It’s ruffled quite a few feathers—the coverage of the Borrell Associates report “Direct Mail Doomed, Long Live Email.” According to the report, direct mail has begun a precipitous decline from which it will never fully recover. Borrell is projecting a 39% decline for direct mail over the next five years, from $49.7 billion in annual ad spending in 2008 to $29.8 billion by the end of 2013.
I understand the point here, and certainly, such trends are ominous. But I learned something by cutting my teeth in industry analysis and research by working with TrendWatch GA / The Industry Measure from its inception. That is that all of these reports are snapshots in time, and they must be looked at that way.
What was unique about TrendWatch GA is that it asked the same questions in every marketplace every year or twice per year. This gave us trend lines to watch, and my perspective on the industry was formed by watching these trend lines evolve in the creative, printing, publishing, and Internet marketplaces over more than a decade. Such perspective gives you quite a different take on things than when you focus on “once in time” snapshots.
When it comes to these direct mail numbers, I think what people should focus on is that, while TRADITIONAL direct mail and direct mail strategies may be in permanent decline, this doesn’t mean that direct mail itself will continue to decline permanently. Maybe it will. But it is also entirely possible that we are simply watching an ebb and flow as the direct mail industry adjusts to new market conditions. Like everything else, direct mail will need to find its new place in today’s media mix. While it’s pretty safe to say that traditional direct mail is facing considerable challenges, we still have to wait and see what direct mail at large looks like down the road.
As industry watchers hawk and fret about the future of direct mail, the point must be made that, like a bundle of sticks, campaigns utilizing multiple media are far stronger than campaigns utilizing single media. Direct mail cannot disappear entirely—not just because it works, but because without it other media would not be as strong.
In the “Marketer’s Primer Series” of educational and training reports on digital printing, 1:1 (personalized) printing, Web-to-print, and personalized URLs, every one of the best practices sections lasers in on the need to incorporate multi-channel strategies in order to be utilizing these technologies/techniques in a best practices way. But it’s not just multi-channel. Part of the best practices of all media, including print, is the incorporation of personalization and relevance-based strategies. Even billboards are going “personalized” in the sense that many are now sending visitors to different landing pages based on geography or demographics of the people who travel within eyeball-shot.
If printers and marketers are going to have a good, healthy perspective on the future of direct mail, they need to have a good, healthy perspective on the best practices for all of the various marketing strategies today, because the future of direct mail is tied to them on a long-term — not just a snapshot — basis. They must be smart about these trends and look beyond the “snapshot in time” perspective to understand the long-range implications, and those might look quite different in a year, two years, and five years than they do today. The question is, how do you prepare yourself to get there?