The question “does direct mail still work” typically leads to a pile of statistics taken from a mound of studies performed by countless agencies, organizations, and companies who all conclude “it does; direct mail still works!”

Permit me to respond to that question a little differently; by prefacing my response in answering the larger question. “Does advertising still work?”

Let’s consider how the advertising landscape has changed just over the recent 42 years of my personal advertising career.

In 1980 when I opened my first advertising agency in a small northern Utah town, we created advertising campaigns consisting predominantly of local newspaper and radio ads. (Some of which I’m still very proud of). We also generated collateral materials, catalogs and even designed and built trade exhibit booths. We were young and hungry and created any advertising that would earn us a buck. Yet, we hungered for the bigger media—television. Television was the glamour media; it was the stuff we studied in college. We wanted to produce television commercials the world would see and admire. Occasionally we got to run ads in fancy magazines, these ads too were pretty and glamorous. I thought advertising success was all about image.

It was when a national client hired us to help them launch a new product, that we realized all the traditional media that their national agency had used and failed with, failed because it didn’t reach the eyes of their specific audience.

We concluded we needed to go directly to their prospective clients. We couldn’t find a consumer or business list available so we decided to create a business mailing list of their prospective clients. We were so naive, we thought we were practically inventing targeted direct mail marketing with our targeted mailing lists. Not so, but we were on the front edge of the true targeted direct mail marketing wave.

Though direct mail had been around for ages, literally ages, it actually reached its hay-days in the 1980’s as technology helped it mature from junk-mail to become targeted direct mail marketing. Computers, data, and production technologies opened the eyes of advertisers, and direct mail moved from being the poor looked-down-upon cousin living on the wrong side of the tracks, to the crazy uncle who made money but was still quirky and poorly misunderstood.

Big advertisers realized they had to play in the direct mail marketplace and many of their advertising agencies opened direct-mail divisions. They would simply throw the word direct at the end of their name and then claimed they could serve their clients with direct marketing. One of those agencies for whom I always aspired to work for was Ogilvy & Mather in NY. They opened Ogilvy Direct to satisfy the pressure to add direct mail to their list of offerings.

Let me clarify direct marketing’s relationship to direct mail. Sometimes they get lumped together. Direct marketing is simply utilizing the marketing channel of selling directly to the consumer with no brick and mortar retail outlet between a company and the consumer.

Depending on who you talk to, Direct marketing included not only the traditional media selling products directly to consumers using TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, including the late-night infomercials where you could get a good set of Ginzu knives if you call right now, but some industry folk include direct sales such as Avon, Tupperware, and the Fuller Brush man in the direct marketing mix. Certainly catalogs, Columbia’s record of the month club, and telemarketing all fell under the direct marketing umbrella.

But with all of those, Direct mail has always been the lion-share of the direct marketing juggernaut. In today’s highly internet-based advertising world, most of the advertising online can be gathered under that same direct marketing umbrella. No longer are you the poor cousin if you bypass a physical store and sell directly to a consumer. 

So why do all these mediums stick around and why do they still work? It’s because they get products in front of the consumers’ eyes and ears. This may be the very gist of my whole point here. 

Advertising follows the eyes and ears of the consumer.

As technology moves the eyes and ears from one medium to another, it also disrupts how the creation of the messages found on those mediums is developed and presented. Early in my career, once I actually began producing television commercials, and thus hired production crews filming with million-dollar studio cameras, our productions were limited, by tight media budgets. TV time was expensive. Compare that with how technology makes video possible today. I can produce a video with my phone and broadcast it to the world, basically for free. Technology changed the entire advertising world.

Since that is the case, why would I ever spend a dime on direct mail which costs money? Why advertise on television which costs money? Why advertise in a magazine or on the radio which all cost money? Because that’s where the eyes and ears are. For those few ‘influencers’ who are successful developing content interesting enough to draw eyes to them online, what happens? Advertisers flock to them, paying for the privilege to get in front of the eyes and ears. The internet-based media is just a new place to find eyes and ears. Hollywood studios created television programs to attract eyes and ears. Advertisers pay to get in front of those eyes. Publishers create magazines with articles interesting enough to get read. Advertisers pay to reach those readers. It’s no more complicated than that. The new blogger or podcaster generates eyes and ears—advertisers pay for those eyes and ears.

