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Direct Mail vs Email Marketing: Pros, Cons, and Which to Use

Last Updated on 08th Jul, 2024 | Social Media

Direct Mail vs Email Marketing

What is the difference Between Direct Mail and Email Marketing?

When it comes to Direct Mail vs Email Marketing, both email marketing and direct mail are two of the most popular marketing channels today. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the key differences between these channels can help you determine which is better for your business.

Deciding whether direct mail or email marketing is right for your business can significantly impact your marketing budget and return on investment. There are distinct pros, cons, and differences between sending physical mail pieces and digital messages. Before choosing a strategy, it’s important to consider the objectives you want to achieve.

Below, we will compare direct mail versus email on factors like cost, personalization, targeting options, and performance. We’ll also look at the types of businesses and objectives each one best serves. By understanding the key distinctions, you can determine if direct mail or email – or even a combination – are the right marketing channels to drive growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Direct mail involves sending physical mail, such as postcards, catalogs, or letters, to a targeted mailing list, while email marketing involves sending digital messages to a subscriber list.
  • The main advantages of direct mail are that it stands out from other advertising, has high response rates, and is perceived as more personal.
  • Email marketing has advantages, including lower costs, easy tracking and analytics, and the ability to automate campaigns.
  • The cons of direct mail are higher costs, difficulty tracking results, and the potential to be seen as junk mail. The cons of email are oversaturation of inboxes, difficulties personalizing messages, and deliverability issues.
  • Direct mail works best for localization, personalization, and traditional buyers. Email is better for digital products, automated funneling, and budget-conscious sellers.
  • Testing and tracking different approaches is key. The two strategies can also be combined for an omnichannel approach.

Direct Mail vs Email Marketing: A Quick Comparison

Feature Direct Mail Email Marketing
Cost per piece/send Higher Lower
Delivery rate 90%+ for standard mail 50-90% to primary inbox
Tracking capabilities Limited without codes Extensive analytics
Personalization Highly customizable Dynamic content, merge tags
Targeting options Geography, demographics Behavior, user data
Recipient experience Stands out, longer shelf life Easy access, quick deletion
Environmental impact Higher with print, delivery Lower but still has impact
Visual impact High with print, graphics Limited with email clients
Automation Increasingly available Easy to setup flows
Integration Limited Seamless with other martech
Localization Highly targeted Broad geographic reach
Security Lower data privacy risks Higher data and deliverability risks

Direct Mail: Definition and Overview

Direct mail encompasses any advertising material physically delivered to current or prospective customers. This includes postcards, catalogs, letters, brochures, magazines with sample inserts, coupons, and more. Basically, it covers any promotional, sales, or advertising piece delivered through the postal mail system rather than digitally.

Some key advantages of direct mail are:

  • Visual Impact: With glossy paper, professional designs, and attention-grabbing headlines, direct mail often stands out more than other advertising channels.
  • Targeting: Direct mail can be targeted by location, such as zip code or city. It can also target demographics like income, age, and interests based on purchased mailing lists.
  • Personalization: Mail pieces can include personalized information like names and customer data to make content more relevant.
  • Tracking: Direct mail may use unique phone numbers, URLs, or codes to measure response and conversion rates.
  • Relationship Building: Physical materials feel more personal and can better humanize a brand.

The main goals and use cases for direct mail include:

  • Increase brand awareness and value through compelling mail pieces.
  • Generate leads by encouraging recipients to contact the company.
  • Drive sales through promotions, catalogs, coupons, or calls to action.
  • Send personalized communications to nurture customer relationships.
  • Deliver important business information like policy updates or new offers.

Email Marketing: Definition and Overview

Email marketing refers to sending commercial messages to prospects and customers via email. Messages aim to build relationships, drive sales, or achieve other marketing goals.

Email provides digital communication that:

  • Low Cost: Email is more affordable to send than physical mail on a per-message basis.
  • Tracking: Email tools provide open, click, and conversion tracking to optimize campaigns.
  • Automation: Workflows can automate sending triggered emails or drips based on user actions.
  • Personalization: Merge tags can customize email content with names, purchase history, location, and other data.
  • Integration: Email can be integrated with tools like CRM, e-commerce, landing pages, and more.

Common email marketing use cases include:

  • Sending newsletters with blog content, offers, or company updates.
  • Welcoming new subscribers with onboarding messaging.
  • Promoting events, sales, or new product releases.
  • Nurturing leads through targeted drip campaigns.
  • Retargeting website visitors who left without converting.
  • Delivering order confirmations, shipping updates, invoices, and other transactional messages.
  • Gathering feedback and product reviews through surveys.

