Priority Mail: Making the Case for Direct Mail Marketing

This is a milestone year for me and my business. In 2010, Printing Resources marks its 40th year as a going concern, and I reach my 29th year with the company. When I joined my parents at Helen’s Place Printing in 1981 printing was very different from today, except for one thing. Customers, then as now, were telling us what products and services to offer by constantly changing what they bought from us.

Today customers are telling us that they prefer e-marketing to traditional direct mail. I’m sure you’ve heard the rationalizations: “E-marketing is less expensive and better for the environment. It doesn’t kill trees or add to landfill. And I can do it myself.”

Don’t let this conventional wisdom go unchallenged! A growing body of evidence indicates that direct mail marketing is still effective, it does not harm the environment, and the line between e-marketing and spam is blurry.

Consider this: every year since 1987, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has conducted an annual study called The Household Diary Study. In 2008, the study included 5,312 households that completed a seven-day household diary of mail received and sent for all 52 months of the study year. Here are some of the study results:

• Advertising mail represented 63 percent of all mail received—an average of about 16 pieces a week.

• Seventy-nine percent of households said they either read or scanned the advertising mail they received.

• One in three households said they made one or more purchases as a result of receiving the advertising mail.

• Contrary to the prevailing opinion that direct mail is “junk” mail, a majority of respondents in the Household Study reported paying attention to the advertising.

If you have customers that are non-profit organizations needing to communicate with alumni, members, or donors, inform them of the results of a 2009 Pitney Bowes survey. It included 1,100 US college graduates who were asked about their preferences for receiving information from the school they attended.

The survey found that 54 percent of respondents have a strong preference for direct mail. Only 23 percent chose email as their preferred method of communication. The alumni also prefer print mail for correspondence and news from their alma mater—57 percent indicated a preference for mail versus 31 percent for email.

In March 2009, Bredin Business Information (BBI) published the results of a survey of 50 small to medium business marketers and 741 principals of US-based businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Marketing to SMBs in 2009 revealed that 43.6 percent of the 741 businesses said they rely on direct mail, including letters and postcards, for information on products and services.

Environment and the USPS

“Do Not Mail” coalitions use environmental arguments to make the case against advertising mail. When talking to your customers, you can defend direct mail as an environmentally responsible way to advertise. Trees that are harvested to create the pulp from which paper is made come from tree farms grown specifically for that purpose.

Known as “managed timberlands,” the trees are an agricultural crop, like fruits and vegetables grown for market. America’s forestry and paper industries plant more than four million new trees each day (or 1.4 billion per year). That’s three new trees for every one harvested.

Like other paper products that have served their purpose, direct mail pieces can be recycled fairly easily and inexpensively. According to the EPA, annual recycling rates for advertising mail have increased seven-fold since 1990. In 2008, 57.4 percent of all the paper consumed in the US was recovered for recycling—the equivalent of nearly 340 pounds of paper for each man, woman, and child in America. The paper industry has set a goal of 60 percent recovery by 2012.

“Do Not Mail” coalitions also claim that taxpayers subsidize direct mail marketing because commercial mailers get discounted postage rates. The argument is usually framed by contrasting the single-piece first class rate with a heavily discounted standard mail rate, making it seem like advertising mail is getting a subsidy at taxpayer expense.

The counter to this argument is that commercial mailers earn the postage discount on the basis of work sharing—preparing the mail for efficient handling by the USPS. Worksharing activities include such things as address standardization, move update processing, postal coding, traying/sacking/palletization, and labeling mail containers so they can be read by optical character readers. Also, in contrast to e-marketing, all costs (printing, mailing, postage) are borne by the sender of the advertising mail.

There is also an economic argument against eliminating advertising mail. Since 1970, the USPS has received no taxpayer dollars for its operations. Advertising mail accounts for the biggest share of mail handled by the USPS. To eliminate a significant amount of advertising mail could imperil the continued financial viability of the USPS and eliminate a huge number of jobs. It would also threaten the entire mailing industry, which represents nearly 10 percent of the nation’s economic activity.

As software for conducting email campaigns becomes more prevalent, interest in e-marketing is growing. However, recent research suggests that digital marketing may not be an adequate substitute for direct mail. In a survey conducted by Harris Interactive in July 2009, of 2,265 US adults age 18 and older, a majority of respondents stated that printed media is easier to read than the digital equivalent (though they did prefer the immediacy of the digital media). Of those surveyed, 68 percent said they felt more comfortable when they have something on paper rather than on a computer screen.

One problem with email marketing is delivering the message. Return Path, an email deliverability company, found that for the first six months of 2009, 20 percent of consumer email ads sent by their Mailbox Monitor system were undelivered. Of those, 3.3 percent were sent to “junk” or “bulk” email folders, and 17.4 percent were not delivered at all. The lack of delivery rate was even higher for business email addresses. Return Path found that, on average, only 72.4 percent of commercial email is delivered.

Despite all the arguments, direct mail marketing remains a proven way to communicate with customers and prospects. Do your part to keep direct mail marketing relevant by learning the facts and by using it to promote your own business.

Nancy DeDiemar is president of Printing Resources of Southern California in Upland, CA. DeDiemar is also the co-publisher of Printips (, a newsletter subscription service for printers. Contact her at Nancy@printing