Does Direct Mail Work? (Hint: Print Is Not Dead!)

Direct mail is a powerful and arguably underused marketing tool. It’s cost-effective, has a great return on investment, and holds the attention of its target recipients far longer than digital marketing.

Does Direct Mail Work? (Hint: Print Is Not Dead!)

They say “television killed the radio star”… but has the internet killed print?

Every company is always on the lookout for innovative and effective ways to market their business. These days, with television and the internet seeming to have such a tight hold on our attention, it might seem as though digital ads are king.

However, when we’re talking about return on investment and response rates, online marketing is surprisingly ineffective.

Contrary to popular belief, direct mail – physical, printed advertisements mailed to a specific, targeted audience – is one of the best ways to connect with customers and potential clients or donors.

So… is direct mail effective?

In a day and age when consumers are consumed (pun intended) by screens, it’s no surprise that business owners everywhere are questioning the effectiveness of mail marketing or, quite possibly, haven’t even considered it a viable marketing option. To them, print is dead, and digital is the only way to go.

Looking at the raw numbers, the case for digital marketing seems (albeit incorrectly!) pretty strong. The statistics are staggering:

  • According to data published by The Strategic Counsel in April of 2020, 77% of Canadians spend at least 3-4 hours on the internet every day.
  • 30% of respondents to a similar Canadian survey admitted to spending a minimum of 6 hours a week on social media sites.
  • Across the globe, internet users spent an average of 144 minutes (that’s just under 2.5 hours) a day surfing social platforms.
  • Though we spend a significant amount of time on our phones, tablets, and PCs, we’re likely to spend about 78,000 hours watching television over the course of our lives.
  • Americans have a bad habit of shopping online while at work, one study in 2018 found, especially at the height of the holiday season in the month of December. They can spend up to 2 hours of the workday on Amazon and other online stores.

From mobile phones and tablet PCs to smartwatches and the increasing availability of streaming services and on-demand TV, marketing outside of the online sphere may look pretty counterproductive.

But like Grandma used to say, we can’t judge this book by its cover. Despite how negative the statistics for screen time appear, stats for the effectiveness of direct mail marketing will, we believe, convince you of its continued effectiveness.

Why does direct mail still work?

Despite the many hours consumers spend on their phones and in front of the TV, direct mail marketing is still incredibly effective.

At a glance, there are a few reasons why direct mail still works.

Decline in Direct Mail Marketing Competition
Over the last several years, the prevalence of direct mail marketing has steadily been declining.

In 2006, mail marketing hit its height in the US – the United States Postal Service (USPS) estimated a whopping 213 billion units of marketing mail passed through its offices. However, by 2020, the number of direct mail marketing pieces sent has fallen to just 129.2 billion.

In short, this means there’s less competition fighting for attention in the average consumer’s mail stack. For businesses big and small, this is good news

Overabundance of Digital Advertising

Digital ads are everywhere. And that’s annoying.

Scroll through any online platform and you’ll see a smattering of “sponsored” content among shares from friends and brands you follow. Visit websites and you’ll eventually be alerted by a pesky pop-up inviting you to get a free download or sign up for a newsletter.

Digital ads are the main reason why the average consumer now sees as many as 10,000 advertisements in a single day. There’s a lot more noise than there used to be. Because consumers spend so much time on the internet and because digital ads are indeed everywhere, they’re desensitised to them.

Trustworthiness of Print Ads vs. Digital Ads

Even after years of seeing digital advertisements, data continues to show that people are more likely to trust ads they see in print over ads they see online. Consumers may not be able to exactly explain their reasoning for this, but from a psychological perspective, here’s one big reason why:

Fake or misleading advertisements are far more common online these days. The process to get approval for adverts on platforms like Facebook and Instagram or even Pinterest aren’t exceptionally strict. Due to the high volume of ad requests submitted in a day and the number of employees screening those ads (as well as by bots and algorithms, actually), many are reviewed in record time without any real scrutiny.

Not to mention – there are plenty of articles out there about how to get around Facebook ad rejections and the like. (Google it; you’ll see what we mean.) This rush to approve ads without really questioning their content or intent leads to a lot of junk on the internet.

Prevalence of Mass-Print Marketing

Consumers will see at least 4,000 advertisements a day, up to that 10,000 number we referenced earlier.

And while, yes, digital advertisements are extremely prevalent, we often forget how prevalent traditional advertisements – like banners, billboards, and window flyers and posters – are in our day-to-day lives.

We see them everywhere: while driving in our cars, while shopping at local stores, while sipping coffee in our favorite neighborhood coffee shop… Wherever we’re looking, print media is all around us.

Though there’s an argument to be made about the effectiveness of some of these mediums, like billboards and banners, for example, it would be wrong to ignore where they fall short. Because these types of print marketing are so commonplace (and because “people hate ads”), like they do with digital advertisements, consumers often “tune them out.”

Tangibility, Personalisation, and Consumer Interest

There is something powerful about being able to hold things in your hands – would you agree?

