Direct mail is dead. Long live direct mail.

In these times of cheap and ubiquitous digital communications: email, social, mobile etc; you’d be forgiven for thinking that so-called ‘old school’ formats such as direct mail were ineffective and outdated. However, direct mail’s fate isn’t sealed just yet.

Let’s quickly examine direct mail’s chequered past

Born in the mail-order era of the early 20th century, its use increased through the 80s and 90s as data and printing techniques allowed for more elaborate and highly personalised mailers. It became the poster boy for results driven marketers, because unlike advertising, its targeted messages could be delivered to the right people at the right time. Marketers could learn about their customers and adjust propositions and tone of voice, the results of which were measurable and accountable.

Of course, as with all things, this relies on it being done well. As more and more mail dropped through our letterboxes at home and at work, much of which was poor quality and irrelevant, we got tired, and direct mail soon became branded ‘junk mail’. The good mailers were easily lost in a pile of rubbish on the doormat. Add to this the escalating costs of postage and print, and the rise of digital communications for everyone, and direct mail’s appeal was being tarnished.

The rise and rise of email

Digital formats such as email, have on the face of it, much going for them. They’re cheap, fast to develop and quick to send. They can be highly targeted and are infinitely measurable. All good things. But that speed and low cost has led to many marketers taking a rather lazy approach, pumping out uninspiring emails at the drop of a hat, without a clear strategy or respect for the recipients.

Of course there is good and bad email marketing out there (a subject for a book of its own), but let’s ask ourselves, are we making a mistake by simply replacing one format with another purely because of ‘received wisdom’? Surely we should be judging each format on its merits and apply them effectively as part of an intelligent mix of media?

Let’s cut the rubbish

It starts by resisting the temptation to use derogatory terminology. Many of us like to call posted mail ‘snail mail’. But speed of delivery isn’t always relevant, especially if you actually plan your marketing activity more than a few hours in advance. And junk mail is only junk if it has no value to the recipient, a label that can be applied equally to posted mail and email.

Another unhelpful description of direct mail is ‘old school’. Would we describe TV advertising as ‘old school’? It’s been around much longer. No, we wouldn’t. TV advertising is still a powerful and evolving medium with huge reach when used correctly.

Direct mail and email are different and offer different things, so why not look at this objectively and from the recipient’s point of view:

Direct mail is physical


You hold it in your hands and open it. The act of opening can have its own drama and excitement. It can affect all the senses (you can’t taste or smell an email). It can have worth. It can be useful. It disrupts. In fact, it can be anything that’s easy enough to post or deliver. All of these attributes make it suited to invitations and messages to high value prospects.

Email is fast and accessible


It’s available on a growing number of devices and increasing in your pocket. It’s connected to other content. It’s infinitely shareable. It’s easily requestable. All attributes which make it perfect for regular communications and sales promotions.

In the past few years, research from Ofcom and the DMA have discovered that younger people are now more likely to respond to printed mail than electronic mail. This might be because they are too accustomed to digital marketing. They’re not yet jaded by direct mail and feel special when they receive it.

I believe this gives all marketers an opportunity, a second chance if you will, to reassess the merits of all types of communication and consider their use carefully and without bias. It’s not a competition between formats, but rather a question of which is right in each situation.