Why Mail Marketing Endures
By Mary Carlington, Deliver Magazine
Ever since the emergence of digital media, a new epitaph for direct mail has been written almost weekly. With each new quarterly earnings report and trade-publication survey comes some new death knell for marketing’s staunchest channel.
But as a marketer who bears witness every day to the power of printed communications, I’d advise that you don’t make any funeral plans for the direct mail industry.
Sure, times are tough out here on the front lines, but direct mail continues to thrive:
- Even now, U.S. marketers spend more than $50 billion on the channel.
- Advances in data-driven technologies — from Web-based printing programs to more muscular variable-data printers — have made mail more customizable, more precise, more costeffective and much easier to integrate with other platforms.
- Direct mail remains measurable, accountable and defensible in an era when marketing budgets are more imperiled than ever.
I don’t mean to sound idealistic. Direct mailers know the realities on the ground. A recent report laid it all out.
Consulting firm the  Winterberry Group published the report, titled "A Channel in Transformation: Vertical Market Trends in Direct Mail 2009." As the report points out, struggles in the financial services industry, rising production costs and the global economic downturn converged to create unprecedented downward pressures on marketing budgets and mailing volumes.
Meanwhile, the shift to multichannel communications continued unabated.
An Opportunity to Redefine the Industry
Whatever the obstacles, innovative marketers remain determined to hurdle them — and, along the way, to re-cast what we do for a living.
I don’t think there has been a better recent opportunity to redefine our industry. And right now, that means developing new, ingenious ways to control costs and show a solid return for every dollar of direct mail spending.
The most nimble, proactive marketers and providers will not only survive, but thrive, as they seize the opportunity now to embrace change. We are putting new channels to use along with mail. We are testing various combinations of media. We are harnessing the power of integrated online and offline media in best-in-class ways that drive both response and returns.
Innovation: Web to Print
Even before the downturn, innovation and integration were fast becoming our watchwords. In the months since, they’ve become even more vital to how we do business.
I’m reminded, for example, of a project we worked on recently for a major insurance company. To help the company boost marketing efficiency, we developed a centralized marketing platform. Agents can tap into a Web portal and order company-approved documents, sales aids, premium items, lead-generating mailers and other materials — all customized with targets’ information. So if an agent wants to make a special offer to new homeowners in the region, he or she can fire off an e-mail and a postcard containing a personalized URL that drives potential business to the agent.
Innovation: Digital Print
But Web-to-print programs represent only one way that mail is dovetailing with new media and technology. I’ve also seen digital print blossom recently.
One consulting firm predicts that the use of digital print in direct mail will grow by more than 50 percent by 2010. Undoubtedly, this growth will be fueled by technologies like printers that can generate fully variable, four-color inkjet printing at 500 feet per minute and produce more than 30 million digitally produced pieces per month. Moreover, each piece churned out by these printers can be highly customized with specific information about its intended targets.
Integration: Transpromotional Marketing
Another key area of growth for direct mail appears to be transpromotional marketing, embedding marketing messages in statements or account summaries — allowing marketers to cross-sell intelligently at no incremental cost. A recent report suggests that the transpromo market is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of 91 percent, increasing from 1.62 billion images in 2006 to 21.72 billion images by 2010.
Cost Cutting: Cleaner Lists
Finally, new software permits us to create better, cleaner lists, which also goes a long way toward cutting costs. New programs cut down on mail designated "Undeliverable As Addressed" and allow marketers to drastically reduce waste. Now, we can be more certain than ever that the right mail is getting to the right consumer.
So, no premature mourning allowed. These options are already delivering for our industry, and they will be even more critical in the future. As a Winterberry spokesman said recently in a major advertising trade publication, "Direct mail is not dead or even dying. The nature of how people use it is changing fundamentally." Forward-thinking marketers are recognizing the continuing relevance of this powerful medium to the overall marketing mix, and taking advantage of the business-driving opportunities that exist today.