Consumers certainly do.

According to a 2016 study conducted by Canada Post, “Direct mail offers a personal, sensory experience that triggers consumer emotions and action, while maximising attention and recall.”

The study revealed that recipients of direct mail marketing campaigns gave their attention to mail ads 118% longer than they did digital ads and had 29% higher brand recall for those same companies than the companies they’d seen advertised digitally.

This tangibility makes direct mail advertisements feel more personal and more interactive. They’re less easily forgotten because they literally take up space.

Tangible direct mail also leaves room for a multi-sensory experience. Consumers touch and see direct mail pieces. They hear the crinkle of the paper in their hands and may be able to (subconsciously) smell it.

All of these things combined make for a far more memorable and thus successful marketing campaign.

Direct Mail Response Rates

Despite the drop in the amount of direct mail marketing being sent by businesses, consumer response rates have steadily increased year over year.

As of 2018, cold marketing lists of prospects have a 4.9% response rate and lists of previous clients and warm leads compiled in-house have a response rate of 9% according to the joint Association of National Advertisers-Data & Marketing Association “2018 Response Rate Report.” Since 2003, both list types response rates have more than doubled.

Those percentages may not seem like much, but when you compare them to email marketing campaigns, direct mail response rates blow average email response rates out of the water. While some industries’ email click-through rates compare to the in-house list direct mail response, according to data compiled by MailChimp, the average click-through rate for all major industries is just 2.62%.

Likewise, direct mail gets opened and viewed up to 90% of the time whereas email marketing messages are opened just 20-30% of the time.

Other statistical compilations mark email response rates as low as 1%. In addition, perhaps surprisingly, social media advertisements also pull in just a 1% response rate.

Here’s the point of all these numbers: Direct mail marketing results in as much as a 9% response rate – a rate multiple times more than any other form of advertising.

Return on Investment

Ultimately, these response rates mean you get “more bang for your buck” by investing in direct mail marketing.

Social media may cost you less in terms of dollars spent upfront, but for the response you have, is it worth the expense? At a 4-9% response rate versus an abysmally low 1-2% response rate, we’d argue there’s no contest.

Moreover, consumers tend to keep physical mail of all kinds for at least 17 days and are likely to share these within their household or tell a friend about them. Once again, the ROI for direct mail marketing is on top.

Consistency of ROI across Demographics
Despite popular belief, postcard mailings and similar direct mail campaigns are preferred in every demographic – even among millennials.

When presented with a question of whether they preferred to see marketing messages via email or postcard, 33% of millennial respondents said they preferred direct mail in a survey conducted by a team at InfoTrends, a US-based market research company. Likewise, some studies suggest millennials give more attention to their mail than they’re given credit for.

According to a USPS survey of consumers in 2016, when asked if they’d rather receive useful information via email or regular mail, respondents across the board answered pretty consistently: Boomers agreed with this 67% of the time; millennials agreed 64% of the time; and Gen Xers agreed 56% of the time.

All 3 of these age groups use the internet at roughly the same rate, which means they have equal opportunity to be exposed to digital advertisements. But all 3 hold steady in preferring postcard advertising and direct mail marketing over digital ads.

What businesses can use direct mail?

Based on the statistics above, you’d be hard-pressed to find an industry or business who can’t benefit from direct mail marketing campaigns.

Let’s break that down even further: How effective is direct mail for your business or organisation?

Direct Mail for B2C

Every consumer is well-acquainted with business to consumer marketing whether they realise it or not. Whether in print or digital format, B2C direct mail campaigns often seek to play on the emotions of potential customers.

As we’ve established, direct mail is personal and tangible which builds excitement and ultimately leads consumers to give more attention to what they see.

B2C direct mail campaigns are incredibly common. We see them in newspaper circulars and coupon books, sales catalogues, postcard mailers, and more. They’re often used to:

  • Announce a new product launch.
  • Publicise a limited-time sale or special offer.
  • Build brand awareness for a newly established business.

Local businesses of all shapes and sizes routinely use and benefit from direct mail marketing campaigns. That includes real estate agents, bakeries and restaurants, gyms, dental and medical offices, home and handy services, construction businesses, and every other consumer-facing industry under the sun.

And while direct mail marketing efforts include a web address, social media handles, and other options for consumers to shop or connect online, many businesses may also see an uptick in their store foot traffic. According to recent data from an NPR/Marist poll, 56% of Americans prefer to shop in physical stores over shopping online.

B2C direct mail efforts can be fun and creative and are often executed as postcard mail campaigns, letters, or oversized envelopes (which have the highest household response rates of all direct mail designs).

Direct Mail for B2B

Business to business direct mail still plays on the emotions of the recipients, even though there may be no special “deal” to publicise. These messages typically serve one of two main purposes: brand awareness and lead generation.

Direct mail marketing materials can help businesses build brand awareness by avoiding the extra marketing noise pointed at their potential clients. Sending physical, creatively-designed marketing materials is an incredibly effective way to cut through LinkedIn, cold-call, and digital marketing noise.

