Share this article

Direct commerce | Creative

Have Your Brought Your Direct Mail into the 21st Century?

image: A 20 century cityscape at night
Yes, catalogues and other direct mailings still work… especially when they take advantage of digital elements

With this article, we've come to praise direct mail, not to bury it. Because while it's true that digital marketing does have some advantages over print catalogues and other forms of direct mail, direct mail has its own advantages over digital. More important, direct mail can boost the effectiveness of your digital marketing efforts, especially if you incorporate omnichannel elements into your mail pieces.



First, the benefits

When ecommerce hit the mainstream, much was made of the difference between push marketing and pull marketing. Most traditional marketing and advertising channels were push: The brands sought out potential customers and pushed them to buy their products. Ecommerce and online marketing was largely pull: They relied on consumers to input the URL or click on a banner so that they could then reel in the potential customers. To grossly generalise, traditional, push marketing is active; digital, online marketing is passive.


But if shoppers aren't aware of your website to begin with, they can't possibly type in your URL. While online advertising can push your brand in front of potential customers to some degree, it will reach only those who are online at that time. Direct mail pushes your brand to where shoppers live—literally, by arriving at their homes.


Not only will direct mail reach potential customers when they're offline, but you can also target it so that it reaches only those prospects who are most likely to respond to your offer. If it's true, as the New Yorker cartoon would have it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," that can make it difficult for you as an online marketer to know whether your online marketing efforts are reaching your target audience. Sure, it's safe to say that advertising on foodie websites such as Delia Online or Epicurious will reach people interested in food—but what if your product is highly specialised or your target audience narrow in terms of geography, demographics, psychographics, and the like? Direct mail allows you to hone your mailing list quite sharply, increasing the likelihood of conversion.


And this ability to target specific audiences and subsets within audiences also makes personalisation easier. Beyond "Dear [First Name]," you can create myriad targeted versions of your direct mail efforts for your recipients. If you sell pet supplies, for instance, you can rent lists of dog owners and send them a catalogue of only canine products, rather than your full catalogue of all pet products—saving you money in terms of printing and postage.



Now, making the most of them

The most effective direct mail maximises its traditional benefits by incorporating 21st-century technology. This not only makes the catalogue, postcard, or other type of mail piece more effective on its own, but it can also drive prospects to your website, where they can experience that channel's unique advantages.


Among the techniques and technologies that integrate print and digital are


variable data printing (VDP). True, direct mail has always been personalised to some degree—with each recipient's address, of course; salutations in letters and postcards; information about the recipient's nearest bricks-and-mortar store on catalogues. VDP takes such personalisation efforts and cranks them up to 11. Images, copy blocks, offers can all be personalised based on the relevant data you have about the recipient.


To quote the white paper "Do More with Direct Mail," from mailing solutions provider Extend Your Reach, "VDP applies 'if/then' statements to change the text, graphics, and colors on a direct mail piece—all while it's on the press." Extend Your Reach suggests using it to include personalised product recommendations based on past purchases; adding customised maps with directions to your store or office; and including birthday or anniversary coupons.


personal URLs (PURLs). Made feasible by VDP, these are exactly what they say: a specific web address and microsite for each mail recipient. Rather than being directed to, for instance, John Doe would receive in his mail piece the PURL, while Mary Roe would be directed to This has several benefits: you can target the landing page of the PURL for the individual; you can easily track the effectiveness of your mail piece; and response rates are likely to increase, as people tend to prefer this sort of personalisation.


QR (Quick Response) codes. These square barcodes, scannable by a smartphone app, can take readers directly to a webpage, a video, a map, the mobile version of your website, a contest entry form; they can also trigger an immediate phone call to a dedicated line, initiate a text message, or download an app. Like PURLs, QR codes are made possible by VDP, so you can tailor the actions of the codes to the recipient: Offer coupons to customers you're trying to reactivate, say, or personalise the landing pages per customer behavior.


Agency Midwest Direct, in its white paper "12 Sure-Fire Ways to Inspire Action with QR Codes in Your Direct Mail," suggests using them "to give your audience something of value"—a coupon, a free white paper or other informational download, a contest entry. It also advises including a text web address (preferably a PURL) beneath the QR code for recipients who don't have smartphones or can't be bothered with the app. Perhaps most important, make sure whatever content you're linking to is optimised for mobile.


Near Field Communication (NFC). Midwest Direct cites a stat from the U.S. Direct Marketing Association stating that the average QR code response rate is 6.4%, compared with 4.4% for direct mail overall. Despite that apparent lift in response, QR codes have their detractors. For one thing, users need to have a smartphone onto which they've downloaded the app to read the codes; for another, the codes themselves are aesthetically unpleasant. NFC relies on an embedded plastic chip to wirelessly connect the user's smartphone to a web page, without the user having to download an app first. What's more, according to direct mail agency TMR Direct, "Typically, users need only bring their smartphones within four inches or less of the NFC chip or touch their devices to it." As with QR codes, you want to make sure that you're directing recipients of your mail piece to something of value and to content that is mobile-optimised.


Clickable Paper. Introduced by Ricoh in 2014, Clickable Paper offers a similar print-to-mobile connection as NFC and QR codes, without the need for ugly barcodes or plastic chips.


going old school. Including your URL in all your print marketing pieces should be a given by now. But as well as placing it on the footer of every catalogue spread, consider including the URLs to specific pages or letting readers know which search terms they should select to read more about a certain product or to find more merchandise options. For instance, if you're showing a spread of widgets but have an even more extensive widget offering on your site, include an icon alongside the URL to your widgets landing page or with the exact search term shoppers should use on your site search engine.


author: Sherry Chiger

Sherry Chiger

The editorial director of Your Commerce, Sherry Chiger is an award-winning writer and editor. She was formerly editorial director of Multichannel Merchant and Catalogue e-business magazines.


Share this article