in Target Marketing Magazine)