Marketing’s “Walking Dead” Finds a Cure: How Big Data has Breathed New Life into Direct Mail

by Rachael Harris-Evans, Vice President, Account Services, West Cary Group

Marketers have heard it for the past 20 years: Direct mail is on its last legs. With the rise of the Internet, it will die a slow, cruel death.

Sad, really, for a channel that served us so well for so long. But the one constant is change, so we hoped that if there was any mercy in marketing, it wouldn’t even realize it had turned. It was probably best that we forget, leave it behind and move on to more fruitful channels.

But a curious thing happened. Direct mail did not go gently into that good night. On the contrary, it got stronger. Those who had given up on it were slack-jawed. Those who had held out hope were amazed at the startling transformation. Direct mail’s unexpected resuscitation was performed by its own would-be assassin – the digital age.  

It Lives

Direct mail has been on a quiet tear. The Direct Marketing Association reports that nearly two-thirds of all consumers bought something as a result of a direct mail piece in 2013. Four years ago, the U.S. direct mail industry generated $10.82 billion in revenue. This year, that number has already reached $12 billion – and the holiday season hasn’t even begun. 

It may not be considered sexy marketing, but direct mail is a workhorse, and its dependability is unquestionable. It’s where marketers originally began segmenting, customizing, targeting and measuring to reach brands’ core customers. And now, by effectively harnessing the power of digital’s big data, we can uncover more detailed consumer information that is proving invaluable in crafting resonant campaigns.   

West Cary Group knows the potency of direct mail driven by insight. We recently assisted two of our valued clients with powerful campaigns. We helped an insurance company double its response rate and discovered an effective way of growing its client base. Our auto refinance client was digital-only until we developed a direct mail strategy as a test, and today that campaign has become its core acquisition model. 

The Human Touch

Looking at the numbers, recent studies show that 92 percent of young shoppers say they prefer direct mail for making purchasing decisions. Adults over the age of 65 who maintain their addresses are also particularly receptive. Then consider the ROI: According to Print Drives Commerce 2013, for every $167 U.S. marketers spend on direct mail, they generate $2,095 in sales. 

The stubborn hold of direct mail isn’t so hard to grasp. In a world where consumers are inundated with data-driven marketing in digital channels, direct mail is a unique touch that makes a statement with a lasting shelf life. Think about it: Laptops, desktops, smartphones and tablets are all screaming for attention on a daily basis. But we only have one mailbox.

Further, everything that comes out of it is tangible – and that’s extremely important. The United States Postal Service reports that 98 percent of consumers bring in their mail the day it’s delivered, and 77 percent sift through it immediately. At some point in the life cycle of direct mail, the marketing collateral will be in a consumer’s hands. As savvy marketers, it’s up to us to make that moment count.   

Modern Antidotes

With current analytics, the measurement process that made direct mail such a formidable marketing channel can be refined even further. Today marketers have a plethora of strategies to choose from to uncover who their consumers truly are – strategies that make direct mail stronger than it ever has been before.

  1. Delivery Services. Marketers no longer have to rely on purchasing mailing lists and paying retail rates for postage. There are alternatives that enable them to target demographic and geographic clusters efficiently while lowering postage costs. One service allows users to select recipients based on a number of demographic attributes within postal carrier routes and then pay for postage accordingly. Another intelligent media delivery provider uses offline and online data to target the best prospects for products and services.
  2. Software. Mailing software is becoming more and more precise. It used to be that clean-up lists and national change-of-address updates were revolutionary. Thanks to the power of big data, we can now obtain correct addresses in real time, gain deeper visibility into which communications are hitting their intended targets and calculate ROI even sooner by quickly capturing precise consumer data.
  3. Cloud-Based Analytics Services. Modern direct mail isn’t simply about moving faster. It’s about moving smarter. Thanks to the cloud, we can analyze and archive in an almost infinite space and use deep data mining to sort consumer habits. Here, we can make the critical decisions necessary to make campaigns more agile. We can even analyze social behaviors and buying patterns. And don’t forget that content is still king. When we analyze all of this actionable data, we can use it to craft stories that actually matter to the consumer.
  4. Multi-Channel Marketing. Direct mail doesn’t have to stand alone. In fact, it shouldn’t. The consumer operates in various touchpoints across the marketing space, and it’s up to us to go where the people are. By utilizing digital services like Facebook Custom Audience Targeting to reach direct mail recipients, marketers can influence the customer journey both online and offline. 

In short, it appears we were too hasty to put direct mail out to pasture. Direct mail has found new life, and as analytics tools are only getting more robust, its future looks promising.

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