Understanding Direct Mail's Role in Integrated Marketing Communications

Integrated marketing sketches on a whiteboard

Direct mail plays an important role in your marketing campaign because it acts to supplement your other efforts cheaply and effectively. It’s rarely used on its own as the sole way to market a product or service, since it does serve a niche role which limits the total amount that you can spend on it. Used correctly, direct mail can deliver an ROI that exceeds other forms of promotion, especially expensive types of advertising like broadcast. Like direct mail, this article has the role of quickly filling you in on the details you need to know.


Why use direct mail?

Just like other forms of advertising, direct mail plays a crucial role in the selling process. Outdoor advertising and television spots are great for generating awareness of a product or service. Radio spots are great for delivering frequency and making your message “sticky”. Digital advertising, like PPC marketing and landing pages, can create conversions or leads. Search engine optimization can open up an inbound marketing channel.

But all of the channels I’ve listed above do one thing poorly: educate your audience in detail. Outdoor ads get you half a second of your audience’s attention. Television and radio spots get you fifteen to sixty seconds to educate them. A well designed landing page could get you two to five minutes, on average. Direct mail is consumed in a recliner with reading glasses over an after-dinner coffee. It’s your chance to properly educate your customer on your product or service as they near the decision to purchase.

Direct mail has a number of advantages over other types of advertising, including the fact that messages can be prepared quickly and distributed easily to thousands of people, but it’s not the panacea it used to be. Some of the drawbacks readily attached to direct mail, like declining customer response rates in recent decades and expensive costs to manage a direct mail database, have been ameliorated in recent years. Customer response rates have actually leveled out after being artificially high for a number of decades due to the importance of mail in the consumer’s life, and new database technology is making database maintenance cheaper and more effective.


Alternatives to direct mail

Appropriate alternatives to direct mail are limited, because direct mail fills such a specific niche. A good alternative needs to be non-interruptive, unlike a telemarketer. It needs to encourage the consumer to spend time with the material to retain the information, unlike a print advertisement. It needs to facilitate a relationship with the customer during the purchase decision and immediately after.

One of the clearest alternatives to direct mail is personal selling. Having a sales staff allows you to schedule time to download the customer on their schedule, rather than interrupting them while they’re working with advertising. It allows you to create a personal relationship and provide a point of contact for education.

But a staff of sales people requires salaries, and those salaries are not scalable. If one salesperson can handle twenty accounts, you’d need five salespeople to handle a hundred accounts. A direct mail campaign, on the other hand, can easily provide similar service to twenty, a hundred, or a thousand accounts without a significant increase in cost.


Using direct mail as part of a campaign

Integrated marketing communications strategy is all about selecting the right promotional tool: advertising, personal selling, sales promotions, public relations, direct marketing. Direct mail can pair well with any of the other strategies to create a synergy of results. Paired with advertising and public relations, which excel in the pre-purchase phase, it creates a strong pull-through during and after purchase. Paired with sales promotions, it provides a stronger call to action and turns leads into customers. Ultimately, whether or not direct mail is right for your next campaign depends on the combination of media you will be using and the complexity of your product, but we find that it’s often underrepresented, when it truly is a crucial part of most campaigns.