By: Thomas E. Smith (
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Direct Mail is new again

Why, what’s happening?

Direct Mail response rates are at their highest (5.3%) since 2003 according to the DMA. No other channel even breaks the 1% rate. Think about that for a minute. Direct mail also has the third highest ROI; Email leads with 122%, followed by social media at 28%, direct mail at 27%, paid search at 25%, and online display at 18%. These increased response rates can be attributed to a combination of things including the lack of competition in the mailbox, the ability of marketers to execute higher performing personalized targeting or perhaps the “re-discovering” of DM after so many years of digital focus. Digital printing, marketing automation, “programmatic” direct mail, and the ubiquitous availability of high quality data also contribute to the increased performance.

Well, what did it used to be?

If you’ve been around the DM business as long as me, you’ll remember when we only had Recency, Frequency, Monetary (RFM) to rank and select Customers. Data appends/overlays augmented this segmentation effort and modeling was not so commonly used. Rudimentary acquisition targeting from compiled lists or list rental with some similar “affinities” was the standard. “Co-ops” later emerged and compiled techniques were supplanted by behaviorally targeted modeling and advanced CRM tools. Response rates were low in these nascent DM days and the industry did create a lot of “junk mail.” As a marketer then I relished the opportunity to make prospecting more relevant and targeted. (Or, at least, this is how I rationalized being in the “junk mail” business).

Ha, Cool Story Bro!

With the advent of the internet, and the tsunami of e-marketing that ensued, direct marketers moved away from catalogs favoring email, digital display, search optimization, and retargeting. These channels were cheap and, given human nature, quickly overwhelmed by “spam” and unwanted banner ads annoyingly following us around the internet. Customers quickly learned to ignore online ads and junk email, and ROI on these “cheap” channels dropped quickly. We seemed to have forsaken the hard learned direct mail lessons we learned. A quick/obvious mention that Google, Facebook et al also drove a paradigm shift in the DM business. With all this in mind, we now recognize and respect that we live in a truly “omni-channel” world, and that our marketing communications from web, to email, to direct mail must be cohesive.

The “Fusion’s” so bright, I gotta’ wear shades

A true “fusion” of online/offline marketing is occurring where marketers can leverage the digital browse and cart data (see the aforementioned “programmatic” direct mail) and execute in the DM channel in near real time. I returned from The CohereOne Catalog Conference recently where very strong case studies on this were discussed. Several players in the marketplace now offer this programmatic direct mail service.

So leverage everything you know about DM targeting and add in the rich data from (de-anonymized) browsing/carting. Let your data scientists or modeling partners loose using data, technology, and modeling to make direct mail personal! Direct Mail is less likely to be ignored than an online ad or email. With digital print technology reducing the cost and time it takes to deliver mail we can even endeavor to raise the bar on the quality of the mail piece. Create something truly artistic, tactile, and compelling! Make the mail piece a brand ambassador.

I felt bad for a while when everyone was saying “direct mail is dead.” Personally, I adapted and spent an intensive period “getting digital” and certified in programmatic, mobile, social, search, etc. Honestly though, I’m glad I didn’t have to leave direct mail behind. I feel energized by the resurgence of direct mail, or more appropriately, the fusion of digital and direct. It’s an exciting time to be an omni channel marketer. Innovation is enabling personalized, highly-responsive direct mail which is now, finally, the relevant targeted marketer’s self-actualization I was seeking!

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