TARGETING & ACQUISITION | Direct mail is alive and well

Images: noble-insurance-house-summer.tif; noble-insurance-house-winter.tif

Direct mail is alive and well

Perhaps working better for some than others

 By Dave Ward

Direct mail is not dead, the tombstone has not been erected and the eulogy is far from being written. Yet, some people still shy away from using direct mail – perhaps because they’ve had a bad experience or they think it’s just too expensive when compared to email or other electronic media. But for many, direct mail remains a powerful marketing tool and, in reality, it’s only expensive when it doesn’t work. It all comes down to who you are talking to, what you are saying and how you are saying it.

Today, direct mail takes on many forms. We often speak of highly targeted mailings that connect insightfully by varying the content and the offer to individual recipients. Used properly, this form of direct marketing creates seamless communication and can be very persuasive. On the other hand, we have more general mass market mailings. While we can still select our target audience with these types of campaigns, the offers are not as tailored. The question is, do these latter types of mailings still work and, if so, what are people doing to enjoy success? Yes, they do work, and there are a variety of things that you can do to increase your overall success.

General mass mailings can consist of either addressed or unaddressed campaigns – or perhaps a combination of the two. In either case, you can select your target audience. With an addressed campaign, you can select the addresses you want to target, but what about an unaddressed campaign? Well, if you are mailing in Canada, you should check out Canada Post’s Precision Targeter. It’s a powerful tool that lets you specify the criteria for the target audience that you are trying to reach and really helps you to zone in when using Unaddressed Admail.

Looking at some of the more generic Addressed Admail projects that we have managed, I note that

  1. they often do not have contact names and
  2. in some instances the contact data is very inconsistent, to the extent that additional personalization would require considerable technical work.

Additionally, many of these are business to business (B2B) mailings, where the goal is to get a catalogue or price list into the hands of purchasing agents or decision makers within key organizations. Addresses  might come from a purchased list, an in-house database, or a combination of the two, but the key is that the pieces are being mailed in volume. These mailings do not usually involve a lot of additional  personalization, but experience shows that they do work.

With generic Addressed Admail, it also makes a difference if you’re mailing to an existing customer or a  prospect. If you already have a business relationship, the reaction might be “Oh, XYZ Corp’s new catalogue.” However, if the recipient doesn’t know your organization, the reaction is more likely to be, “What’s this?” In this case, there is a very short window during which the recipient will decide if they want to keep or discard the piece. It’s up to your content and your creative to catch their interest.

Of course, you could also include a note for prospective new customers, featuring an introductory offer that shows through the poly wrapper. I will admit that it would then be somewhat more than generic, but we’re also looking at ways to improve results.

If you send exactly the same piece as Addressed Admail and Unaddressed Admail, you should expect better result with the addressed pieces. That is not to say that Unaddressed Admail does not work – it   does! Unaddressed Admail just competes at a somewhat different level, and you have to do what you can to stand out from the clutter, be noticed and generate a response.

To illustrate the effectiveness of Unaddressed Admail, I would like to look at a multi-stage campaign that we fulfilled a few years ago for Noble Insurance. This campaign was initiated by the agency Bev Rock Media Buyer and focused on two key elements:

  • getting noticed
  • repetition

To catch people’s attention the campaign featured die cuts of both a house and a vintage car. As the campaign was run at different times of the year, the house was shown in different seasons, as per the pictures, below.

Repetition is an important element in any form of marketing, and each phase of this campaign had three drops at one month intervals. This was repeated in both the spring and the fall, as shown below. It’s also interesting to note that the client increased the volumes as the campaign gained traction and began engaging consumers.

  • January 2010 – 2,500 (pilot project)
  • February 2010 – 15,500
  • Fall 2010 – 23,500
  • Spring 2011 – 29,000
  • Fall 2011 – 29,000
  • Spring 2012 – 30,000


Of course, there have been many other successful unaddressed campaigns, but the Noble Insurance campaign is certainly one of the more memorable ones that we have worked on.

It’s really difficult to quantify and effectively speak to all of the various elements that make direct mail effective in one short article. Nonetheless, let me share eight key points.


  1. Identifying your target market is one of the most important components of your overall plan – even with a mass mailing. Looking at your current customers is always a good place to start. Once you have established your criteria, you can then look at putting together a list for an addressed campaign, or using Canada Post’s Precision Targeter if you are conducting an unaddressed campaign.


  1. Document the purpose and how you plan to measure results; otherwise, you won’t know if you’ve been successful. Remember too, that results can be measured over the longer term, especially where the campaign might result in ongoing monthly revenues.


  1. How will you attract attention? It could be a die cut, something with strong physical presence or some other design that “pops”. In the case of Noble Insurance, they owned their own shape and the die cut house became recognized in the targeted communities.


  1. Once you have attention, how can you keep it? Focusing on how prospective customers will benefit from your products or services will give people reasons to buy from you. Spending too much time talking about features doesn’t tell the whole story.


  1. You will also need a call to action to motivate people to contact you. Even if they have an interest in your offering and can already see the benefits, they may not act right away. A call to action (e.g. limited time offer, first 50 customers get a free gift, 15% discount until September 1 etc.) can motivate people to purchase sooner rather than later.


  1. Your timing is also important, especially for seasonal businesses. For example, it probably would not make sense for a tax preparation firm to advertise their services one week after the tax filing deadline. You will know your own products and services best and can judge your timing accordingly.


  1. Like all other forms of marketing, direct marketing requires repetition. When someone says “I tried direct mail once and it didn’t work”, the source of that failure is evident in their own words. If we look at the Noble Insurance campaign, we can see that repetition was an important ingredient in their overall success.


  1. Lastly, for B2B mailings, if you are using Unaddressed Admail or you do not have contact names for an Addressed Admail mailing, ensure that you direct the piece to a particular department or position (e.g. Attention: Marketing Manager). When an unaddressed piece (or an addressed piece without a contact name) arrives in the mailroom or at a receptionist’s desk without some indication of where it should be directed, it will likely end up in File 13 (i.e. the waste basket or recycle bin).


Typically those that are successful with direct mail are masters at fishing in the right waters at the right time with the right bait. Further, if you are looking for immediate action, you must get attention, sell on your benefits, create desire and have a compelling offer.

As I mentioned at the outset, direct mail is far from dead, and many people use it on an ongoing basis. If your direct marketing results have not lived up to expectations, you might consider some of the points outlined above. Hoping this helps!


Dave Ward is President of Highland Marketing in Fergus ON and is a strong proponent of multi-channel direct marketing and campaigns that are tastefully different, stand out and get noticed.



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Lloydmedia, Inc is based in Markham, Ontario, Canada, and is a multi-platform media company which delivers a total audience of more than 100,000 readers across four national magazines, three industry directories, and a range of events and online marketing.

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