Is Direct Mail Dead as an Advertising Method?

05/30/2017 08:40 pm ET

Direct mail has been an advertising standby for more than 50 years, evolving as newer methods of design, printing, and mailing have developed. There have been numerous technological breakthroughs for the strategy, including integration with digital features like personalized URLs and real-time analytics platforms, and companies are still using it to promote themselves; in fact, there’s probably at least one piece of direct mail waiting for you in the mailbox.

But is direct mail “dead” as an advertising method? Or at least, dying? After all, purely digital advertising methods have taken over, with digital marketing budgets increasing year after year. Is direct mail still worth considering by comparison?

The Cost of Printing

First, you need to consider the cost of printing, which is oftentimes the largest piece of the direct mail budget. It can cost anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars per piece, which means your ROI will depend heavily on what you put into the strategy, compared to what you can get out of it. Sites like Printing Center USA offer inexpensive printing options for things like brochures and catalogs, but as a general rule, you’ll still pay more per-piece for a short run than for a long run. Since your ROI will be somewhat thin already, direct mail is usually only justified if you can support long run printing, with thousands to tens of thousands of pieces.

The Target Demographics

Of course, your target demographics should also factor into your decision—as there are audiences that still reliably respond to direct mail ads. According to Click2Mail, one of the most responsive demographics for direct mail are seniors over the age of 65. Younger generations are more likely to see direct mail as needless clutter. Your type of industry should also be a consideration; young tech companies, for example, will need to appear cutting-edge, and direct mail is often perceived as an old-fashioned strategy that could interfere with your response rates.

Your List

Direct mail success and profitability depends heavily on the type of list you’re using. If your list is full of outdated information, or low-quality leads, it’s almost certainly going to fail. But if you’re working with a long list of highly qualified prospective customers, every dollar you spend will secure you a potential return. The problem is, bigger, higher-quality lists also tend to cost more money, or more time to put them together. Sites like offer several different types of lists, so make sure you choose your list (and provider) carefully.

Digital Integrations

Direct mail has experienced a surge in relevance, in part because of how easy it is to integrate with digital marketing methods and strategies. There’s no question that digital marketing strategies are usually cheaper; you aren’t paying for physical goods, or things like postage, so the costs are inherently lower. Being able to leverage the “best of both worlds” by tying your direct mail pieces into your social media strategy, or by using QR codes to send users to personalized URL destinations, you can improve the response rates, effectiveness, and even the appearance of your direct mail pieces.

Specific Goals

Of course, direct mail’s effectiveness also depends on what you’re trying to use it for. Most people end up throwing their junk mail away, so your strategy won’t be good for forming long-term relationships. Instead, direct mail is best used as a short-term boost for sales, converting a fraction of the customers who receive the piece, and providing a temporary flash of the brand (for brand recognition purposes) to the rest. If you try to use direct mail as a long-term relationship-building strategy (like content marketing), you’ll see less-than-exciting results.

So what’s the bottom-line answer here? It’s true that there are more alternative advertising strategies that yield high ROI, but for many industries and applications, direct mail is still a significant money-maker. There’s nothing automatic about the effectiveness of the strategy, however; if you want a positive ROI from your direct mail investment, you’ll need to think carefully about where you buy the printing, who you’re targeting, and how you’re using it in relation to your other marketing strategies.

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