Why snail mail marketing? The answer’s not in your inbox

Snail mail was long thought to be on marketing’s endangered species list.

It was considered too slow, too expensive, too untargeted, and not environmentally friendly. Up until recently, suggesting an old-fashioned direct mail marketing campaign felt like trying to promote a horse and buggy instead of the Model T in the 1920s.

The high-tech alternatives—email blasts, display ads, social media—had left snail mail in the dust. But as these newer vehicles have now become more commonplace, suddenly good old-fashioned snail mail is having a reincarnation.

I did my first direct mail campaign back in 1989. While I’m not a regular practitioner of this form of marketing, I can say it’s come a long way.

Case in point: last Thursday, I was having breakfast with a friend and former client named Michael Hershfield, who happens to be brilliantly in-the-know about the startup scene.

I couldn’t help but tell him that the night before, my wife and I attended a new play called Threesome. Yes, the title is catchy, and the first act is hysterical, yet I soon caught myself confessing that I had actually heard about the play from an advertisement in my mailbox.

Michael responded by telling me that direct mail (sent out by one company) and mailers (where several companies join together in a campaign) are among the hottest marketing options. Reminding me that no one approach is going to win the day, Michael said that you need a marketing strategy that uses several different ways of getting your message out.

Michael says, “Direct mail has become one of the most utilized customer acquisition channels,” noting that it’s used by companies ranging from startups to established players like FreshDirect. “Many marketers believe that mailers get you a much better quality customer.”

He said that another reason companies are turning to direct mail is because the returns are becoming less compelling for digital marketing. And the prices for online advertising are increasing.

“Marketers are leaning on this analog channel,” he says, “because the cost per click in traditional digital formats are rising.”

No longer derided as junk mail, many hip companies—from Handy to BarkBox—are now using direct mail campaigns. And companies like Mail is Back are even making it look cool.

There are plenty of other reasons that companies are returning to direct mail campaigns:

1. We’re drowning in email. There are nine times as many marketing emails sent each year as direct mail pieces. No wonder so many of them are deleted without being read.

2. People actually look at their mail. Surveys show that 98% of people check their mailbox daily—which is higher than email. And they open 66% of direct mail.

3. You can’t unsubscribe from mail. Studies show that 91% of consumers have unsubscribed from company emails, including those that they previously opted to receive.

4. Response rates are better. According to the Harvard Business Review, direct mail marketing still reigns supreme, offering response rates of 1.1 to 1.4%—higher than 0.03% for email, 0.04% for online display ads, and 0.22% for paid search.

Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, because the roots of direct mail can actually be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. He used direct mail to market Poor Richard’s Almanack starting in 1732, followed by hugely popular mailed catalogs from Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company.

At my house, we still flip through glossy home decor catalogs like those from Crate and Barrel, as well as brochures of upcoming events from local institutions like the 92nd Street Y. I even find myself responding to gardeners and window cleaners who send unvarnished and unsolicited direct mail pieces offering their services. Would I do the same if the same company sent me an email?

Companies are returning direct mail because what used to get tossed out in the old days now stands out in the digital age. Moreover, as the research shows, companies are often getting better results by placing an ad in their customers’ hands. And today, they can monitor those results with online tracking services.

The most successful of these companies think and act local. I recently stepped into a car I had arranged through Via, my new favorite ride sharing app, and the woman sitting next to me told me she heard about it over a year ago from an offer in a direct mail piece sent to her Upper West Side Manhattan address. She’s been hooked ever since.

It reminds me that when I was living in Connecticut, an upscale clothing store called Mitchells of Westport hung a wooden hanger on my mailbox. The hanger, and the attached store credit, were the shop’s welcome to the neighborhood. This creative approach to marketing kept me coming back for more.

It just goes to show that if you have a nicely designed and visually appealing direct mail idea, your company’s brand might just wind up in a potential customer’s living room, rather than lost in their inbox.

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