Why would any company use direct mail today? Perhaps the most direct answer is simply that direct mail reaches people - the right people - in more ways than one.

It's no accident that Web-based companies rely heavily on direct mail to reach prospects. The largest credit card marketers like MBNA, Citicorp, and Chase all depend on direct mail to connect with precisely the right kind of prospects.

Even so, it may come as something of a surprise that 56 percent of the marketers participating in a recent survey planned to increase their spending on direct mail in 2005. The same direct marketing trend survey by Kern Direct points out that direct mail beat out search engine marketing, print advertising, e-mail, and e-newsletters.


If direct mail is growing, then why did so many marketers seem to abandon it almost overnight in favor of e-mail, Web advertising and Websites? There were two reasons. First, there was a massive migration to "the latest technology." Like so many other new tactics, electronic marketing tactics were adopted without proof of effectiveness. The lemming-effect set in almost immediately. Everyone was doing it and no self-respecting marketer wanted to be out of step, thought of as a latter-day Luddite, or worse yet, left behind. That wouldn't look good on their resumes. Direct mail was dropped like the proverbial hot potato.

The second reason was cost. As soon as banner advertising and "e-mail blasting" became available, the promoters of electronic marketing emerged from the woodwork with their promises of reaching tens of thousands of buyers at a fraction of the cost of direct mail. If that wasn't enough, it was all quick and easy to implement. Agree today and hit the button tomorrow. It was nothing less than a feeding frenzy, as we all know. Yet, it was little different from the telemarketers who first promised qualified leads and then the "ready-to-buy" appointments - or any of the other get-it-quick marketing schemes that hold out the lure of easy sales.

Now, the migration is back to direct mail and the reason for the move is simple: The other communication tactics failed to deliver the promised results, while opt-in requirements put the brakes on e-mail blasting, just as it did on consumer telemarketing. Even more to the point, the constant bombardment was too much for customers to bear and they increasingly rejected what they viewed as intrusive techniques.


So, again, "Why direct mail?" Whether it's car manufacturers, cell phone companies, credit card distributors, magazines, computers, or just about any other product or service, direct mail has regained its former popularity. Here are reasons for its resurgence:

  • Everyone takes mail seriously. The emphasis is on everyone because mail is compelling. We wait for the mail to arrive and we complain if it's late. When there is no delivery on holidays, we feel deprived. When arriving home, we can hardly wait to "go through the mail." We want to see what's in the box for us. At the office, we stop whatever we're doing when the mail arrives. In other words, we view mail as a priority.

  • Mail is tangible. You can touch, hold, and handle mail, which gives it more of a feel of reality. You can also toss it in the trash if it fails to connect with your needs or imagination, but it takes more than a click to get rid of it.

  • Mail has a more personal feel to it. If your name is on it, it's yours, even if it's a postcard. Getting an electronic Hallmark card isn't the same as getting a Hallmark card in the mail. At the same time, we give the most attention to the mail that seems the most personal. We reject the mail that's nothing more than an ad and we accurately label it junk mail.

  • It's easy to retrieve it. Experienced marketers aren't surprised when they receive a telephone call or have a response card returned months after a mailing. The ability to put a direct mail piece aside until there's more time to review it is common. While this is certainly possible with electronic media, it appears to occur far less, perhaps because e-mail is designed for instant action.

    The case for direct mail is compelling. Yet, its effectiveness is controlled by a number of critical factors:

  • Direct mail must be customer focused. While it seems almost unnecessary to even suggest this, going through a stack of mail only confirms how rare it is to find a mailing that accomplishes this simple objective. Just notice what percentage of the message is on the seller or the product and not the customer.

    Is the focus on what the customer can do for you or what you can do for the customer?

    Bank of America's CEO described MBNA, the highly successful credit card company that his bank was acquiring, this way: "I see them as a sales machine."

    He's wrong, dead wrong. MBNA is a creative, unrelenting, colossal marketing machine, not a sales machine. The difference is anything but subtle because it's so fundamental to MBNA's success. MBNA's entire focus is on understanding exactly what customers want and then giving it to them. It's the marketing that produces sales.