Direct Mail vs Email: Cost Differences

One of the biggest differences between direct mail and email is the cost. Depending on volume, design, list quality, and other factors, direct mail typically costs significantly more per piece than email.

Some cost considerations for direct mail include:

  • Design and printing: This covers graphic design, list procurement, printing, and preparing final mail pieces. A glossy 6×11 postcard may cost $1 or more per piece, and the costs climb higher for a multi-page catalog.
  • Postage: The physical delivery cost for standard mail may run $0.20 to $0.60 per piece, depending on weight, with first-class mail often costing twice as much.Bulk mail discounts can lower this price.
  • List acquisition: Purchasing targeted recipient lists from brokers costs around $100 to $250 per thousand names or more. Segmenting and preparing internal customer lists also requires human resources.
  • Response tracking: Unique codes, vanity URLs, and phone numbers help track responses but also increase costs.

For email, ongoing costs are primarily:

  • Email service provider fees: These may be a monthly fee, cost per email sent, or cost per subscriber. Plans often start around $10 to $50 per month for lower volumes.
  • Design: HTML email design and templates are needed but are typically more affordable than print materials.
  • List acquisition: Building an email list or purchasing emails can cost $10 to $100 per thousand contacts or more.

Direct Mail vs Email: Deliverability Differences

Another key difference is deliverability rates. Not all physical mail makes it to the recipient. And in email marketing, inbox placement rates vary widely.

For direct mail, the USPS reports average delivery rates around 90% for standard mail and as high as 98% for first-class mail. Reasons a mail piece may not get delivered include:

  • Inaccurate addresses and undeliverable mail.
  • The recipient moved without a forwarding address.
  • Mail gets physically lost or damaged.

Deliverability for email is more variable based on factors like:

  • Inbox placement vs. spam folder: Major ISPs like Gmail may deliver only 50-90% of emails to the primary inbox, with the rest directed to tabs or spam.
  • Engaged list: Messages to recently active subscribers have much higher inbox rates than dormant or unengaged emails.
  • Sender reputation: Past user complaints about spam lower trust and placement rates. At the same time, good sender practices increase them.
  • Subject lines: Clear, descriptive subjects avoid triggers that alert spam filters.
  • List hygiene: Bouncing and inactive emails negatively impact future deliverability.

While direct mail has the edge, for now, email deliverability can be maximized through careful list management, segmentation, compliance monitoring, and engagement optimization.

Direct Mail vs Email: Tracking and Analytics

Sophisticated tracking and analytics are a major advantage of email marketing over direct mail.

With direct mail, tracking response typically requires unique phone numbers, QR codes, coupon codes, or other identifiers within each piece. Responses can be manually tracked back to the associated mail campaign.

This makes it hard to track real-time results or optimize while a campaign is live. Post-campaign surveys may provide broader response data. But overall, tracking direct mail performance presents challenges.

With email marketing, open and clickthrough rates are automatically tracked. Additional tracking can also monitor:

  • Bounce rates: Tracks undeliverable emails.
  • Click and open locations: Identifies responding geographic areas.
  • Link clicks: Shows content popularity.
  • Email client data: Provides device and browser insights.
  • Conversion rates: Tracks desired goals from registrations to purchases.

Robust email analytics provide optimization opportunities both during and after campaigns. Testing subject lines, designs, timing, and segments can all help increase open and clickthrough rates.

Email definitely has an edge over direct mail when it comes to actionable tracking and campaign optimization. However, direct mail often excels at the top-funnel brand awareness stage, where specific response tracking is less important than quality ad impressions.

Direct Mail vs Email: Personalization Differences

Both direct mail and email allow for personalization to make messaging more relevant. However, each channel has limitations.

For direct mail, common personalization tactics include:

  • Including the recipient’s name in the address or salutation.
  • Customizing offers based on past purchase history or average order value.
  • Variable print to tailor images, copy, or offers to different recipient segments.
  • Versioning mail pieces for different locations and demographics.
  • Sending handwritten notes or postcards for a personal touch.

The challenge is that direct mail personalization significantly increases costs and complexity. Variable print, versioning, and customization require more design work, list segmentation, and printing of different mail pieces.

For email, personalization options include:

  • The subject line and preview text merge fields like the first name.
  • Dynamic content blocks to display targeted offers.
  • Versioned emails for different user segments.
  • Behavioral triggers like cart abandonment or birthday/anniversary.
  • Recommended products based on purchase history.

Email personalization is relatively simple and cost-effective to implement. The challenge is limited profile data on subscribers and the lack of a tangible object.

