Direct Mail Goes High-Tech Part 1

How Marketing’s Most Steadfast Vehicle Is Combining Technology and Tangibility

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a dinosaur such as direct mail doesn’t get a lot of love in a marketing landscape brimming with buzzwords. In an era defined by digital innovation, who gets excited about a piece of mail?

The answer may surprise you. Direct mail has shown remarkable staying power, even as brands scramble to keep pace with the trendiest technologies. And the payoff has been pronounced: in the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) 2017 Response Rate Report, direct mail outperformed digital exponentially, with response rates clocking in at 5.1 percent for house lists and 2.9 percent for prospect lists (in comparison with 2 percent for all digital channels combined).

One interesting trend about this medium is its popularity among young people. In the book Marketing to Gen Z, coauthors Angie Read and Jeff Fromm suggest that this generation finds the very nature of direct mail exciting. For these digital natives who grew up bombarded by ephemeral content on social media, a piece of mail that’s hand delivered to their doorstep often is—as strange as it sounds to those old enough to remember dial-up internet—a novelty.

The value of direct mail goes beyond its appeal to generation-specific cohorts, however. The format itself has a different psychological effect on consumers than digital content does. An article published in Scientific American suggests that reading something on paper versus on a screen results in a more hardwired form of mental mapping—and, thus, potentially improves information retention.

And ah, yes, speaking of those screens: in 2018, direct mail is increasingly going high-tech. Brands are experimenting with mail campaigns that use everything from augmented reality (à la Pokémon Go), to video-in-print integration, to lead gen bolstered by IP targeting—and these tactics are causing quite a stir. Could it be that in the digitally driven era of marketing, direct mail isn’t outdated at all? Could it be, in fact, the next big thing?

Optimizing Direct Mail Marketing in 2018

Pat Friesen, author of The Cross-Channel Copywriting Handbook, has been a direct marketing copywriter for more than 30 years, and she’s seen the evolution of both digital and direct mail.

“For years, every time [marketers] opened our mouths about direct mail, it sounded like we were being defensive: ‘Direct mail isn’t dead!’ Well, okay, we’ve said that now for 15 years. And no, it’s not dead! But it has changed, and that’s okay. It’s the ‘that’s okay’ part that I think is interesting,” she says.

The bottom line, Friesen explains, is that marketers who want to deploy direct mail in 2018 need to think about it in a drastically different way than they did, say, five years ago. They need to understand the digital and data technology that is available to them that can complement their direct mail formats.

“The same product may be purchased by somebody who is 70 years old and somebody who is 25, but the message you send to them and how you present it, ink on paper or digital or both, is going to be different. And that’s where technology comes in,” she says. Being able to print and mail one-off direct mail pieces on-demand, in conjunction with digital campaigns—changing out messaging and images for recipients—makes direct mail more viable today than ever before.

The three major considerations for direct marketing haven’t changed, according to Friesen. They are audience, offer, and format. The nitty-gritty of the actual copy comes only after these elements have been considered and decided upon.

And when it comes to presenting your brand, offer, and message, there are increasingly intricate avenues—or perhaps webs is a more apt analogy—at marketers’ disposal. For example, most of us have experienced the phenomenon of searching for an item on Google only to see ads for that same product haunting our social media feeds and online activities for weeks on end. The technology
responsible for this is based upon IP address capturing, via cookies, which track visitors’ IP data for digital IP retargeting or remarketing. A second level, and more seasoned option, is geofencing— meaning you concentrate your digital ad spend and efforts toward localized ad serving to IP addresses within a confined geographic area, a bit reminiscent of the old list-buying days for direct mail, from which geo-fencing may have originated.