Direct mail is so beneficial for B2B, in fact, that some of the world’s biggest brands are using it to market their products or services – even Google.

These campaigns also offer opportunities to think outside the box – direct mail doesn’t always need to look like a simple letter. Want to get attention? Send something that stands out.

Direct Mail for Charities & Nonprofit Organisations

Charities and nonprofit organisations can gain from direct mail marketing equally as much as for-profit businesses. Like direct mail for B2C companies, marketing campaigns for nonprofits also pull at donors’ heartstrings and appeal to their emotions.

Sending direct mail campaigns to previous donors can be substantially beneficial, especially when sent at key times of the year. The holiday season, in particular, is a great time to launch giving campaigns. Alternatively, lesser holidays that have a special connection to your organisation can also result in higher engagement.

Personalised letters – both in traditional letter sizes as well as oversized envelopes – catalogues, and postcards are all effective for driving organisation awareness and donations. Including an enclosed, postage-paid return envelope can also be very compelling to donors.

How can I ensure my direct mail campaign is effective?

Not all direct mail campaigns are created equal. There are a number of steps to take before clicking “print” and handing your marketing materials over to the postal service.

To ensure the success of a direct mail marketing campaign, here are a couple of key things to remember.

1. You get what you pay for.
The availability of low-cost print companies across the web make a DIY direct mail job sound quick and easy. However, these companies have a few drawbacks.

First, due to the strictly online-nature of these businesses, it’s impossible to see and hold a true mockup in your hands before pulling the “go” lever and giving the okay to run a campaign.

Being able to see and approve a sample is an important step in the direct mail planning process. This ensures branding is consistent – that all brand logos and colors match your other communications. Consistency is key to make you stand out and to create brand recognition.

In addition, the printwork is often of lower quality due to both the equipment being used and the experience of the employed operators. . Not every printer is the same. As such, keeping quality and colour consistent and sharp throughout a print run comes from highly-trained and experienced operators.

Most discount printers do not have the technology, software, or knowledgeable staff needed to truly personalise a campaign to individual recipients. In essence, the workers compiling your order have no personal investment in your campaign – they’re on a deadline to get your postcard campaign out the door. This means a very generic communication goes out to your list which can lead to a drastic drop in response rates.

Such low-cost printers are notorious for shipping low-quality products. Cut lines may be imprecise; the printing may be inconsistent; and there’s no extra help to ensure you fully proofread your materials.

In the end, quick online printing solutions may result in less-than-stellar marketing materials and, in a best-case scenario, sending generic pieces with minimal personalisation that are ultimately disregarded, or, in a worst-case scenario, an embarrassing mail marketing campaign of poor quality that potentially damages your brand.

2. To get the best ROI, you need to hire an expert.
The only surefire way to avoid the calamities above and get the highest possible conversion rate is to hire an expert with experience in designing B2C postcard marketing and B2B direct mailers.

The company you chose should have extensive experience in working on direct marketing campaigns from start to finish, and should be seen as a partner, not just a printer. By choosing the correct partner, you stand to have a truly unique and spectacular campaign that drives response and ROI.

Dipping your toes into the world of mail marketing isn’t for the faint of heart and there are many angles to consider:

  • Who is your target audience – who are you reaching? What demographic groups are you seeking? In which stage of life are they in? What are their interests or hobbies?
  • What is the main goal of your campaign – to raise brand or organisation awareness or to drive sales or donations?
  • What kind of list will you use – a house list or a prospect list? If using a prospect list, where will you procure one from?
  • What type of mailer will you send – a postcard, a letter, a catalogue, or something more unique and creative?
  • How much personalisation are you going to have – What personalisation can you write to speak directly to the recipient of your communication and make them want them to respond to your campaign?
  • When will your campaign “go live” and be sent to your recipients – around a special day or date or at an unspecified time of the year?
  • What message will be included in your campaign and what is the call to action – what should recipients do upon receipt of your mailer?


A professional direct mail marketing printer can help you develop answers to all these questions and help set your expectations. Furthermore, they’ll assist in mapping out a successful and profitable campaign to achieve the highest response and conversion rate possible.

Is direct mail marketing effective during COVID-19?

The short answer: yes. Why? Because – as we’ve already established – it works and arguably, it stands to work better now than recent years past.

With so many people trapped indoors these days and glued to screens now more than ever, physical mail brings a forgotten sense of joy to consumers who have been long-separated from a close-contact world. The pre-pandemic statistics surrounding direct mail marketing only stand to rise in the wake of COVID-19.

So, does direct mail work? Yes, it does.

Direct mail marketing is a fantastic way to connect with your audience – whether you’re working to build awareness for your brand or organisation or looking to increase sales or donations. It boasts the highest response rate of all marketing methods and has a high return on investment.

Now, rather than asking yourself whether it works or not, start asking when you’re going to send your next direct mail campaign.

We are ready to start your next printing project.