Direct Mail v. Email: No Contest!

By | April 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, a direct marketer asked me about the value of direct mail versus email. We often address “ROI” issues like these in Marketing AdVents, the monthly newsletter of the Direct Marketing Association of Washington (DC), of which I am editor. The answer is, of course, “Let’s find out.”

You’ll hear direct mail advocates argue that nothing works as well as a targeted letter containing the perfect response device, mailed to the right recipient. In the April issue of AdVents, Kevin Mills, director of membership for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, put it this way: “With more than 15 years of experience developing marketing strategies to increase membership and member benefits, I have the most confidence in direct mail … Direct mail provides legitimacy to our organization and its cause, and provides the vehicle for email and social media campaigns to be successful.”

Quite a few association marketers and fundraisers feel this way and some point to statistics like those found in the 2012 DMA Response Rate Report. This report collected data from 481 survey respondents in July 2012, concluding that, “Direct mail response rates outperform email. Direct mail has the lowest cost per lead or order of media distributed to lists.”

CMI quoted the same data in its August 2012 post about the effectiveness of direct mail in marketing to health care providers. And the GRI Marketing Group picked up the 2012 Channel Preference Study conducted by Epsilon, which noted that “direct mail is the preferred channel for consumers to receive brand communications – because they can read the information at their convenience.”

More recently, in February this year, Chief!Marketer noted that “direct mail is still a bargain for marketers … with results that boil down to lists and data, offers/messaging, creative and copy, and timing.”

Other marketers make a different, but also strong, case.
Studies like this from Hubspot in January 2013 suggest email can outperform direct mail, hands down. Quoting Harvard Business Review’s article “Why Email Marketing Is King,” Hubspot points to email marketing’s low cost, measurability, and the “choose-your-own-adventure” response a recipient can take.

To keep up with back-and-forth conversations like these, follow the 20,617-member Direct Mail Group on LinkedIn and any of numerous email marketing groups, including Email Marketing Gurus, Email Marketing Roundtable, and the grand-daddy 470,000-member  eMarketing Association Network.

So what’s the bottom line?
No contest. In this multi-channel world, no single channel choice is ever first or final. As savvy direct marketers would say, “Who knows? Who cares?”  It’s easy to find out what works best for us: Let’s TEST!

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15 thoughts on “Direct Mail v. Email: No Contest!

  1. Shoshana

    The answers are never easy and in many cases the answer is ‘it depends’. Poor design, digital or print will not speak to the audience. We live in a fast paced, instant gratification world. With email we have a subject header and a quick sec and with direct it is more about the personalization and graphic. Email is by far cheaper; it allows folks to test new databases and begin putting customers into a lead nurture cycle. Direct mail is tangible, people are ‘humans’ and like to hold onto something and post it or leave it about to remind them. The age of the audience and day of the week we communicate are also factors. Well managed data usage, digital or direct will have a higher response rate becasue it is the DATA and how we communicate to the customers that is the key factor, not whether it is digital or print.

  2. Matt Middleton

    Marketers all have their sacred cows. As a guy who came from the DM industry and is now in Digital, I think the answer at the end of this article is sort of right. TEST!

    However, I think all channels should be tested in concert. The worst thing that can happen is that you have a cohesive message going to your market. The best that can happen is that you get strong results.

    DM folks say mail is best. SEO people will say organic non branded search rankings are the cat’s meow. Purveyors of SEM will say target PPC and Retargeting strategies rock! Social media will say they go viral. Email blasters will say they are oh so measurable and effective.

    I say do it all and see what happens.

  3. Joe Manos

    Nancy this is an ongoing discussion and one I find easy to address. You need to use both (direct mail and email) as well as mobile and social in an integrated manner!!!


    Because in North America – the average consumer or business person is available on 7.2 different media channels.

    If a company is one dimensional in their marketing either direct mail or email they are missing large segments of potential prospects. So no matter what their response levels are they aren’t as high as if they opened up the funnel to other response channels.

    BY leveraging the top response channels in an integrated program you optimize the opportunity and see an increase in the overall prospects in total responses.

