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The Power of Direct Mail in the Digital Age

For digital marketers, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are serious challenges inherent to the digital landscape that nobody is talking about.

Not long ago, advertisements were the end result of days, weeks, or even months of painstaking research and creative work. Ingenious ads from Coca-Cola, Kodak, McDonald’s, and even Marlboro cigarettes, for better or for worse, cemented many iconic brands into our country’s DNA.

Back then, most advertisements were smart enough to appeal to the masses but targeted enough to drive sales within key demographics. And importantly, the advertisers considered the medium as a key player in each campaign’s success.

If an advertisement ran in Time magazine, or rolled out on a hit radio program, it gained instant credibility. The distribution channel provided inimitable authority – and it was worth the price.

More Ads, Less Authority and Impact

Today, the advertising landscape has fundamentally changed. Advertisements now flash before our eyes at blazing speeds. Each time we search, stream, watch, read, scroll, click, or swipe, we are bombarded by advertisements. And on social media, where the average person spends nearly two hours per day, ads are everywhere.

According to recent reports, the average American consumer is exposed to thousands of advertisements per day. In fact, it’s not unusual for the average consumer to see more than three hundred advertisements, of various sorts, within the first waking hour each day.

And while digital marketing experts can’t seem to agree on the exact number of ad exposures per day, it doesn’t really matter. This is because, in order to maintain our sanity, consumers have developed an autonomous mental screening process to ignore advertisements. As a general rule of thumb, about two percent of advertisements garner our valued attention each day. In other words, only about 100 out of every 5,000 ad exposures have any meaningful impact on consumers.

In the digital age, trust and authority, once a staple of each advertising medium, is fleeting at best. The primary channels we use to consume media, whether mainstream or social, have been so ravished by clickbait headlines and disinformation that consumers no longer inherently trust them. Gone are the days when the news was the news.

On the web, anyone (or company) with controversial content, marketing chops, and even a small marketing budget, can claw their way into the mix and make a profit. The money flows at the expense of credibility, performance, and ultimately, the advertisers behind it all.

Many digital marketers ignore these inherent issues because the data flow generated by digital campaigns allows for campaign optimization and deep analysis. While true, even with analytics, which are the lifeblood of digital marketers, the effectiveness of digital advertising has been called into question.

People: Wired for Print

Local and national organizations, who advertise through direct mail, are much more likely to convince consumers to part ways with their hard-earned cash.

But why is this the case?

Let’s start with raw, scientific data generated by folks much smarter than myself.

Last year, a Canadian neuromarketing firm conducted a sweeping study for Canada Post that compared the effects of paper marketing (direct mail pieces, in this case) to digital media (email and display ads).

The firm used advanced eye-tracking and high-resolution EEG brain wave measurement tools, along with conventional methods such as questionnaires, to gather data.

The study produced two major results:

  1. Direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process than digital media, suggesting that it is both easier to understand and more memorable.

  2. Overall effectiveness, referred to as the motivation-to-cognitive load ratio within the study, showed that direct mail scored an average 1.31 compared to 0.87 for all digital channels. This is significant because, in this type of test, values greater than 1.0 are indicative of broad in-market success.

Further, consumers who received direct mail offers were able to recall the brand 75% of the time. For consumers who received digital-only versions, the brand was remembered only 44% of the time.

According to the Forbes evaluation of this scientific research, “Science clearly shows paper can be more impactful and memorable than digital.”

The Direct Marketing Association has also published research in support of direct mail. In fact, the latest edition of the DMA Response Rate Report states that direct mail offers “strong return on marketing investment,” with an average ROI of 15% to 17%. They also note that oversized mailers, such as postcards, have the best response rates, at up to 4.25%, with a targeted mailing list. Those are the types of numbers that marketers dream about.

The Importance of Targeting

Marketing is about effective, persuasive communication, and direct mail is no exception.

Success is based on a fundamental rule: Reach the right prospects, at the right time, with the right offer.

Competitive research, along with an analysis of existing customer and prospect databases, can yield valuable insight, and help advertisers build a persona for the ideal prospect.

The lift provided through targeting the right prospects, or through using similar audiences, can be substantial. As per the DMA Response Rate Report, the average response rate using a house list is 3.7%, while the average for a prospect list is 1.0%. A highly relevant offer, sent to the right audience, will typically drive rates even higher.

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