Direct mail is a classic marketing method pioneered 150 years ago by department store company Montgomery Ward, when it sent out its first mail-order catalog. Despite Amazon's dominance of nearly 38% of the US ecommerce market, the company still employs this traditional method to reach customers. Amazon’s latest Holiday Kids Gift Book—part traditional catalog and part interactive activity book—featured products but also games, gift ideas, a removable wish list, and QR codes from which parents could conveniently make purchases.
This and other direct mail examples prove the value of using print materials to drive customers to your website. Read on to learn more about direct mail, campaign ideas, and best practices.
What is direct mail?
Direct mail is any physical promotional material a company mails to customers or prospects. Traditionally, direct mail has taken the form of postcards, product catalogs, letters, and pamphlets. While direct mail marketing may seem like an unusual choice for an ecommerce company, there can be many benefits to including it in your marketing plan.
As consumers receive more and more emails and targeted ads (which 90% of shoppers find annoying), the glut of online marketing can lead to information overload, digital fatigue, and inattention. On the other hand, according to a United States Postal Service study, 98% of people visit their mailbox every day, and on average, they spend 30 minutes with catalogs and 25 minutes with direct mail. People enjoy getting mail: 75% of respondents in the USPS study said it makes them feel special, while 37% said they received marketing emails “way too often.” Amid the battle for consumer attention, one of the most reliable ways to engage with potential customers is to send them an offer they can literally hold onto.
Benefits of direct mail marketing
Direct mail marketing—sending a physical offer by snail mail to a home or business—is a marketing strategy that was seemingly heading towards obsolescence. However, savvy marketers are returning to it for good reason: it works.
Direct mail’s several advantages for ecommerce advertisers include:
- Local targeting. You can target the specific locations—including ZIP codes—most likely to contain your desired demographic.
- Lower competition. Direct mail doesn’t have to compete with the more than 200 emails the average working professional has in their inbox on any given day, or the 120 new messages they get each day.
- Exposure to the right audience. According to USPS, the principal household decision-maker usually opens physical mail, increasing the likelihood that your message reaches your intended recipient.
- Higher brand recall. Direct mail is easier to understand, which helps elicit higher brand recall—a consumer’s ability to retrieve a brand from memory when given a related cue. One study by TrueImpact says that direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process compared to digital media, resulting in a 70% increase in brand recall from direct mail compared to digital ads.
5 direct mail ideas for ecommerce businesses
An effective direct mail campaign can take many forms, depending on the products or services your ecommerce business provides. Here are some of the possibilities:
1. Product samples
Offering a free sample of your product in a mailer engenders trust by showing potential buyers you believe in it enough to let them try it for free. Studies show a well-run sampling campaign can convert 32% of potential consumers into buyers. Mailing a small sample of perfume or lotion directly to your target customers, for example, or sending a code that customers can use to redeem a sample, can help customers feel confident trying a product they can’t interact with in a physical store.
2. Memorable packaging
Direct mail sent in compelling packaging can strengthen brand recognition. One somewhat alarming but effective campaign by security company ADT was a flat cardboard mailer that, when pushed under apartment doors, popped up into a 3-D box printed with the message, “Breaking into your apartment is easier than you think.” Consider tailoring your packaging to highlight your product or brand’s unique value proposition.
3. Personalized notes
Consider sending handwritten notes to customers once they’ve reached a certain purchase amount. Thanking regular customers for their loyalty can go a long way in fostering positive brand sentiment—particularly when they don’t have the opportunity to engage with store representatives in a brick-and-mortar store.
4. Discount codes
Men’s grooming company Beardbrand reached out to former repeat customers with a win-back campaign, offering a discount code to come back, and saw an 11-fold return on its ad spend (ROAS). Discount codes can also entice new customers to try your products for the first time.
A physical catalog can mimic the experience of a store and provide a little escapism in the recipient’s day—especially for ecommerce businesses with no physical stores. Consider sending a catalog once a quarter or twice a year to generate excitement about a new line of products or seasonal trends.
Direct mail best practices
- Target the right audience
- Grab attention with great design
- Encourage prompt action
- Include links or QR codes
Building a successful direct mail campaign requires thoughtful strategy. Here are some best practices to keep in mind as you devise your course of action:
1. Target the right audience
To target the right audience, start by segmenting your customer list. Dividing your customer base into groups of people with certain characteristics can help you tailor your messaging. For instance, in 2022, Cunard was preparing to launch a new cruise ship, knowing that many travelers in the cruise space had already committed to trips. It sent luxurious invitations to 20,000 loyal customers and 65,000 potential customers who had expressed interest before and sold out its Queen Anne 2024 maiden voyage in less than a day.
Once you define your audience segments, use data to create and refine your messaging. Demographic data, surveys, and focus groups can help you appeal to your target audience. You can also tap into your database, sending direct mail to people who filled but abandoned an online shopping cart, sending a thank you to those who did purchase, or mailing a new customer a welcome campaign to incentivize further purchases.
2. Grab attention with great design
Confusing, boring, or simply unappealing marketing materials face higher odds of landing in the trash. Consider using bright colors, larger formats, interesting design elements such as die cuts, or impactful images to grab your recipient’s attention. To help communicate your message more quickly, use clear sales copy and avoid being overly wordy.
3. Encourage prompt action
A clear call to action (CTA) can prompt your potential customer to act using tactics like urgency (“Act now: This offer is only good until February 28”) or giveaways (“Call now for your free grocery delivery”). Keeping the CTA simple and direct will increase your odds of getting desired results.
4. Include links or QR codes
QR codes or short, simple links are essential for ecommerce businesses using direct mail. When your customer scans a QR code on a piece of direct mail, it not only directs them right to where they can buy your products online, but it can also allow you to save contact information and track the engagement of your marketing campaign. You can use QR codes or links for one-time or limited-time redeemable offers to further incentivize a purchase at your site.
Direct mail ideas FAQ
What are some common direct mail formats?
Postcards, mailers with brochures, letter mailers, catalogs, and 3-D print mailers are all examples of commonly used direct mail formats.
How can I make my direct mail stand out?
Use snappy headlines, include free samples or discounts, provide an expiration date for urgency, personalize it, or include a sample, if possible.
What is a good response rate for direct mail?
The average response rate for direct mail is between 2.7% and 4.4%, according to the Postary, which is significantly higher than the average response rate of 0.6% for email. The Association of National Advertisers reports higher projections, with email getting a 1% response rate on average and direct mail getting a response rate as high as 9%.
What are some best practices for direct mail targeting?
To improve the impact of your direct mail campaigns, target your audience using customer data, include a QR code or link on your mailers, include clear contact information and a clear CTA, and grab their attention with impactful design.
How can I save money on direct mail?
To save money on direct mail, buy direct mail credits in bulk, regularly purge your mailing list of invalid addresses, and target the right audience so each piece of mail is as effective as possible.