Direct mail may seem more personalized due to its physical format and ability to be held in one’s hands. But modern email personalization powered by data closes much of that gap.

Direct Mail vs Email: Audience Targeting Options

Both direct mail and email allow you to target your messaging to specific demographics, interests, and behaviors.

For direct mail, common targeting strategies include:

  • Sending mail pieces only to specific regions, cities, or ZIP codes.
  • Demographics like income, age, and homeownership filter purchasing lists.
  • Focusing on consumer lists with categories like hobbyists, charitable donors, or magazine subscribers.
  • Excluding customers who have already purchased to avoid marketing waste.
  • Testing timing by mailing to customers nearing renewal dates or dormant for set periods.

Direct mail offers finer control over geographic and demographic filters. However, compared to digital channels, personal interests and behavioral data may be lacking.

For email marketing, targeting options include:

  • Segmenting by past purchase behavior like order history or browsing activity.
  • Groupings by demographic, interest, and profile data were provided during signup.
  • Excluding engaged subscribers from promotional messages.
  • Automated filters based on email engagement scores.
  • Behavioral triggers like cart abandons, date of last visit, inactivity periods, etc.

Email provides more behavioral data for segmentation but is limited by the accuracy of submitted profile information. Overall, the targeting advantages likely lean towards email, but a combined approach maximizes reach.

Direct Mail vs Email: How the Recipient Experience Differs

One of the big differentiators between direct mail and email comes down to the user experience for the recipient.

Because it’s tangible, direct mail breaks through the digital noise and attracts more focus. It may be displayed on a fridge, coffee table, or desk for weeks, serving as a continual touchpoint. The unique format also makes it less likely to be immediately discarded without a glance.

However, easy disposal also works against direct mail. No clicking is required, and the path from the mailbox to the trash can is short. And pieces incorrectly deemed “junk mail” may go straight into the garbage unopened.

Email provides convenience on the recipient’s end. Messages are delivered instantly, and there is no mailbox to check. Hyperlinks allow for easy browsing and purchases. Emails can also be forwarded to friends, multiplying your message reach.

The downside is inbox overload is rampant. Subscribers are very selective about which emails get attention versus being instantly deleted, archived, or marked as spam. Rising spam filtering also limits email visibility.

Overall, direct mail likely elicits higher qualitative engagement per piece. However, the larger reach and forwarding of email means wider exposure potential.

Direct Mail vs Email: Environmental Impact Comparison

Today’s consumers are increasingly ecologically conscious. The environmental impact of direct mail versus email may play a role in channel selection.

Direct mail produces significant paper waste, with nearly 100 million tons ending up in US landfills each year. Producing mailers also consume trees, water, inks, and other physical resources. However, advances in eco-friendly paper and vegetable-based inks are reducing the footprint.

Many contend email is more environmentally friendly, given the lack of materials, printing, and fuel for delivery. However, the resources required to power computers, servers, data centers, and networks for digital communication also carry environmental costs.

According to sustainability non-profit Canary Mail, the carbon footprint of 100,000 emails likely exceeds that of a similar volume of direct mail. So, neither channel delivers a decisive ecological advantage. Marketers should focus on responsible consumption and optimization regardless of channel.

Direct Mail vs Email: Environmental Impact Comparison

Today’s consumers are increasingly ecologically conscious. The environmental impact of direct mail versus email may play a role in channel selection.

Direct mail produces significant paper waste, with nearly 100 million tons ending up in US landfills each year. Producing mailers also consume trees, water, inks, and other physical resources. However, advances in eco-friendly paper and vegetable-based inks are reducing the footprint.

Many contend email is more environmentally friendly, given the lack of materials, printing, and fuel for delivery. However, the resources required to power computers, servers, data centers, and networks for digital communication also carry environmental costs.

According to sustainability non-profit Canary Mail, the carbon footprint of 100,000 emails likely exceeds that of a similar volume of direct mail. So, neither channel delivers a decisive ecological advantage. Marketers should focus on responsible consumption and optimization regardless of channel.

When Is Direct Mail More Effective?

Now that we’ve compared the two channels, when should you choose direct mail over email or vice versa? There are some best practices for aligning each channel with your goals.

Direct mail has advantages when you want to:

  • Make a bold visual impression with professional printing and graphics.
  • Boost local store traffic within a certain radius or ZIP codes.
  • Appeal to older demographics that are less active in email engagement.
  • Enable recipients to share or display your content easily.
  • Stand out against the oversaturation of digital marketing.
  • Send a personalized token of appreciation or invites to local events.

