Direct Mail: Lessons from the Movies

By | October 6, 2010

According to CSO Insights in a report published this past July, 39% of companies doing lead generation planned to reduce their direct mail spending in the next 12 months. Only 18% said they planned to spend more on mail. Mail had the worst showing of all the marketing channels surveyed.  (E-marketing, email, and social media marketing were the big winners, of course.)

At my company, we do a lot of direct mail.  So, are we in a dying business?  I don’t think so.

When television came along, everyone said the movies were dead.  Been to a movie lately?  Sure you have.  Indeed, movies are making more money than ever.  It’s not that TV killed the movies.  It’s that TV, as a new transformative technology, changed the movies. Movies became bigger: longer and packed with visual and auditory sensations and special effects—a trend that started as early as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and continues right through to the otherworldliness of Avatar or Inception.

Today, direct mail faces all the transformative technologies of the digital age.  Digital is going to change direct mail, and force direct mail to do what it does best.  

Two key advantages that DM has over digital are that (1) it’s tangible, and (2) it lends itself to sustained narrative.

To Have and To Hold

You can hold a direct mail package in your hands. It lasts. You can display it.  Its strength is that it’s not the flickering of transient pixels on a screen, here today and gone–not tomorrow–but in a millisecond.  Accordingly, DM is going to work best in the digital age when it’s dimensional—ironically in the same way that TV forced the movies to bulk up. 

The new defining criterion of successful direct mail is going to be: the recipient does not want to throw it away.  Something about the physical piece of mail will compel the recipient to keep it.  Perhaps it’s a dodecahedron displaying your brand that pops into 3-D when you open the package.  Perhaps it includes an hysterical and infinitely repeatable recording like those insane Hoops & Yoyo cards that Hallmark’s making a fortune on.  Perhaps it has toy-like characteristics that will invite playing with it again and again. Perhaps it even has a pleasant scent. (Hmmm. What smell goes along with selling, say, mutual funds?)   But whatever the package is or does, you won’t want to just throw it away. 

Decades ago, I got a direct marketing piece that emits a wild round of applause every time you open it. I still have it. It still works. I still laugh.

Living to Tell the Tale    

In addition—and not precluded by being multi-dimensional—direct mail worth mailing will tell a good story.  It doesn’t have to be a long or complex story.  But it has to be compelling.  Again, we can take a lesson from the movies.  While movies have bulked up on special effects, if a movie is all and only special effects, it usually falls flat.  Special effects wedded to a damned good story—think Pixar—create movies that gross hundreds of millions.

Not for Everyone…

There are of course some people who never go to the movies.  And there are some (like yours truly) who rarely or never watch TV.  Similarly, our dimensional, engag­ing, compelling direct mail still needs to reach the right people.  The story of a worthy charity will fall on deaf ears if I would simply never give to that kind of cause.  I’ll ignore a mailer telling me why a particular technology will improve my life if I’m a technophobe$5,000 off on a new car is a non-starter if I just bought a car last week. There’s still a big role for targeting, careful list selection, and knowing your audience.

…But Not Dead Yet!

When a transformative technology comes along, the old techniques learn to play to their own strengths.  The following brief table contrasts DM with digital media to highlight the strengths of the old-fashioned way:

Table comparing digital and direct mail attributes

There’s just no getting around that we humans are physical, analog, narrative creatures, bound in time and space. We’re always going to like getting stuff. And we’ll always love a good story

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One thought on “Direct Mail: Lessons from the Movies

  1. Varinder

    Very nice tips. Direct mail can be a high profit, low cost advertising medium. If you use a reliable source for mailing addresses you can target people who are more likely to be interested in your business’ products or services. Depending upon your direct mail marketing budget you can send postcards, letters, brochures, or even product samples.

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