TRG blog: Direct mail still works (better than you think)

Direct mail still works (better than you think)

This week, the TRG team is contributing to the Arts Marketing Blog Salon on Americans for the Arts' ARTSblog. This article by Will was originally posted as part of the salon, which previews the National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) Conference in November. 
Photo by Brian Mitchell via flickr
In the digital age, many marketers are fond of pronouncing the death of direct mail.  Yet the data is clear--the environment has changed, new techniques have emerged and smarter approaches to direct mail are getting superior results than in days gone by.
Why? It comes down to increased trust, better targeting, and integration with online channels.


The contents of the typical American mailbox have changed dramatically in the last few years. Online bill pay options, increased digital and social marketing and the spiraling costs of postage (6 price hikes in 6 years, but who’s counting?) are some of the reasons why overall mail volume has dropped by almost 20% since 2006. These changes correspond to exponential increase in the daily volume of our email inboxes.

Recent research shows that many consumers prefer and trust mail more.  Epsilon’s 2011 Channel Preference Study showed:

•    75% of consumers say they get more email than they can read
•    50% of consumers prefer direct mail to email
•    26% of all U.S. consumers said they found direct mail to be the most “trustworthy” medium, an increase from prior studies, which even includes the 18-34 year old demographic.

This makes sense, particularly when we stack these findings next to the consistently positive results TRG sees in direct mail response analysis. Mail is getting opened and getting results.   

Our take?  Digital communication is free or very cheap. It’s easy for anyone to send email.  While many legitimate companies use it liberally, scammers are even more prevalent.  Just this month I received a seemingly legitimate email from my bank requesting that I follow an embedded link.  It seemed a little fishy and in fact turned out to be fraudulent. (Fear not, I didn’t click through.)

Mail, on the other hand, has become more personal.  Wedding invitations come in the mail.  So do birth announcements, birthday cards, holiday greetings and notices from organizations I care about, just to name a few. If medium is the message, direct mail says trustworthy, legitimate, and attention-worthy.

Add to that the fact that it’s incredibly easy to dispose of digital communications.  If it’s on social media, ignore it and it goes away. If it’s an email, delete it. A mail piece – at the very least – requires you to walk over to the recycling bin. And you’ll more likely look at it – if not open it – before you throw it away.


Thanks to advances in database science and information systems, marketers have precision tools to put the right message in front of the right consumer at the right time. 

Precision modeling used to be a technique that only the Fortune 500 could afford.  Now, even the most budget-strapped non-profit organizations can do modeling that finds the right prospects in a house database or in the market.   Precision modeling also narrows the prospect pool to the most productive numbers, eliminating waste and expense for printing, production, and posting – and boosting response at healthy ROIs. 

Follow a precisely targeted piece of mail into a prospect’s home and what happens next is a Digital Age response that works in the mailer’s favor. 

Mail goes viral.

Our recent direct response studies show, technology expands the reach of mail to households beyond the mail list in numbers we never would have guessed would respond.

A recent client launched a postcard campaign with a discount code for 30% off tickets for all weekday performances. The offer was made available only on the postcard and not in ads, the company’s website or anywhere else. 

The client's own internal discount code tracking measured responses that represented a 10-1 return on the piece.  The organization was thrilled with the results, but a more comprehensive “Response Analysis” revealed many more sales attributable to the direct mail piece that discount code tracking overlooked.  Other sales included:

•     “No thanks, I’ll pay full price.”  The postcard was a prompt for consumers to seek exactly what they wanted.   This group of mailed responders shopped for dates and seats they wanted and chose full price tickets, accounting for 32% of the total revenue.
•    “Thanks, but I like this better.”   Mailed responders shopped the company’s web site and found other deals they preferred to the 30% savings offer (most with less attractive discounts and alternative benefits).  These consumers were 17% of the total revenue from this campaign.
•    “You didn’t ask and I’ll buy anyway.” The discount code was shared online and went viral.  Consumers who did not get the mail piece used to code and bought even more tickets at 30% off than did responders from the mail list.  Viral responders – households the postcard didn’t reach directly -- provided nearly one-third of the six-figure revenue this campaign generated overall. 

The actual complete campaign result was a 17:1 return on investment.  This particular direct mail campaign reinforced the organization’s brand and supported the other promotional initiatives.

The numbers don’t lie. Direct mail has an important place in the digital world and a multi-channel mix. Arts marketers eager to dump direct mail in the face of digital assumptions and budget limitations should take another look—or risk losing sales.

Posted October 5, 2012

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