A colleague of mine recently told me, “direct mail is dead.” I can certainly understand why he would say this. First, mail volume has been falling. Unsolicited direct mail by the financial industry has declined due to concerns about the credit markets for example. Given the continued economic challenges in the United States, mail volumes are expected to continue to fall. Second, direct mail is viewed as junk mail that quickly goes into the waste bin. Add to that concerns about the environment and waste. Sending multiple mailings to the same customers or prospects can alienate them. Third, e-mail is an attractive alternative where e-mail addresses exist, as it is cheaper and offers many of the same advantages of direct mail.
However, as an article in the New York Times yesterday detailed, direct mail is not dead but undergoing a transformation. The return on investment from direct mail is too high for it to be abandoned. When direct mail is targeted to the right person at the right time, it can be incredibly effective. I know because it worked on me. A few years ago I was involved in a volunteer committee that donated company funds to non-profit organizations. One of the other volunteers suggested that we give money to Doctors without Borders and in the process educated us about the organization. Around the same time, I read about their mission and efforts to help individuals in the Middle East in the New York Times. Thus, when an unsolicited letter requesting a donation arrived in my mailbox shortly thereafter, I gladly gave to the organization.
Direct marketers are pushing for direct mail processes to be more efficient, for the offers to be more targeted and the pieces themselves to be more environmentally friendly. The DMA and others are pushing for all sorts of improvements including cleaning or purging purchased and house lists of undeliverable addresses, using soy inks and recycled paper in mail pieces, and recycling waste materials. It remains to be seen how effective they will be; however, it is in their best interest to develop standards. They run the risk that future legislation will dictate what they can and cannot mail.
Direct mail is not dead but rather will be used more sparingly and in concert with other channels, especially e-mail.