The Resurgence of Direct Mail


There’s no doubt about it – digital media has taken over the marketing landscape and has left us with a bare mailbox to prove it. Fewer people are opting to receive their billing statements via traditional media and for the most part, transactions that were once done via mail have shifted to digital formats. There’s been an overall decrease in physical mail as everything moves online. Because of this trend, our mailboxes are less cluttered than our inboxes, which makes direct mail (DM) an appealing alternative for advertisers competing for consumers’ attention. When we receive a piece of DM, it creates more of an impact since we are less used to seeing mail in our mailboxes.

DM has been regaining in popularity over the past few years and is now being legitimately noticed by marketers as a way to grab the attention of their customers. A well-crafted, personalized piece has the potential to make an impact on the end user and I think it’s worth it to run you through the lifecycle of a DM campaign. From conception to completion there are many layers and active contributors that are involved in producing a robust piece of DM. Though I’m sure every business is unique in how they move forward in their campaign production and that campaign creation is not a one-size-fits-all, this article will provide some insights into the essentials of DM.

Marketers are fuelling the growth of DM because they are seeing that it works. They hand over their project to an agency which will take care of creative and production, with a final pass-off to a print partner who will make the magic happen. Alright, now let us go into a bit more depth!

The Marketer’s Return to DM

The decline of DM was really felt over the recession of 2008/2009. Companies had huge budget cuts and the first things to go (maybe after a few layoffs) were the marketing budgets. This really hurt the printing industry since such a big part of the business was, and still is, from advertising. With smaller budgets, marketers were forced to do more with less, so they turned to digital media. The reason why digital advertising became so huge is because of the relatively low cost investment to engage on social media, send emails and share blog content. Not only was this much cheaper but also more effective at connecting with the customer. But like all good things, and like most free things, the Internet became increasingly competitive, which made it harder for marketers to stand out against everyone else.

For marketers the most pressing question is “How do we catch the eye of the consumer when the average person sees up to 5,000 advertisements every day?”

And the answer to that question now is direct mail

The magic of DM lies in the one-to-one marketing and ability to bring a uniquely printed piece specifically tailored to the individual. It doesn’t matter whether you’re mailing 1,000 pieces or 1,000,000 pieces – with the right tools you can build something that is relevant and that will individually connect to every single customer on the list.

Creating a Relevant Campaign

After having spoken to many people in the DM industry, it’s become apparent to me that the single most important factor that contributes to a successful DM campaign is “relevance”. Different organizations use different words to define it but relevance essentially poses the following questions. What does our customer (or target market) want? How can we give it to them? What stage are they at in their lives? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? How can we make their lives easier? How can we connect with them? The most successful marketers know the answers to these questions. They know their customer and they know how to reach them.

When you know how to reach your customer, you can craft something that they want. When you can give them something that they want, your brand stands out. Here are a few fun DM stats that show us that DM works:

• “60% of customers say really good advertising mail helped keep the sender’s brand top-of-mind (Royal Mail MarketReach, 2015).”

• “Direct mail is more memorable than digital media. Brand recall was 70% higher among participants who were exposed to direct mail ads rather than digital ads (Canada Post, 2015).”

• “More than twice as many consumers say they enjoy receiving direct mail than digital advertising (Canada Post, 2015).”

Once a marketing strategy is crafted, marketers pass off their valuable knowledge to a trusted agency of choice. They create a brief, fill it with their product or service, business goals, consumer insights and a few other tidbits of information.

The Agency Environment

Agencies are the storytellers, the influencers, and the creators of branded content. They are expected to know their client even more than the clients know themselves. An agency needs to not only understand their client’s needs, but also they need to understand their client’s customer's needs. In many cases the agency poses as a creative specialist/professional who will take care of the marketer’s campaign from project brief until the project is fully executed – in the case of DM, in the hands of the consumer.

The percentage of time allocated to variable data work in DM has been my greatest surprise upon entering the industry. These campaigns are fully run by matrices, data heavy spreadsheets and include variable text and creative. The amount of time vested in the data side of DM depends fully on the availability of clean data and the level of personalization associated with a campaign. Looking over a static print, though similar to reviewing variable print, is much less time consuming. When QC-ing a static piece we’re looking at a few copies pulled from the pressrun to ensure print quality and consistency. We want everything to look the same. On a variable job, each piece is expected to look relatively the same, but also different since the data rules drive the variability of the piece.

Data is another hot topic at the moment because even though it’s more available than ever, it’s still relatively difficult to mine a strong data list. We’re lucky if our client already has their own client roster but when they don’t it’s a bit trickier to find a list that hasn't been exhausted. There are list brokers who make it their job to put together leads but who knows how recent or how old the data being used is. Canada Post is trying to solve this problem (more information below).

Once the campaign is ready, the creative has been chosen and we’ve got a solid data list, it’s time to begin the DM tango – the back and forth of the physical production of the campaign between agency and vendor. A true partnership between the client, agency and vendor is critical to the success of any DM program.

Production Partners

The print partner is a very important piece of the DM puzzle. They are the ones that constantly remind us (agencies and marketers) that our own creativity is the limit of what can be achieved through print.

