Direct mail trends can be difficult to forecast, even without the turbulent record of the last year. Recession, civil unrest, political strife, and of course, a raging pandemic were all factors that produced a very different year for marketers than anyone could have imagined.
Who’s Mailing What! Look at the Trends in 2021
Recently, Who’s Mailing What! participated in the Variable Data Print & Mail Summit, where we shared some of the trends that we discovered along with some key insights. That is why we decided to update this article to highlight some of our learnings.
1. Postcards are on the rise; they’re growing in popularity.
We looked at the past 12 years … looked at all the mail formats … and postcards have been steadily increasing.
Some possible reasons?
- potentially … higher postage and paper costs
- maybe, a response to a shift in how people read mail – a postcard is smaller, with less words, so it’s faster to read and either get customers to respond to an offer or go online for more information to make a decision
As postcards gain popularity, these are the industries where you see the most significant drop in the use of Envelopes (or letter packages).
- The average drop across all industries is 15% in envelopes,
- Marketers and Brands are still using them – just less frequently
We’re seeing marketers changing how they campaign – with less pieces and copy. Here’s an example – Kay Jewelers in 2008 was mailing more envelope campaigns as in this Valentine’s promotion, but by 2020 … postcards.
In some industries though, the drop-off is smaller. For them, envelopes are still a proven way to deliver a sales message.
Recommended reading: 8 Direct Mail Envelope Ideas to Boost Your Open Rate [+22 Examples]
Looking at self-mailers – the same factors come into play – why use a self-mailer when a postcard will do much of the same at a lower cost – which means better ROI for your campaigns.
- 16% was the average drop across all industries
- The industries with the most prominent drop are highlighted here; pretty similar to envelopes with the exception of the Arts.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about – 2 different mailpieces from Disney Vacation Club: at the top, this 2007 folded self-mailer has a lot of copy covering a 2-panel spread but in 2021, a single postcard is the norm. It’s more affordable to mail – and again … less copy.
Which brings me to our second trend!
2. Copy Gets Concise
Let’s talk about word count – over the last 20 years, according to our stats, direct mail copy became shorter by 62%.
Let’s look at Amazon – for years it’s been mailing letters to remind Prime members that they’re entitled to watch Prime Video – but there’s a big difference in word count from 2014 to the 2021 example you see:
- Shorter sentences
- Much smaller paragraphs
- A few bullet points
If you’re a fan of copy, restaurants LOVE copy when marketing themselves. Not only are they mailing more postcards – they’re using more words…98% more in just the last 4 years!
So there are exceptions to trends.
3. Digital Interactive is more prevalent.
Direct mail is a fantastic means of engaging with a target audience and it reinforces online efforts. We looked at how companies and organizations are opening avenues for customers to reply and we see that digital call to actions are gaining in popularity:
Prompting the consumer or donor to interact with your brand or organization via some digital channel:
- whether it be a social media channel
- via a QR code, or
- prompts a visit to a website
Usage of these response terms in the mail has doubled in just the last 4 years!
Here we see multiple business categories or industries leveraging digital elements. Top 3 are Retail, Non-Profit and Financial Services.
Sharing some examples of these digital elements.
How does 2021 look? Our analysis shows that of the main digital callouts:
- Social media profiles are #1
- QR Codes are #2
- at #3 we have – “Visit Our Website”
@username takes the consumer directly to where you want them to be; “follow us” requires the consumer to do a bit more work (they have to find you themself).
The lesson here is that you want to give your customers and prospects as many ways as possible to interact with you, and respond to your offer with a purchase or donation.
Read in detail: How Does Digital Boost Direct Mail Response?
4. Business Reply Mail is getting less popular
Another way that traditional mail has changed over the last 20 years is the decline in what was a standard response option for many years: Business Reply Mail.
53% of companies are no longer sending Business Reply Mail (this chart is not reflective of the amount of BRM being produced, but gives you a view into the company usage of Business Reply Mail).
Marketers have to meet customers where many of them are … which is online.
So we’ve had an increase in digital reply options:
- Websites / personalized URLs
- QR codes
Here’s PayPal – mail reply only in 2005 …. BUT …. in 2021, no more – instead it’s a branded QR code.
They’re fast and they’re easy. But …We don’t want to set the wrong tone here. Business Reply Mail is still considered an effective response device evidenced by the large mailers across many industries.
- Looking at last year and this year’s statistics, you can see that 12% of AMEX’s direct mail packages include a business reply device.
- Citibank – 15%
- In the Nonprofit sector, 36% of Feeding America’s packages include business reply devices
Not all audiences are always comfortable with responding to an offer by going online. They appreciate the security and convenience of using an envelope provided for them for making charitable donations or returning an insurance application.
Always consider your target audience’s interests and reactions to your campaign before you mail.
Read in detail: Should You Still Use Business Reply Mail?
5. Sustainability is moving to the forefront in recent years – Eco Friendly Grows
This chart is highlighting direct mail ads that include a sustainability stance. Out of the mail pieces with sustainability language, 75% have been sent in the past 5 years. From a trend perspective, we see this becoming more prevalent and coming to the forefront.
Read in detail about Eco-Friendly Trends in Direct Mail
6. COVID-19 Lasting Impact
Maybe the biggest trend in direct mail developed just in the last year: the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s taken an enormous human toll, as well as an economic one. So it showed up in mail in a lot of ways.
