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The Impact of Direct Mail on the Consumer Buying Process

The Impact of Direct Mail on the Consumer Buying Process

The consumer buying process in the 21st Century is a tangled integration and synchronization of multiple channels, and direct mail still holds a place. This article will touch on how direct mail affects consumers today and why it’s still effective. (Hint: It’s all in the targeting.)

Consumers Still Use Direct Mail Advertisements and Promotions

Direct mail is still a key part of the consumer buying process. According to the Direct Mail Association Factbook, 65% of all consumers, aged 15 years or more, made at least one purchase as a result of direct mail in the previous year. That worked out to a success rate at least 30% better than that of email marketing — 4.4% vs.12% respectively. In addition, 2.9 billion direct mail coupons were also redeemed in the same year.

That’s because direct mail has a role in boosting digital conversions, as well. It requires great targeting, of course, but take UK gardening retailer Homebase as a prime example. The company took home a DMA Silver Award for the Best Use of Direct Mail for their efforts last year, which involved a 500,000 piece mail campaign encouraging high value customers to shop early with offers that would only last for the season. The campaign resulted in customers visiting the site 33% more often, but more importantly, spent an average of 20% more.

The Emotional Connection

According to one survey, 60% of people said they actually enjoyed checking their mailbox — the physical one, that is — and cites a positive emotional connection with physical mail as the source.

Direct mail advertisers can also make use of enhanced targeting tactics with their marketing. Remember that your direct mail can come in to the consumer buying process at a different stage than it used to. A catalog sent to the right consumer offering the right content can breed the kind of engagement that leads to sales. In 2000, for instance, Land’s End cut the number of catalogs it sent out, only to discover that some 75% of its customers were making purchases online after viewing the catalog… to the tune of losing $100 million in sales. Other companies have a more creative take — catalogs are one of the original types of content marketing, after all, and it really does work. Anthropologie calls its catalog a journal, intended not only to sell clothes, but to inspire readers. Patagonia has actually gone so far as to make one of its catalogs every year long-form content, including essays and photo spreads that have nothing to do with their products.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean the end of postcards. Those remain the most likely to be read on a broad spectrum, and their success undoubtedly depends on reaching the right customers at the right time. But they’re also proof that the emphasis for direct mail on consumers isn’t just for retail either. The History Channel used direct mail as a key promotional campaign to media and affiliates through photo postcards. The campaign resulted in a PR value of $1.2 million.

Leveraging the Zero Moment of Truth

You’re probably familiar with the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT), especially as defined and applied to the digital realm by Google. The emphasis is on “moments” of the consumer journey, especially micro-moments, that focus on how customers search for relevant information to make immediate decisions. What does that have to do with direct mail?

This is another point defined almost purely by targeting. In fact, it may even require hyper-targeting. Where your online and mobile engagement needs to worry about reaching your customers at the right micro-moments, your direct mail campaigns need to reach the right customers at the right moment in their consumer journey. Consider the fact that in 2010, customers referenced only five sources of information before making a purchase. In 2012, that number skyrocketed to 12. That number is expected to continue accelerating as customers turn more and more to sources like social media and online reviews.

Is your content going to be visible in the moments that matter? Direct mail is a prime opportunity to make your brand visible, to present your information as a valuable source, and position your products and services as a worthy choice. It should be a tool in your toolbox to drive the customer toward your brand on their consumer journey.

Postal Mail Retains Value as an Asset

As part of an integrated, synchronized marketing plan, direct mail is an effective tool. Your creativity and design are limited only by your budget, and you can reach almost anyone with a tactile experience that can expand beyond just print.

It Retains Value Because It:

  • Is selective and relevant while offering control — Targeting is the most important asset for any marketing channel, and it’s a top strength for direct mail. You can send different mailers to different segments, or segments of segments, as desired for the best effect within your overall campaign.
  • Is measurable and has reach — ROI for direct mail is fairly straightforward, but as we mentioned above, it also strengthens the ROI for other aspects of your campaign. Remember 60% of people enjoy checking their mail, and 65% of people will make a purchase based off of direct mail campaigns. All of your customers and clients will have a mailing address, of course, and with measurable targeting, you can make it even more effective.
  • Is private and relevant in its personalization — By its very nature, mail is private. It’s a one-on-one communication between you and the customer that offers extra intimacy that isn’t afforded by even the best real-time mobile ads.
  • Offers a tangible experience — Mail is something physical that can be used as a reminder or shared in person so that it not only presents a “moment” on the consumer journey, but multiple moments when they come into contact with it. What’s more, it can offer a level of experience that digital can’t, not unlike the collectible art the History Channel used in our example above.
  • Has interactive potential — We don’t just mean socially, although direct mail that’s very well done can certainly make for conversation. Rather, in this case, we mean that it presents opportunities to interact with technology. Whether you simply have an email address, URL, a QR code to make a mobile device perform a certain action, or even as something as advanced as augmented reality (Esquire made an excellent example a few years ago), direct mail can lead your customer further along their journey to the ZMOT through additional mediums.

Generational Impacts

Direct mail also offers plenty of opportunities to reach a wide variety of consumer groups. Here’s a breakdown.


It’s easy to presume that this age-set would denounce direct mail as a waste of paper. After all, Millennials are the leaders of the digital generation, accustomed not only to using the internet regularly in their everyday life, but doing so from their mobile phones. However, there is such a thing as digital fatigue. At least a third of Millennials prefer using coupons, deals, and promotions they’ve received in the mail. According to IWCO Direct, about 90% of people aged 25 to 34 years consider direct mail to be a trustworthy source of information and another 87% prefer retail information in the mail. In fact, of this age group alone, 57% have converted to a sale after receiving direct mail.


It can be easy to forget that Generation X isn’t as young as it used to be, if only because they were early adopters and even developers for much of the technology that’s popular today. However, about 77% of Gen X consumers have purchased products in response to direct mail. That’s probably due in part to the fact that 86% of them bring in the mail the day it’s received, while 74% read or skim retail-focused mail. A further 68% use the coupons they receive. The real kicker? A USPS study showed that Gen X actually appreciates direct mail more than the Baby Boomers.

Baby Boomers

Despite the aforementioned disparate appreciation, direct mail remains a top influencer on the Baby Boomer generation. Most (56%) even look forward to checking the mail every day. However, don’t be quick to relegate this generation as a segment unto itself. Here, again, targeting is vital, because Leading-edge Boomers have more in common with the Silent Generation, while Trailing-edge Boomers have more in common with Gen X. Still, it is a generation that’s retiring, and while Trailing-edge Boomers aren’t as computer illiterate as pop culture would have us believe, they do have time on their hands. Give them solid, targeted direct mail marketing, and you’ll see the results.

As you can see, the impact of direct mail on the consumer buying process shouldn’t be underestimated. There may come a time when digital fatigue is a thing of the past, but until then, you shouldn’t ignore this valuable option that leads to productive conversions.