As technology continues to meet consumer demand, I’m certain that the following print trends will continue to develop and push DM into the most interesting direction:

• Smaller print runs

• Shorter turnaround times

• Increasing variable colour print quality

• Increased level of personalization

• Growing integration of print to other communication channels

• Less conventionally shaped self-mailers

• Increasing finishing capabilities

I spoke with Rich Bassett, owner of Bassett Direct to get some insights from the DM production perspective. Here are two things that we discussed that really resonated with me:

“Print has to change from being a generic commodity to something of value, which DM provides.”

This statement I believe is what will drive the printing industry forward. In the printing industry as a whole, we are seeing increased focus on multi-use packaging, 3D printing, and ink jetting onto physical items such as USBs or cookies and ultra-personalization. The string that connects all these trends is that we are essentially turning print into something that has value. If there is apparent value somewhere, it will be sought out. As Bassett says, “It’s all one to one marketing – you don’t print a bunch of catalogues and put them on a shelf – that doesn’t work anymore.”

People don’t want to see ads about things they don’t care about. I don’t mind seeing advertisements that are targeted to me. If it’s something that I like and want to buy, I’m delighted that I didn’t have to look too hard to find it.

He also brought up the valid point that familiarity with DM production is scarce. “Printers and direct mail vendors are doing more of the heavy lifting for clients because there is less experience in DM production.”

I again 100% agree on this point. I just so happen to be part of the generation that has never purchased a newspaper and mails about three letters per year. There is a huge gap of knowledge in the next generation of printers. We can be grateful for print-specific programs like Ryerson’s Graphic Communications Management BTech to get print-less folk like me up to speed. Though some agencies, like the one where I currently work, specialize in DM, many agencies lack the experience it takes to produce a robust and successful DM campaign.

Canada Post is working hard and changing their entire business model to cater to marketers and teach them the value of DM but their reach is only so wide. I think that print vendors are the ones who’ll be stepping up to pass the torch and educate their clients. Whether it’s hiring a DM veteran or utilizing an employee to walk a marketing team through their first DM campaign, I believe that the print vendors will reap many benefits by giving the tools to their clients to succeed. At the end of the day, the client’s success is the print vendor’s success.

Canada Post Changes the Marketing Landscape

Canada Post is not only the number one means to get DM into the hands of the consumer but they have now stepped in as the number one educator of DM. They are completely reinventing themselves and have launched some very impressive services in the last year. Having branded their initiative as Smartmail Marketing, here is a bit of insight into what they are working on.

Smartmail Marketing is an approach to direct mail that weaves together three essential elements that make marketing engaging and effective:

1. Physicality: The physical format of mail provides a greater impact on the consumer’s brain than digital media. DM’s physicality also gives it a certain visibility, portability and longevity that sets it apart from digital communications.

2. Data: This is the fuel that leads the decisions in campaign creation, measurement and optimization. DM targeting is unique in that it enables both broad reach and detailed precision, allowing marketers to deliver relevance, value and personalization in a scalable way.

3. Connectivity: This means an advertisement should be simple and quick to engage with and respond to, regardless of whether the call-to-action draws the recipient in store or online, the experience should be seamless.

By having pinned down the important components of DM, Canada Post offers a range of solutions that make DM accessible to businesses of all sizes by simplifying campaign planning and execution, from self-serve online tools to a support network of Smartmail Marketing Partners across Canada, here is how Melissa Morin, Market Development Manager from Canada Post describes their services:

Precision Targeter: Precision Targeter is an online, do-it-yourself DM campaign planning tool with an interactive map interface that suggests the best areas to advertise your business based on your selection of demographic and geographic characteristics. It also provides step-by-step guidance on how to prepare your mailing for delivery by Canada Post, and where to drop it off.

Snap Admail: If you don’t want to print or prepare your own campaign for delivery, Snap Admail goes a step further than Precision Targeter. A fast and easy “point and click” solution, Snap Admail helps you design your campaign from end to end in a matter of minutes – all from the comfort of your desktop.

Smartmail Marketing Partners: Working with a Canada Post Smartmail Marketing Partner gives small businesses access to the kind of expertise and experience that's usually reserved for larger businesses. Our partners can take care of all the details for you: design, targeting, printing, mail preparation and more.

What Canada Post is putting together is bound to change the landscape of DM. They are essentially making one-to-one marketing available to small businesses, start-ups and many others who did not quite have the resources to use this form of marketing.


I must have hinted at it at a few times in the article but the growth area of print is pointing directly at DM. It’s proven that relevant DM pieces break through the noise and reach the consumer. With a track record of creating value, DM is an advertising solution that targets the consumer all the while creating a pleasant experience for them.

The magic is in the data, and the more access we have to data, the stronger the campaigns we can build. Canada Post’s services are changing the marketing landscape and providing targeting solutions. One-to-one marketing will continue to grow moving forward and DM will only improve when the next generation of marketers and agencies learn the ropes of DM production. Print vendors do not have to fret about the changing landscape of the printing industry. Stay ahead of the game by looking forward instead of back, educate your clients and make sure you never do anything for the sake of having done it before.