Looking at words and phrases related to COVID, comparing this year to last year: in 2020, we were adapting and canceling; in 2021, you can see we’ve been adapting and transitioning to virtual environments.
Marketers are adapting to a new normal by including COVID-related messages into their campaigns and highlighting different benefits in their campaigns.
7. Does Direct Mail Still Work?
We’re going to give you an enthusiastic ‘YES’!
We’ve got companies of all ages leveraging direct mail. Companies founded as far back as Proctor & Gamble … to companies founded in the “age of digital”, quite a few of them trendy startups, are including direct mail as part of their mix.
- Just over 20% of companies in WMW! Collection were founded in the past 20 years.
- Young companies are also using direct mail.
Let’s look at a few of them.
We’ve got companies founded in 2020 represented in the database. Even newly-established companies, founded during a global pandemic, have opted for direct mail marketing.
Established digital leaders are embracing direct mail.
- Because they understand that it works. When it’s done well, direct mail has a higher response rate than online tactics
- They need to reach audiences that digital channels don’t.
- They also need to stand out in the mailbox from other, well-known companies in their marketplace.
- Paper, ink, finishing, and great marketing come together to make an impression – and a sale – that other tactics can’t match.
Read in detail: Top Digital Companies Using Direct Mail
Our full presentation with examples and stats is available on SlideShare.
What Other Experts Say
We’ve also consulted with other industry leaders on their perspectives. We also wanted to tap the expertise of some of our friends to find out what they think lies ahead in 2021. Each brings a unique perspective to our discussion, and we thank them all for their participation.
8. More sophisticated variable data
9. QR codes
Analysis of data from Who’s Mailing What! has indeed shown an increase in usage of QR codes in direct mail. Some of the factors driving the greater use of QR codes are:
- USPS campaign discounts. In recent years, marketers have enjoyed 2% postage cost breaks for campaigns that include a QR code. However, compared to when they were first introduced in mail, they now have more stringent requirements to demonstrate their value in creating a better consumer experience.
- More awareness of the value of multichannel mail. When incorporated into a mail piece in a way that makes sense — i.e., it actually provides a benefit for the customer, something that ties together the physical and digital worlds.
- More comfort and familiarity with QR codes. QR codes are being used in signage, restaurant menus, and print ads to provide helpful information that’s up-to-date, high-tech, and contactless at the same time.
10. Voice Activated Call To Action
This is a great example of a cutting-edge technology that is rapidly approaching a tipping point for marketers. Surveys say that over a quarter of all American adults now own at least one voice assistant. So look for ways to incorporate them into your direct mail, especially when you can save money.
11. Triggered direct mail
12. Programmatic direct mail
Whatever name you want to use — programmatic or triggered mail — this is a growing category of mail because it makes so much sense. It brings together the physical and digital worlds to create a unique experience for your customers. Like the first trend mentioned (advertising consolidation), it’s another way for businesses of all sizes to be present in any channel where their customers are, and leveraging the strengths of each one.
13. Additional specialty branding features
Your mail can stand out in the customer’s mailbox by tapping into basic human senses like sight, touch, and smell. After all, every communication seems the same because they can’t create the sensory experiences that direct mail can. Look for ways to spruce up your mail!
14. Interactive direct mail
15. B2B dimensional mail
16. Better segmentation with data
17. The shift from quantity to quality
18. The shift from “junk mail” to personal mail
19. Increased personalization
20. Coordinated online & offline advertising
21. Investing in direct mail tools
At first glance, you may wonder why this is a trend for the year ahead. Who has time for it? But think about it — if now isn’t a good time, when is?
The shaky economy in many sectors and the uncertainty over the course of COVID-19 may be a good excuse for many marketers to cut down, or even end, their direct mail campaigns.
Don’t do it.
Now is when you should be looking at ways to perfect your data, to make sure it’s as accurate and complete as possible. Consider tweaks to your formats, and try USPS Informed Delivery and other opportunities to reach consumers with new technologies combined with mail. New inks, papers, and finishes can also get the attention of newer audiences. And Who’s Mailing What! makes it easy to skip some testing by seeing what’s worked for other marketers.
22. Mailing discounts with partnerships
23. Higher response rates
This is a trend to watch for sure. Even as the pandemic begins to ease, workplace and home trends of the last year may be permanent.
24. Millennial marketers & learning opportunities
We now have millions of people who’ve grown up as digital-first consumers. But how much is too much, especially when people are burdened with too much digital clutter? And when surveys show that millennials and Gen Z love print more than other generations? If you’ve abandoned mail, it’s not too late to relearn the fundamentals. With a subscription to Who’s Mailing What!, you’ll get an education (or a refresher course) in how to create successful direct mail.
25. Productization of mail
When you create and send a direct mail campaign, is it a standalone effort? Customizing is a major cost for both you and your clients that you can avoid by focusing on aspects of your mail design and production that are repeatable.
Predicting the future is imperfect. Only time will tell if and how the trends laid out by our distinguished panelists will reveal themselves.
The course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few months — and how marketers evolve their response to it — will play a big role in how direct mail works in 2021. One thread running through many of these comments is the continuing digitization of communications. Smart marketers see this accelerating trend not as a threat to mail, but an opportunity for growth. Integrating channels — where customers want and need it — makes sense more than ever before. New printing technologies and getting to market sooner and better will help direct mail thrive as a vital part of a customer outreach strategy.
This post was originally published on Feb. 10th, 2021. It was updated and republished on June 2nd, 2021.