One of the ways to understand direct mail marketing is talk with the people who have used the medium most.  Ethan Boldt is editor in chief of  Here’s a conversation Boldt posted concerning strengths, weaknesses, and future of direct mail.

Ethan Boldt: In your opinion, what is the future of direct mail? Will direct mail resume its former position when (and if!) the economy restabilizes, or is this channel forever altered? 

Herschell Gordon Lewis , copywriter:
 Direct mail never again will see the apex of supremacy it enjoyed in its golden period-as a loose estimate, 1946-1996. But, paralleling media threatened by online intruders, it will continue, because it has a permanence and completeness. The new media can’t match those elements because they’re geared to a shortened attention span.

Steve Cuno, chairman of Response Agency: No one knows the future of direct mail, but two factors point to an opportunity. One, thanks to the internet, mailboxes today contain mostly advertising mail, most of which is inept. The other factor is that, unlike spam, direct mail cannot go into the trash without a recipient at least taking a look. For both reasons, our shop has found that well-targeted, well-executed direct mail rises to the top with greater power than ever. But note the qualifiers “well-targeted” and “well-executed.” Inept mail works no better than it ever did.

Bob Bly, copywriter: Certainly we’d all RATHER do our marketing online instead of offline if we could—it’s so much less costly. But not every offer can be sold effectively with email. In insurance, for instance, direct mail is still the workhorse for marketing and will be for the foreseeable future—people don’t like to buy insurance online.

Bob Merrigan , president of fundraising agency Merrigan & Co.: The channel may be forever altered, but it’s certainly not dead. Online activity, by virtue of its low outbound cost and staggering growth in results, is getting a lot of attention. The poor, old workhorse, direct mail, tends to get lost in the excitement. As an example, for one of our clients, online giving increased more than 300 percent in 2008; however, it’s still less than 15 percent of overall support.

Peggy Greenawalt, president/creative director of direct marketing agency Tomarkin/Greenawalt: The communications universe is experiencing a sea change. I think direct mail will regain some of its lost ground, if the post office doesn’t run amok on pricing. It’s still a superior way to pinpoint target and deliver messages. However, I am convinced that a portable pocket device for communications and entertainment is the present and the future. I carry the iPhone in my pocket (even in my bathrobe), and I can’t understand how anyone can live without it.

Mal Warwick, founder/chairman of fundraising agency Mal Warwick Associates: Ever since I first became involved in direct mail fundraising 30 years ago, the field has been undergoing constant evolution. The dominant trends have been mushrooming competition, rising costs, increasing sophistication and use of technology, increasing personalization, and falling acquisition rates.

I see no reason to believe those trends have ended with the Great Recession or will suddenly disappear when the economy finally recovers some semblance of its former strength. However, I don’t believe these trends are cause for pessimism. Over the years, my colleagues and I have learned how to make the most of this evolving reality. Most of our clients are flourishing, despite their heavy dependence on direct mail.

Elaine Tyson, copywriter:
 I think direct mail will resume its importance to magazine publishers. The economy has taken a toll with many companies reducing volume out of necessity. Many have dropped at least one campaign during 2009. As times improve, publishers who want to thrive will resume subscription campaigns. The companies that were most successful in the past never abandoned direct mail. Those that want to be successful in the future will return to it. The simple fact is you cannot manage a rate base without some level of direct mail.

Mark Everett Johnson, copywriter: Direct mail will remain important for many direct marketers. Some mailers are doing very well right now due to reduced competition in the mailbox paired with carefully targeted creative. Examples: A health newsletter publisher that altered their copy led to focus on the relatively low cost of the subscription compared to the value of good health, and a financial newsletter publisher whose copy offers specific actions for protecting one’s wealth in volatile financial markets.

Pat Friesen, copywriter: It remains a viable medium for keeping in touch with many market segments and prospecting in others. What has changed is that you can no longer afford to do mass prospect mailings that aren’t targeted. However, even with ever-increasing costs, it still has certain advantages. It’s three-dimensional, hard to ignore, perceived as being more personal and has tactile appeal other media lacks. It’s also virus-free and reaches people email doesn’t.

For example, a client in a service industry recently called me with a traditional letter-writing assignment. After successfully testing an email cross-sell offer to his customer base, he wanted to make the same offer in a letter to his email nonrespondents. Even with a 15 percent to 20 percent email open rate, he still wasn’t reaching 80 percent to 85 percent of his highly qualified buyers. A matchback of his direct mail respondents showed they hadn’t opened the email, but they did open and respond to the direct mail.

Grant Johnson, CEO of direct marketing agency Johnson Direct: Direct mail won’t die, but it will remain forever changed. There is still no better way to prospect for business than traditional direct mail. Volume will decrease, as better segmentation due to better analytic tools will be the norm.

What will continue to happen is those who do direct mail well will prosper and those who do it marginally well or poorly will falter. Mail will still play a key role as a driver to action: raising money, buying a product or service, visiting a store or website, or being used as the main channel to close the sale through fulfillment.

Keith Goodman, VP of corporate solutions for Modern Postcard:
 I believe the market will be coming back very strong. At the end of the day, businesses need to acquire new customers, and direct mail has proven, time and time again, that it is one of, if not the most, cost-effective methods of customer acquisition for virtually any business. When you look at the slow but steady decline of the print industry, the issues concerning unsolicited email (spam), the DVR to skip commercials and commercial-free satellite radio, where else is there for businesses to effectively capture new business?

Digital media will capture a portion of the loyalty and retention markets with opt-in email, but even with 20 percent average open rates (that are currently declining), direct mail will play a major role there as well.

Strengths of Direct Mail

Ability to segment an audience and deliver a great controlled experience to the consumer.  So called junk mail is still around for one reason–it works.  Direct mail can also be exceptionally well targeted.

Weaknesses of Direct Mail

Cost.  Not only the postage, but the mail piece itself is costly to print.  In a market like Billings the volume of mail you can print is somewhat limited.  There are only 57,000 households in the Billings market.  You can get good pricing by blanketing the market, but you will probably not need that kind of saturation.

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