Friday, November 18, 2011

Direct Mail Still Has Impact in Digital World

As more and more marketing dollars are funneled into digital and social media, and as postal rates continue to climb, direct mail marketing has been getting less and less attention. While there is definitely a case to be made for building a multichannel communication plan integrating a number of different channels to reach customers, recent research indicates that direct mail should still be part of the mix.

A study entitled, Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail conducted by the research company Millward Brown found that direct mail actually leaves a deeper impression on the human brain than its digital counterpart. The research project used functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) brain scans to show that our brains process paper-based and digital marketing differently and that direct mail actually created a greater emotional impression than digital communications.

During the study, participants were given marketing messages on a screen and printed on a card with brain scans done to assess how the processing of messages was impacted by the medium of communication. It was determined that tangible communication (direct mail) left a deeper 'footprint' on the brain even when the physicality of the channel (sensory impact of touch) was discounted.
    • Material shown on cards generated more activity within the area of the brain associated with the integration of visual and spatial information (the left and right parietal)
    • This suggests that physical material is more 'real' to the brain. It has meaning and a place and is better connected to memory because it engages with spatial memory networks.
The study also found that direct mail involved more emotional processing which is important from a memory and brand association perspective.
    • More processing is taking place in the right retrosplenial cortex when physical material is presented. This is involved in the processing of emotionally powerful stimuli and memory, which would suggest that the physical presentation may be generating more emotionally vivid memories
    • Physical activity generates increased activity in the cerebellum, which is associated with spatial and emotional processing (as well as motor activity) and is likely to be further evidence of enhanced emotional processing.
Finally, the study found that physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater 'internalization' of the ads. According to Graham Page, Executive Vice President of Consumer Neuroscience at Millward Brown, the results suggest, "The brain is more emotionally engaged and is potentially reflecting more on a response" when viewing direct mail. "Due to the fact that the brain recognizes mail as real, memories of that piece are being created. Our brains seek to understand the thing that we hold in our hands more so than a transient image on a screen." said Page.

Even understanding some of the neuro benefits of direct mail, digital communications have distinct advantages over paper such as interactivity and the ability to integrate audio and video. In addition, with continuously improving targeting tools, digital communications can more effectively target audiences based on interests, behaviors, past transactions and other characteristics that direct mail can't match.

Bottom line, this study and other studies covered in one of my previous blog posts (Marketers Not Aligned with Consumer Marketing Channel Preferences) indicates the importance of integrating multiple channels to communicate your marketing message to people who will process and react to different channels differently. More importantly, while response rates to a credit card, new customer acquisition or cross-sell campaign may seem low, direct mail can still have a positive impact on the brain from a brand perspective . . . even to those who did not respond to the direct offer. According to Graham Page, "each point of contact with the consumer gives marketers another opportunity to communicate broader brand messages."

As marketers, we need to realize the advantages and impact of different channels and realize that each channel needs to both compliment and supplement the the other channels and the campaign as a whole. We also need to consider more tactile and emotional elements of direct mail to increase the impact of the printed piece. For instance:
    • Consider heavier stock, textured finishes and unique shapes and die-cuts that may increase the tangibility of the direct mail piece
    • Try to build on the emotional power of direct mail with more emotional messaging
    • Don't forget to build a brand message as part of your direct mail package since even those not responding will be left with an impression
    • Remailing has an advantage of reinforcing the brand communication in a way that digital communication can not
Finally, we need to be careful about making assumptions as to which channel(s) may have the greatest impact on different demographic groups. For instance, while our gut may tell us that the tech-savvy millennials may only respond to social media and digital communication, studies have shown that direct mail is still important in making a purchasing decision.

The 2010 Consumer Channel Preference Study from Epsilon found that for certain categories including financial services, the preference among millennials and even Gen X participants for receiving marketing communication from offline sources such as direct mail and newspapers was 2-3 times greater than for digital communication and social media. Likewise, a 2009 survey from ExactTarget found that 75 percent of the people 25-34 had made a purchase resulting from direct mail. The rationale for these results was due to the ability to cut through the clutter and due to the way the media was consumed (at a pace and time that was convenient to the reader).

In fact, 53% of all respondents to the Epsilon study said they paid closer attention to information they received by postal mail than through email. The research also found that there was an overall strengthening in attitudes toward postal mail between 2008 and 2010 mainly due to the convenience factor (the mail can be read when and where they want and can be saved and passed on).

On additional telling finding from the study is that respondents believed they were getting significantly less mail than in the past and that they were able to spend more time with the mail received. The implication for marketers is that there may be an opportunity to get the attention and more dedicated readership using direct mail since mail volumes are lower. The opportunity may be even greater given the overload of email marketing received by many prime consumers.

So, as you make budgetary decision for 2012, how will you allocate your media funds? What channels will get less and what channels will get more funding. More importantly, how will you measure the impact of the integrated marketing programs you will be implementing?

I would love to hear about the shifts you may be considering.


  1. Jim,

    This is an important post. I think the propensity to respond to mail is the same as why we would send a hand-written note instead of an e-mail, a card instead of an e-card, and meet in person instead of via Skype.

    The rapid changes occurring in society will have people nostalgic for the good old days. I think dipping back to the good old days is an important part of the overall marketing strategy.

    But I'm not a marketer. So I'm interested in your thoughts.

    ~ Jeff

  2. Jim, You've provided some great research to back up a gut instinct that direct mail is still effective. It makes sense to me that it would be more meaningful to receive something tangible and that the emotional response would be greater, if done well. I wonder if the impact of direct mail will continue to grow as more communications move to digital; it will be interesting to see over time. Thanks for sharing. I will definitely refer back to this info in the future.

  3. With multichannel marketing, it should not be an either/or game but the difficult development of an effective and measurable integrated media mix. Every channel has benefits and drawbacks, but consumers consume communication on their own terms.

    If you looked at your own mailbox lately, it is obvious that the opportunity to get share of mind is much greater than in the past. Alternatively, how many of us scan and delete emails or completely miss digital ads?

    Unfortunately, I have too many clients that want to follow the next shiny object without realizing that some of what is old is new again.

  4. Jim,

    Any data you can provide with using email and direct mail simultaneously to the same audience? I'm wondering about using the results to create a chart on preferences (by action) rather than asking someone their preferred channel.


  5. As more and more marketing dollars are funneled into digital and social media, and as postal rates continue to climb, direct mail marketing has been getting less and less attention. While there is definitely a case to be made for building a multichannel communication plan integrating a number of different channels to reach customers, recent research indicates that direct mail should still be part of the mix.
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