Direct Mail Marketing: Tangible Results in the Digital Age

Recent studies have proven that direct mail is 30 times more likely to elicit a response from consumers than email.

Not only is physical mail more effective in reaching customers, it often improves brand association and increases customer retention too. Current research shows why this marketing phenomenon has continued to thrive in the era of electronic commerce.

Close-up Of Woman Putting Letter In Mailbox

Unsurprisingly, newsletters tend to be more effective in eliciting sales and relationships with customers. Direct mail has always boasted a higher response rate than any other form of advertising, but until recently the cause of that success was inconclusive. Market research has proven that some of the major factors involved in its success are the abundance of digital-marketing campaigns, and the psychological comfort of tangible mail.

Sweet Emotion

Creating Emotional Connections

One experiment in the psychology of marketing goes beyond the empirical evidence of direct-mail success and shows that tangible advertisements actually create an emotional connection in the brain. A team of scientists from Millward Brown and the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology found that there is a neuro-scientific explanation for the success of direct mail. The researchers used MRIs to measure the difference in the brain activity of participants viewing email advertisements versus physical cards. They found that tangible materials leave a deeper psychological footprint in the brain. The physical advertisements stimulated areas associated with sight and touch beyond what was experienced by the control group.

As it turns out, the physical material required the brain to integrate the visual and haptic stimulation across multiple lobes, which created an emotional reaction to the advertisements.

Interestingly enough, the part of the brain that processes emotional information is closely tied to the brain’s memory center, which resulted in an increased perception of value. The physical cards also produced brain responses connected with internalization of the advertisements. Areas of the brain associated with focus were stimulated by the physical ads, which suggests that readers were relating the information to their own thoughts and feelings.

Final results of this study and other research strongly suggests that greater emotional processing is facilitated by physical materials than by virtual. The brain’s natural reaction to a tangible stimulus allows direct-mail campaigns to create emotional connections with readers, as well as enhance memory of the ads.

The Rule of Reciprocity

Give and Ye Shall Receive

Another psycho-social benefit of direct mail is the Rule of Reciprocity. Marketers have tapped in to this psychological behavior for years in order to establish mutually beneficial relationships with customers.

The Rule of Reciprocity operates on the simple principle that we feel obligated to return favors after people do favors for us. When it comes to marketing, this is why small gifts and newsletters are so effective.

Customers feel a sense of loyalty to businesses that offer perks because they are inclined to return the generosity.

So, just how powerful is the Rule of Reciprocity?

Businessman using smart phone with email icons around

In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an interesting experiment. He mailed out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly-selected people. All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers. Shortly after mailing the cards, responses began trickling in. In total, Kunz received nearly 200 replies. That means that one in three people felt obligated to send a Christmas card to a complete stranger, just because they had received one. Direct mail taps into this need to reciprocate by presenting people with a small token or thoughtful notice, which encourages them to return the favor.

Alongside the psychological applications, another benefit of direct mail is its ability to reach a target audience.

Yankelovich, a market research firm, found that the average person is bombarded with approximately 5,000 electronic advertisements a day. Over time, people have developed a blindness to these kinds of advertisements through desensitization. The extent of that electronic overload is so great that an estimated 95 percent of emails are never even opened. The power of direct mail has remained effective because it is less competitive than email, it allows for specific targeting of key prospects, and it has a long shelf life. Emails last minutes, whereas magazines and newsletters hang around for months or even years.

Postbox with white hand drawn mail icons

Studies conducted by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and verified by outside sources, have shown that cost per order or lead for marketing campaigns were roughly equivalent, with direct mail averaging $51.40, postcards approximately $54.10, and email at $55.24. This means that email-generated leads actually cost more than direct mail, and do not include the multitude of emotional and brand-building benefits embedded in the physical communication.

All of these factors together prove that a letter in hand is worth 30 in the inbox.

See for yourself what direct mail can do for your business! Visit and sign up for a complimentary book package, or give us a call at 208-297-5700 to schedule a free consultation.

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