When Is Email More Effective?

Email tends to have advantages when you want to:

  • The track opens, clicks, and conversions with analytical precision.
  • Rapidly deploy campaigns and pivot based on performance data.
  • Lower overall marketing costs and maximize ROI.
  • Automate multistep campaigns and lifecycle messaging.
  • Accommodate instant online purchase behavior with hyperlinks.
  • Grow loyalty through consistent digital communication.
  • Capture and leverage subscriber data for personalization.

Email excels generally when you sell digital products or services, rely on automated funnels, or operate with lean budgets.

Combining Direct Mail and Email for Omnichannel Marketing

In most cases, the best approach is to incorporate both direct mail and email across the customer lifecycle. The channels can work synergistically to elevate results.

Some ways to orchestrate omnichannel campaigns with direct mail and email include:

  • Mail postcards or catalogs with embedded QR codes to drive traffic to landing pages.
  • Follow-up email promotion with direct mail pieces to existing leads and customers.
  • Send loyalty packages through the mail while reminding customers via email.
  • Use direct mail to re-engage dormant subscribers before adding them back into email flows.
  • Showcase online discounts and coupons through direct mail solo ads.
  • Promote email signup on mailers using QR codes or unique URLs.
  • Mail thank you or birthday cards for complementing relationship-building emails.

Testing and Optimization Are Key

There are persuasive cases for direct mail and email, depending on your objectives and audience. Often, there’s no universally “better” channel: it depends on your strategy.

The best way to optimize is to test direct mail and email campaigns for the same offer or promotion. Try a dedicated landing page and a unique promo code for each one. Then, metrics like cost per click, cost per acquisition, conversion rates, lifetime value, and ROI across the channels will be compared.

This will provide data-backed answers on where to allocate resources moving forward. Be sure to also survey customers on their channel preferences and habits. With testing and optimization, you can determine the right mix of direct mail and email for maximum marketing performance.

The Bottom Line

While email marketing has captured much of the spotlight, direct mail continues to drive results through its tangible, personalized format. Each channel has distinct advantages based on specific business and campaign goals. To maximize marketing success, strategically combine direct mail and email while testing to optimize the balance.

When coordinated effectively across the customer lifecycle, direct mail and email can work synergistically at a fraction of the cost of most paid advertising channels. Avoid thinking of it as direct mail “versus” email. The best approach is direct mail “and” email as part of a comprehensive omni-channel strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key advantages of direct mail over email?

Direct mail stands out visually, drives higher response rates, is perceived as more personal, and localizes targeting very effectively. The tangible format elicits stronger engagement per piece in many cases.

What are the main benefits of email marketing over direct mail?

Email provides lower cost per contact, seamless tracking and optimization, automation through workflows, easy integration with other platforms, and hyperlinks for purchases.

Is direct mail considered outdated compared to email?

Far from it: direct mail usage has rebounded in recent years as marketers embrace omnichannel strategies. Direct mail complements digital efforts while giving recipients a welcomed break from screen fatigue.

Can you automate direct mail campaigns?

Yes, workflow automation tools can now coordinate variable printing, mail merge, and mailing schedules for direct mail, just like email. This makes automation accessible for both channels.

Should my business send direct mail or email?

Most businesses find success by combining both direct mail and email across the customer journey. Direct mail can attract new prospects, while email nurtures relationships through lifecycle messaging. Strategically integrating both channels is ideal for an omnichannel approach.

How do you track the results of a direct mail campaign?

To track responses, use unique phone numbers, URLs, QR codes, promo codes, or PURLs in each direct mail piece. Match these sources back to the associated mail campaigns. Surveys can also provide recipient feedback on direct mail effectiveness.

How often should you send direct mail?

1-2 times per month is typical for direct mail related to promotions or lead generation. For catalogs, quarterly or seasonal mailing is common. Sending 3-6 personalized mailings per year to customers helps build relationships: test frequencies to find the ideal balance.

What type of businesses is direct mail best suited for?

Direct mail works well for localized businesses like restaurants, small retailers, real estate agents, and professional services. It also succeeds for brick-and-mortar retailers using mailers to drive in-store traffic.

What industries tend to favor email marketing over direct mail?

Email marketing provides advantages for digital products/services, online courses/coaching, SaaS companies, and ecommerce brands focused on online transactions. The ability to hyperlink to sites and track actions makes email a natural fit.

Should you design direct mail pieces for mobile scanability?

Absolutely: make mailers mobile-friendly by using bold designs and text, QR codes for easy scanning, and a vertical orientation. This accommodates recipients who first interact with mail pieces via mobile.