The Case for Direct Mail in the Digital Age
As digital marketing grew from its nascency to sheer dominance over the past quarter century in relation to overall marketing spend, its century-old cousin, direct mail, was all but declared dead and supposedly relegated to the annals of history.
In 2021, Google, Facebook and Amazon alone took in the majority of total U.S. ad spend for the first time, which in 2023 is estimated to exceed $800 billion. Direct mail, for contrast, is projected at less than $40 billion. That’s still brisk activity, yet it’s perceived by many as falling by the wayside, with “snail mail” correspondence displaced by emails and text messages — a trend enabled by 85% of Americans now owning a smartphone.
That’s why the U.S. Postal Service has become more of a package courier supporting America’s booming e-commerce industry than a service that delivers letters to your mailbox. Letters peaked in the mid-aughts, just before smartphones forever changed the way people communicate. The payments landscape also shifted as almost half of people don’t write checks anymore, further dampening demand for physical mail.
But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of direct mail are greatly exaggerated, particularly if you’re a fundraiser. Sure, mail volume has lessened, but everyone still checks their mail. It’s an opportunity many fundraisers are already seizing.
Everything Old Is New Again
If anything, less clutter in potential donors’ mailboxes has been a boon to direct mail, which still holds enormous utility and a growing mass of savvy marketers are fully aware of this. Fundraising is one of the areas with the most potential to benefit from the comeback of direct mail.
Today, print marketing remains the most trusted advertising format for the majority of people. And it turns out being able to hold and look at something physical and tangible coming from their mailbox does make it more personal for about two-thirds of people than the same communication being conveyed through digital channels.
Perhaps most noteworthy is that there’s real excitement around gathering the mail each day, and it isn’t simply attributable to legacy demographics, such as baby boomers being the largest generation, coming of age and developing consumption habits before the introduction of email. Most people are excited to read the mail each day, according to the “2020–2021 USPS Generational Research Report.” Surprisingly led by the millennial cohort (79%), followed by Gen Z (72%), with baby boomers and Gen X at 70%. If anything, that means there’s a reverse correlation between affinity for mail and age, showing that interest in mail isn’t destined to fade.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also played a role in making old new again, with direct mail becoming more in vogue. After much of society found itself stuck behind screens all day for more than a year, direct mail as an avenue for marketing to consumers began to flourish again, with 46% of consumers more interested in direct mail now than before the pandemic, and a third spending more time reading it than they did previously.
Direct Mail’s Effectiveness
Again, print marketing is still considered the most trustworthy advertising format, and it’s data-backed that people are excited as they open their mail. Reading through direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort than email, and importantly, it’s far less ephemeral. If you think about how long an email lasts in your inbox, you’re either deleting it or letting it sit in your inbox beneath an ever-growing pile of messages that can run thousands of messages deep. Mail’s shelf-life in your home is 17 days, giving it a far better opportunity to land with consumers and donors alike.
So, it tracks logically that direct mail works with donors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Silent Generation (born 1945 or earlier) is the most likely to give via direct mail at 43% (opens as a pdf), followed by Gen X at 27% and millennials at 14% — a clear age correlation with giving channels. But the way direct mail performs with younger generations is by driving awareness ahead of conversion — 44% of people visit websites after receiving postcards and another 34% search online. Millennials are actually the most likely of any generation to go to a brand website after seeing a mailer, doing so roughly half the time, per the “2020–2021 USPS Generational Research Report.”
What direct mail is doing is proving trustworthiness while websites with easy forms of payment and additional useful content prove validity.
How Direct Mail Is Being Used Effectively Today
Direct mail is best utilized for story-driven appeals rather than fact-based appeals. Full stop. Stories are best told in the present tense with a clear and explicit call to action from the outset, followed by prompt thanking and regular reporting of progress being made. Digital channels are prudent for timely events that require instant donations, but detailed storytelling through the mail can do wonders for bringing back lapsed donors and for securing lucrative non-cash gifts that can often span well into the thousands of dollars.
Direct mail can also be used in lieu of gala fundraising in some instances. During the height of the pandemic, gala fundraising became virtually non-existent and direct mail became a way to tell stories to donors who might ordinarily attend galas. Today, gala fundraising is back on the upswing, but not every donor is always able to attend. Supplementing fundraising appeals that are made in-person at galas by appealing via direct mail to those who were unable to attend is a best practice.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when investing in direct mail efforts is its interplay with your digital assets. Generational cohorts differ greatly in terms of how they consume information as well as how they act on it. Older generations often read and give through direct mail, but younger cohorts are best reached through an omnichannel approach. When they read a mailer you’ve sent them, prospective donors might go to your website first and check it out. Offer them a QR code to make it easy. Be mindful that if they access a QR code, chances are it’ll be using their phone — so be sure your mobile assets are just as good as your desktop assets.
Lastly, if you have suggested donation amounts on your reply card, don’t short-change yourself. Keep your lower suggested amounts the same so you don’t lose potential donors, but raise your higher amounts so you’re not inadvertently capping donations.
Correspondence through the mail has changed drastically over the past few decades, and that’s coincided with the rise of computers, smartphones and digital marketing. As mail volume has lessened and Americans have transitioned to digital channels to take care of many items that previously would have been sorted out through mail, direct mail fell in importance. It’s certainly not flashy or at the vanguard of the newest technology, but as mailboxes have thinned out, trust in mail hasn’t waned. It’s provided an opportunity to shine for direct mail, and direct mail has proven it’s still very effective in 2023.
If you’re not invested in it, consider it as you plan your efforts for 2024 and beyond.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.