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Rethinking the “mass” in direct marketing


What looked like a content error caught my eye in a Tuesday Twitter post: it used “direct mail” and “mass marketing” as synonymous.

The documentarian in me took hold — with a healthy dose of curiosity. Clicking the tiny url I found this piece from

Direct Mail Fades As Mass-Marketing

Channel: Winterberry

Richard Levey, the author, does a great job of describing the ripple effect of declines in direct mail spending by financial services and other organizations that rely heavily on direct mail.  No doubt, the February 2009 white paper by Winterberry Group is equally compelling. Entitled, A Channel in Transformation: Vertical Market Trends in Direct Mail 2009 (© 2009), it cautions that 2009 direct mail spending may plummet 8 to 9%.

The discussion is already hot on the unique value of direct marketing amidst current challenges.  For example, Chet Dalzell, DM Veteran and PR pro, joined in and rightfully observes that direct mail is “precious real estate.”

It gets me to reflect on the classic challenge of direct marketing. When it is mass marketing. . . When is direct?

In the ’80s the earliest brand advertisers entered the waters of direct mail with trepidation. The solution — integrated marketing — served as a playground for branding by mail by using one image across all media. Something akin to “brand it and they will respond.”

Some may remember the campaign featuring Chaplinesque figure that launched IBM personal computers.

(c) Ogilvy Direct, 1985

Ogilvy Direct, © 1985

SHOCK! IBM mailed a consumer catalog that invited consumers to to buy directly. If you never seen the campaign, it’s available on The 75th Anniversary DMA ECHO Wards Diamond Jubilee CD-ROM (whew!). While you’re at it take a look at the :30 second spot.

Created by Ogilvy Direct, breakthrough campaigns like this compelled advertisers to consider the full landscape of their brand communications and the need for consistency in communicating with browsers, buyers, and customers.

Direct mail — so long dominated by the “word” and a long history of direct selling — was quickly and properly challenged to consider the visual rhetoric of the envelopes, postcards, self-mailers, etc. This meant not just getting opened but creating a lasting impact.

Jim Kobs (c) 2001

Jim Kobs, © 2001

Jim Kobs taught me a great lesson in Successful Direct Marketing Methods:

→ Your ad (direct mail, postcard, etc.,) should be effective first in creating immediate, short-term attention. (No-brainer for DM’ers).

→ However, he emphasized, it should never sacrifice short-term attention/response for long-term awareness.

There’s nothing more brand or direct than that.

Net: direct marketing creative messages increased in their relevance and timeliness from the customer point of view. New technologies of database management made this possible and affordable. Customization of messages took off like wildfire in the direct mail channel. Likewise, calls to action also became more relevant. Nifty benefits or actions could be tweeked from the seven digits of 800 numbers; extensions could be customized by list or ad placement.

Strategically, we could begin to use direct mail not simply to sell directly or to first-time buyers, but to create ongoing relationships. Mining databases for highly granular lists helped improve ROI and the relevance of the creative message.

That’s when the beauty of branding and customer acquisition, loyalty and retention helped reshape direct mail the medium and direct marketing as whole. For those of us on the creative side, we could appreciate CRM as more than software.

And yet, direct mail moved closer to becoming a victim of  its own success — and now of the recession’s ripple effect on advertising budgets and US postal fees. The printing and mailing equipment, as well as the information technology — grew to be most efficient (i.e., profitable) in supporting high-volume direct mail such as you’d find with financial services and credit cards.

There it is: the “mass” in direct marketing.

Net, high-volume direct marketers were faced with a paradox. From a bottom-line, high volume mailing (i.e., “mass”) drove business profits for vendors the industry. Technology needed more mailings with higher volumes, while data mining and consumer preferences lead advertisers to re-create programs to seek higher engagement with the optimum number of the most profitable customers. Yes, 80/20.

Is 80/20 a tragic flaw or an opportunity for high-volume direct mail?

The Winterberry white paper notes:

Many marketers have responded by putting increased emphasis into tools and processes that allow them to extract additional ROI— either by reducing execution costs or increasing the likelihood of a package yielding a favorable response (Winterberry, 2009, p. 10).

My own mailbox bears out the study: I receive fewer acquisition mailings, more postcards. The direct mail is generally for cross-selling. Companies seek to retain my loyalty online.


  • Engagement is open-ended. It impacts advertisers, consumers, and the industry that supports direct marketing.
  • Enhancement is an invitation. Sometimes we’re proactive. Sometimes, circumstances like recession present a forced invitation to reinvent our business models.
  • Empowerment is now. There are more reasons than ever to grow your business using response-based advertising — including direct mail.

Let’s welcome the bubble and live up to the innovations that created scientific advertising in the first place.

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