What Is Direct Mail?

All of us get direct mail items from time to time — from quarter-sized adverts for erectile dysfunction drugs to appeals from charities and non-profit groups. While we may grumble about direct mail (and the amount of it that seems to end up in the recycling bin) advertisers wouldn’t use direct mail campaigns if they weren’t effective.

Direct mail is a marketing tool — a way of advertising that uses a given advertiser’s printed ads turned into mail. Direct mail can be glossy ads, letters, or any kind of solicitation you can think of — to be considered “direct mail” it should be put together by a company and targeted to a bulk audience. When I say “bulk” I don’t mean that it has to be large — just a group of potential consumers.

Why Direct Mail?


One big reason that entities use direct mail advertising is to make use of bulk mail rates that are much lower than individual pieces of mail stamped and mailed one by one. Bulk mail lowers the cost of the advertising and when you use direct mail you can send your material to a specific list of addresses. The potential gain for a business or charity from a larger direct mail campaign is higher than the potential gain from an individualized mailing campaign.

You can find direct mail being used in many different business situations. The sky’s the limit for what kind of business is conducted by direct mail. Commercial businesses usually use direct mail to advertise a new product or service or to distribute coupons which are themselves a different kind of mass marketing tool. Charities, on the other hand, use direct mail to send out a large amount of appeals for money or to recruit a team of willing volunteers from a receptive mailing list. Really any kind of sales pitch or ad campaign can be made by direct mail and some of the pieces I get seem to be only vaguely legal, such as advertising for certain prescription drugs available from Canada over the phone.

Benefits of a Direct Mail Campaign

Direct mail delivers a business’ message directly to the consumer, usually a consumer that made their way onto a mailing list because of a common interest or purchase. Contributing money to a political campaign will usually get your name on several other political or charity interest’s mailing lists. The same works for commercial purchases.

Compare direct mail to other forms of advertising — a television ad can be turned off, the channel can be changed, or the set could be muted. A newspaper or magazine ad is even easier to ignore. Everyone looks through their mail, even flipping through things that may not interest them immediately. There’s a certain validity that comes from your ad being in the mail.

Advertisers also use direct mail because they can shoot their message at an audience of a particular size — any size they want from a narrow range of specific clients to a broad customer base like an entire neighborhood or city. Using those low bulk mailing rates really helps companies expand their advertising horizons. Never underestimate the value of an ad placed directly into the mailbox of a potential customer.

Downsides of Direct Mail

Direct mail is not all good news.

Direct mail campaigns have a nasty reputation as “junk mail” and most people toss it right into the waste basket or recycling bin. Lots of potential customers will be turned off by a direct mail campaign, although you’d have to assume that these same potential customers would be put off by a TV ad or a radio spot. Most direct mail marketers will tell you that the biggest difficulty in direct mail ads is getting the recipient just to open the envelope, much less read the ad. Getting the piece of mail open is an advertiser’s foot in the door.

To escape the “junk mail” image, many direct mail advertisers have started using tactics to attempt to ensure that the direct mail material is read. Advertisers have learned that personalizing a piece of direct mail like using computer fonts that look like handwriting or just making the direct mail ad look more personalized. Specially targeted mailing lists are another way to avoid the “junk mail” label — if more people actually want your direct mail ad in their mailbox you’re saving yourself money and time.

The Future of Direct Mail

Since we are in the age of the Internet, it shouldn’t be surprising that direct mail tactics are being used on the web. Much of the direct mail advertising on the Internet is the exact same as is used with postal based direct mail ads.

You now see advertisers sending emails containing ads to large only vaguely focused groups of consumers. If this is done successfully, it cuts down big time on the cost of the direct mail ad, as email service is free. You can even purchase lengthy lists of random email addresses and in very little time turn that list into a “targeted mailing list” for your Internet direct mail campaign. You can literally get a piece of direct mail advertising in the email inboxes of millions of people. Of course, we’ve got a name for this kind of web-based junk mail — spam. Most people’s email services have effective “spam filters” that make these kinds of campaigns less effective than it might seem.

There’s another side of direct mail advertising that’s becoming more and more important in an economy where businesses depend on each other’s help for success. Business to business (or “B2B”) direct mail campaigns are some of the most lucrative direct mail campaigns if the message is strong. Advertisers can target their business services to a list of specific recipients that are very likely to become customers. After all, in the world of business you are only as strong as the businesses that support you.

Direct mail is important in advertising because it allows companies to use their marketing budgets to approach business prospects of varying sizes and purchase probabilities. Direct mail allows companies to send out massive ad campaigns without worrying about wasting money on customers who are less likely to be interested in a product or service.