Targetleads 40 year chart of Costs Kent Merrell

This chart, though it took way too much time to create, shows the shift in the advertising marketplace over the 42 years of my advertising career. From 1980 thru 2021, in this one chart, you see demonstrated this powerful point.

Because advertising follows the eyes and ears, the mediums that survive and thrive are those that own the eyes and ears.

See how the percent of total US advertising dollars shifts over time. These numbers represent the percent of the total US advertising spend per medium.  The other media number includes things like in-store advertising, bus-boards, local sponsorships, promotions, flyers and brochures, yellow pages, cinema, etc. Though numbers of eyes and ears cannot be directly connected by dollar to each of these, you can be sure just as direct mail knows exactly how many eyes will see a piece of mail, the cost per eyeball is carefully calculated into the cost of every other advertisement in every medium.

Here is another chart from a 2017 study demonstrating how advertising spending follows media consumption. I thank Felix Richter –  

You will notice direct mail is not found on Felix’s chart. Though in 2017 Direct Mail accounted for 17% of the total US media spend, it is often left off charts by those who struggle with that crazy direct mail uncle.

So, back to the original question—“Does Direct Mail Still Work?” It does, but only because that’s where the eyes are. Think about your personal media consumption. How often do you watch television programs where advertisers can find you? How often do you read a newspaper or a magazine? How often do you listen to the radio or see a billboard? How often do you go online? Now, how often do you go to the mailbox?

Most people will answer these questions—Everyday. Exactly, almost all of us are exposed to the internet every day, most of us who get outside our home will see billboards. Not all televisions get turned on, nor radios. Magazines become rarer and for the majority of us, newspapers are extinct. And still, nearly all of us go to the mailbox, every day.

Now consider the exposure to advertising in the few places our eyes and ears can be found. How many emails, banner ads, pop-up ads, and commercials do we have to delete, skip, fast forward through or ignore? Compare that to what the USPS claims the average household receives in their mailbox each month—each month! (And that’s each household – not each person) Not hourly or daily—monthly. The number is 38. Each of those 38 pieces of mail gets touched, looked at, thought about and considered before you toss them in the trash. And studies indicate that a considerable percent of advertising mail sticks around the house for up to 17 days. That is why direct mail still works.

A direct mail message owns you if even for seconds or nano-seconds. You touch it, you hold it, and you think about it.

When we talk to potential clients, we simply encourage them to meet their clients where they go every day. Where every day they can take that prospective customer by the hand and make them a personal offer. Customers are there every day.

All of this evidence means one thing – Direct mail is still one of the most powerful marketing tools to be found in your marketing toolbox and TargetLeads is your professional team to help you utilize that tool. We help carriers, agencies and agents, both online and traditional businesses just like you reach out to your perfect prospect and begin a profitable relationship.

And now for my own shameless plug for targeted direct mail marketing. Direct mail is one of the most established, tactile and proven media platforms. The plain truth is, direct mail continues to engage consumers. With direct mail, consumers are encouraged to go online and seek out more information about a brand due to a targeted direct mail advertisement. Direct mail motivates people to try new stores, businesses, or products, to use a local service, visit a restaurant, make up shopping lists, or go online to make a purchase. And my favorite because I love the creative part of the targeted direct mail marketing business, I have an endless number of direct mail physical options, from postcard mailers to high-end creative mailers and anything in between, suiting any range of my clients’ budgets. Yes, direct mail still works because people are still people and technology won’t change that.

*According to Gallup  41% of Americans of all ages look forward to checking their mail each day. Though older generations are more likely to say they enjoy getting mail, 36% of Americans under 30 also feel this way.