The History and Psychology of Direct Mail

Direct mail marketing is not a new concept.

The earliest known article of direct mail was distributed in 1000 BC when an Egyptian landowner used a piece of papyrus to advertise a gold reward for the return of a runaway slave. That “letter” was later recovered and is now on display in the British Museum. It is widely considered the first-ever direct marketing campaign.

Though it may seem like a far cry from the mailers and newsletters of today, that piece of papyrus has greatly affected the course of direct mail psychology.

Over the next thousand years, direct marketing grew in popularity for other ancient civilizations.

Babylonian merchants began producing stone tablets to advertise their products while they were visiting new towns. And around the time of the birth of Christ, it was recorded that a poet would “disperse prospectuses” in order to attract clients.

At the time, writing was not a common skill, even among those who were highly educated, so these mailers were highly regarded for the amount of skill and time that went into producing each and every one.

Today, though the methods of printing and distribution have changed, the ingrained psychological value of direct mail has not.

This month, we’re exploring why direct mail has maintained its perceived prestige and value since that first advertisement was scribed in ancient Egypt.

Take a moment to imagine the amount of work that has historically been associated with delivering a piece of mail.

According to Time magazine, a letter in Colonial America had to be hand-delivered from town to town by merchants and slaves until it reached its intended recipient (assuming that it actually made it to the correct person). This method was time-consuming, risky, and required a great deal of networking. As a result, letters were exclusively used by people of wealth or importance.

Due to its extreme lack of effectiveness, the hand-off system soon gave way to designated mail carriers who traveled by horse and stagecoach. Again we see a perfect example of the romanticism of direct mail in the story of the Pony Express. In reality, the Pony Express was a financial failure that bankrupted its founders. But the embedded value of the arduous mail delivery system led it to become synonymous with the exploration of the Wild West.

That romanticism and fascination with physical mail have persisted throughout the ages. Even today, a variety of polls and research studies prove that consumers prefer direct mail over any electronic format.

Epsilon Targeting, a global marketing firm, conducted a Consumer Channel Preference Study and found that 60 percent of people actually demonstrate an emotional connection to their physical mail. Compare that to the 75 percent of consumers from the study who reported that they got more emails than they had time or interest to read.

The key finding of this study is, that “across all key verticals — from financial insurance to retail and personal care — direct mail is preferred to email by all respondents.”

Based on our long history with direct mail, this inclination is hardly surprising.

Since the dawn of print media, direct mail has been reserved for people who are wealthy, affluent, and notable, which gives physical mailers high prestige and esteem. Consumers’ perceptions of print value persist even today as evidenced by the continued success of direct mail marketing.

This culturally ingrained preference shows that if you want to connect with your customers, remember to go postal.

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