  • Choose the right list. Mailing lists can be had on the cheap ... and they are worth exactly what you pay for them. More to the point, they are marketed on the cheap because there are those who either cannot or refuse to appreciate value. Is $3, $5, or $10 a name too much to pay if the list is a perfect fit for what you're marketing? Most lists don't come in at that cost level, but lists can be another example of getting what you pay for.

  • It must be personalized. Anything less is diminished in value. There's a major difference between the mailing that says you are "pre-qualified" for a credit card and the one that states the amount for which you are pre-qualified. While using individual names is essential, personalization must include how the offer relates to the individual.

  • Make the offer compelling. Another credit card offer arrived in the mail. While I had tossed the others, I opened this one because it promised up to 15 months interest free on purchases. The length of the zero-interest period caught my eye and the fact that it applied to purchases and not just transfers was appealing. Direct mail is not a cheap way to attract customers. It's a serious tactic that produces positive results if taken seriously.

  • Stay with it. Like any other marketing effort, there is always more than one reason why direct mail fails to deliver expected results. At the top of the list is repetition and this is where most direct mail falls apart.

    Why should we allow ourselves to think that recipients should be interested in what we drop in their mailboxes at a particular moment? The task of attracting a group of prospects and turning them into customers results from creating a plan for a direct mail campaign that rolls out over a period of time and unfolds the total message through a series of meaningful contacts.

  • Providing response opportunities. Effective direct mail is made interactive by offering the recipient ways to communicate with you in a variety of ways, whether by mail, phone, fax or online.

    While that's essential, there's another dimension that deserves attention. Direct mail should give customers options that fit their needs, wants, and expectations. They should be able to ask questions, obtain information, tell you how and when to contact them and, of course, express interest in making a purchase. The task is one of giving them room or freedom so they feel comfortable.

    As an indication of the value direct mail can deliver, a survey by Peppers and Rogers Group, a management consulting firm specializing in customer-focused business solutions, reveals that direct mail contributes more to establishing a relationship between a business and its customers than print ads, TV, radio, e-mail, Internet, or telemarketing. The finding is expressed this way by Peppers and Rogers: "Now more than ever, consumers value organizations that make an effort to communicate and build a relationship through the mail."

    And like any type of relationship, it doesn't happen overnight and depends on being totally genuine and maintaining an appreciation for what's important to the customer.

    Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be contacted at 617-328-0069 or at www.grahamcomm.com.

    Sidebar: Opening The Mail

    In direct mail, you have a formidable enemy - the wastepaper basket. Your prospects take one look at your mailing envelope and decide if they will open it or fling it into the trashcan. One way to persuade them to open your envelope is to make it look irresistible. Here are a few ideas:

  • Unusual colors. Keep your mailing envelopes the same size and weight, just change the color from white to something different or more daring.

  • Odd size or shape. Send your message in a jumbo-size envelope, or in a square envelope. Or send your message in a tiny envelope. Just remember that your envelope has to conform to postal regulations for size and shape, and fit through a normal mailbox.

  • Personalization. Put your prospect's name right on the front of the envelope, perhaps in the form of a question: "Hey, Alan, know who offers the highest quality?"

  • Cartoon. Speaking of personalization, put a cartoon on the front of your envelope, and put your prospect's name in the caption (so that one of the cartoon characters is using your prospect's name in what they are saying).

  • Teaser. Ask a provocative question, give a compelling statistic, feature a gripping photo or use another device that intrigues your prospects and motivates them to open your envelope to satisfy their curiosity.

  • Go plain. Sometimes just a plain old No. 10 envelope works as well as anything else. IBM discovered in tests that they increased their response dramatically just by putting their logo in the top left hand corner of the envelope. You many increase the number of people who open your envelope by not using your logo, or not mentioning your company name, just your return address. The secret to irresistible envelopes is creativity and testing. Be as imaginative as you can, and then test your hunches in the marketplace. May you discover many winners!

    Alan Sharpe is a business-to-business sales letter writer and lead generation specialist who helps businesses use direct mail marketing and e-mail marketing to generate leads, close sales, and retain customers. Contact Sharpe at www.sharpecopy.com.

    Publication date: 01/23/2006