    I agree you can easily test this approach but make no mistake one dimensional programs will never achieve the results delivered of a well executed multi-channel marketing program!

    Finally – you have to leverage the best practice methodologies for top response levels (timing, personal & relevant messaging, the right offer, etc.) for any marketing program and off the top of my head I can think of 6-7 that have to be executed well as part of any marketing program in today’s world.

    But that’s a topic for another post another day.

  4. Mike Porter

    I think using direct mail to initiate contact has its own set of advantages. More people view direct mail as the least intrusive method for unsolicited messages than other methods like email, text, or phone. So they are more likely to see the message and consume the content. Plus, with a targeted mailing list you can direct your message to likely prospects, but those for whom you do not have an email address or do not have opt-in permission for email.

    If the direct mail piece has a call to action that send contacts to landing pages with web forms to collect email addresses and permission, the subsequent communications can start utilizing multiple channels and reap the benefits that Joe describes.

  5. Nancy Scott

    Joe, all I can say is “yes.” 😉
    Mike, many share your view and for good reason.

    And to both of you, thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  6. Lee Gallagher

    Thank you for your timely article. In fact, in just a few weeks, I will be publishing a case study that tested: direct mail, direct mail & email, and only email. The sample size for the test was about 40,000 consumers that were selected by our predictive model on the customer’s propensity to re-engage the brand after two years of not transacting.

    Stay tuned!
    Kind Regards,
    Lee Gallagher (

  7. Harvey

    Nancy, print is not dead, just the way it’s been offered. Creative people have been hamstrung for years because of the commoditized offerings from the print sector. It is primarily the reason our industries have circled the drain for so many years.
    Few print publications have delivered cost effective leads in years, hence their demise. Radio, a one time effective media is becoming obsolete in the era of satellites and opt in.
    From my experience in creating dynamic interactive cross media campaigns I can attest without a doubt that the print portion of the campaign can make or break the whole campaign. It entices, builds identity and motivates the receiver planting it’s message firmly in the frontal cortex of the reader, where we learn. It also builds trust with a pitch touching positive emotional reactions, consistently. Dollar for dollar print, when created correctly will out pull any other form of marketing communication available today in lead gathering and will for the future.

  8. Nancy Scott

    Lee, I can’t wait to see your article and hear what you found out. Where should I check in for the results?

    Harvey, I think you’re saying what so many agree with: Print IS a viable — for many, a *driving* — part of any direct marketing campaign. As always, it’s about testing to find out what works.

  9. Nancy Scott

    Harvey, I took a look. This is irresistible stuff, I agree! Totally engaging — a terrific combination of great copy and touchables, all delivered with a highly personal touch. No doubt, your pieces are relatively expensive, but you also said, “dollar for dollar, print… will out pull any other form of marketing communication…” So that means good ROI from this approach, too. Right?

  10. Nancy Scott

    Cary, thanks for pointing out that the Hubspot/HBR case study cited in the article (and to which you provided a link) targeted loyalty customers and mailed to a friendly audience, thus avoiding list expenses. Very important to draw conclusions based on oranges v oranges.

    Shoshana, in a nutshell, you’re right.

    Matt, yeah, the truest test levels the playing field by eliminating as many variables as possible. MUCH harder than it sounds, huh?

  11. Jim Wilson

    I think it’s worth noting that having a cost barrier-to-entry is a benefit for DM. It’s the 21st century, and absolutely anyone can send an email – and they do. When the email channel is inundated with pitches for everything from A-Z – from all corners of the world – it can be difficult to find a needle in a stack of needles, or determine which email in your junkmail folder is there by mistake.

    There are certainly plenty of reasons for the term ‘junkmail’ to have originated in the physical world, but personally I find it easier to give my time to the physical representation of an idea delivered to my home with my name and pertinent information filled in. At least I know that the sender has invested something in communicating their message.

  12. Jon Bradley

    My viewpoint is that as one marketing method becomes saturated there is a natural shift towards the alternatives.

    So if all of your competitors are investing heavily in online marketing then it usually leaves a gap in traditional marketing channels (Direct mail, yellow pages etc) where easier gains can be made.

    But I think a good marketing strategy should include the use of as many tools as possible.

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