Why is Direct Mail making a comeback?

Our neighborhood mail carrier recently left a note on my front door that read FINAL NOTICE: MAILBOX IS FULL! Once the initial wave of shame washed over me, I realized this couldn't be my fault. There must be an Amazon box taking up most of the space. Reassured, I hurried out to retrieve the mail. I opened the mailbox and was met with a spring-loaded brick of colorful catalogs, lead letters, self-mailers, and coupon encyclopedias. There were two pieces of real mail in the whole lot.

Hey, I'm a child of the 80s so I remember being greeted with similar bricks of amalgamated junk mail when I got home from school. But this was before email went mainstream in the mid 90s. We are in a golden age of technological advancement so what's the deal with all this direct mail?

A funny thing happened with junk mail leading up to the digital revolution. Consumers learned to ignore it. This habituation learning pops up all over the marketing universe. Our consumer attention is selective and we learn to ignore TV commercials and radio ads after we've heard them a dozen times. We ignored banner ads on websites because they were so ubiquitous and obvious. The repeated exposure to junk mail made it easy to identify and quickly dispatch to the trash bin. Along comes email offering a new frontier of possibility, and direct mail experiences a steep decline in marketing spend.

But has the worm turned? Are we now so inundated with junk email that we have begun to embrace direct mail? Does habituation make marketing effectiveness cyclical? Now I'm tired of email. Now I'm tired of direct mail. Now I'm tired of email again. Am I going crazy or is direct mail on a meteoric rise?

Narrator: He was crazy

Let's dig into some numbers courtesy of the Data & Marketing Association Direct Mail Statistics. The volume of direct mail has been steadily declining. The amount of direct mail in the U.S. is down from 113 million pieces in 2007 to 86 million in 2015. This represents roughly a 2% decline every year. However, direct mail accounts for a greater percentage of all mail today. A majority of our communication moved online so we see fewer letters, fewer birthday cards, and fewer bills in the mail. Direct mail makes up 57% of our mail today compared to 49% in 2005. Is share-of-mail why direct mail seems so hot now? 

Direct mail is and always has been tangible. We can hold it, fold it, and smell the paper. We own that junk mail and, unlike email, we open it. Maybe we just like to read things on paper and the overall mail reduction is driving us toward direct mail. I call this the reading-shampoo-bottle-ingredients-on-the-toilet phenomenon. And perhaps email has lowered our standards so dramatically that direct mail is now perceived as relatively tasteful advertising. We can also opt out of the mail we really don't want with apps like Paper Karma

Perhaps counterintuitively, technology is making direct mail better. Segmentation and targeting have never been so granular and precise. Marketers are tuned into our behavioral patterns and can use direct mail in tandem with websites, social networks, and email. Everything we do is registered by CRM. Omnichannel marketing is the way of the world.

Direct mail is a tool to reactivate and follow up with customers. We'll follow up on that email with a mailer and then follow up on the mailer with an email. Technology links our physical and digital worlds with direct mail QR codes and Augmented Reality. Expect this integration to keep getting better and for personalization to become more creepy and cool at the same time. Perhaps firms will compete for our attention with more interesting direct mail designs facilitated by technology. And next time my mailbox is full, direct mail will be so pleasing that I will be warmly greeted by a sweet sunshower of credit card offers and nearby dental practices.