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18 Direct Mail Trends for 2021

We wanted to share our insights and tap the expertise of some of our friends to find out what they think lies ahead in 2021.

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.

Nevertheless, at Who’s Mailing What!, we wanted to share our insights and 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.

1. More sophisticated variable data

I believe we will see increased interest in more sophisticated variable data projects from our direct mailing division. Also, I think we will see some printing companies, such as ours, thinking more outside of the box with metallic inks, specialty folds and die cuts along with other ways to get the customers attention and to retain the message the mailing piece was designed to present.

2. QR codes

QR CODES!!!! Has everyone said that? Proving ROI.

Deborah CornIntergalactic Ambassador
to The Printerverse
Print Media Centr

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.

3. Voice Activated Call To Action

A trend I would not overlook for 2021 is the Voice Activated Call To Action (VACTA), this new tech allows marketers to connect their mail piece to a smart speaker interaction. This multimedia brand experience enhances their mail campaigns by adding an audible experience and allows the prospect to request a text to complete the transaction. Think of it as a QR code for voice.

Mike GundersonPresident
Gunderson Direct

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.

4. Triggered direct mail

Looking at 2021 and its emerging trends, I can’t neglect mentioning triggered direct mail — which is when a single direct mail piece is automatically printed and mailed to a consumer based on a specific event or behavior (a trigger) — because it is going to have a HUGE impact on direct mail as we know it.

Direct mail has finally reached the stage where it can be as singular, personalized and responsive as digital, and it isn’t out of reach for everyday business owners and marketers. Anyone with Salesforce or Hubspot or a WordPress site and a free afternoon can design and program triggered direct mailers that will automatically be mailed (at scale!) to new leads, new customers, new website visitors, visitors who abandoned a shopping cart, visitors who never signed up for your newsletter — you name it. I actually talked to a client of mine recently and he said that SO many financial advisors had triggered direct mail on their 2021 to-do list, and that’s just one example. We launched our triggered direct mail integration early last year (which uses Zapier to create any personalized automation chain you can imagine), and it’s already grown by leaps and bounds.

Joy GendusaCEO at PostcardMania

5. Programmatic direct mail

Programmatic direct mail is in demand today as another key touchpoint in the funnel and justifiably so. It works.

The tried and true official direct mail looking direct mail continues to work.

Grant JohnsonOwner and CEO at Responsory

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.

6. Additional specialty branding features

Heading into 2021 we are seeing a big rebound in direct mail from the slow down of last year. Along with that there is a large increase in interest from organizations to add specialty features to get more noticeability and recognition with branding in mail. Things like haptic coatings, foiling, embossing, and even scent. There is also more research being done with incorporating Augmented Reality to direct mail. While things are certainly changing in a big way these new trends are exciting and make us even more optimistic about direct mail’s future!

Clint SeckmanPresident
Parkland Direct

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!

7. Interactive direct mail

In 2021 new technology and an abundance of data will empower Direct Marketers to make informed choices when deciding who to target and what message to send. COVID-19 has forced people to spend time at home so this is the perfect opportunity to mail an attractive, interactive Direct Mail piece that will grab consumers’ attention and engage them long enough to make a purchase. A strong loyalty program that includes Direct Mail will keep that person as a valued customer for life.

Michelle FuchsAccount Manager
IWCO Direct

8. B2B dimensional mail

On the B2B side, dimensional mail is working well; because we all receive so many packages today, prospects want to open it and see what’s inside. It cuts through the clutter.

Grant JohnsonOwner and CEO at Responsory

9. Better segmentation with data

Accessing 1st and 3rd party data to further segment an audience will continue to play a huge role in a DM campaign’s success. If you’re able to align targeted messaging and great creative with those different segments, then that’s a recipe for increased response rates. Furthermore, surrounding that DM send with a similar message/offer through various digital channels will only add to that campaign’s success. Being able to hone in on delivery dates and putting an emphasis on speed to market are big contributors to making a direct mail/digital integration program thrive.

Mike EfstathiosBusiness Development at ICS Corporation

One more expert also commented concerning the late mail issues:

With late, lost packages, and undelivered mail during the height of the holiday season, more customers are inquiring about direct mail tracking and delivering confirmation.

Because of the recent postal increase, customers will also mail less and look for higher results. Mail quantities will reduce, and more focus will be on targeted lists, personalization, impactful mail pieces, and dimensional mailers to achieve a better return on investments.

Thanh NguyenCMO at The Standard Group

10. The shift from “junk mail” to personal mail

A second trend I think we’ll see in 2021 is the shift from “Junk Mail” to personal mail. Mailing a “personal” letter will help give you a better response rate. I often find that it’s better to spend a little more on your mail package so that you can get a better response rate. Making your mail look “Personal” in 2021 will give you a nice lift in response.

Craig SimpsonDirect Marketing Consultant
Simpson Direct

11. Increased personalization

Personalization in Direct Mail is going to increase two fold in 2021. The need for marketers to achieve that human connection with their customers has never been more relevant than now. Studies have shown that the majority of the population feel as though they have lost that kind of relationship during the times of the pandemic.

Amanda BronowskiSales Executive at Heeter

12. Shorter direct mail pieces

A trend that stood out to us while analyzing retail direct mail is the decrease in the size of mailings by both word count and page numbers. It’s a long-term change, due mostly to rising printing and postage costs. But like the previous trend, think about how you can take advantage of this for your own mail.

Word count changes in the Retail direct mail 2000-2020

Are there ways to use images, graphics, or icons to free up room on your mail piece so it’s easier to read? Can you move lots of copy to your website, and let your mail do more with less?

13. Coordinated online & offline advertising

The biggest 2021 direct marketing trend will be the consolidation of online/offline advertising. Business owners and marketers are smarter than ever, and they realize that generating leads and new business consistently is a multi-pronged approach. Your ads need to be on Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more in addition to physical touchpoints like postcards and mail that leave a deeper neurological imprint. (They’ve studied it and it’s proven!) But campaigns of that size require so much coordination — way more than a one- or two-person team can handle. So, expect to see bundled campaign services popping up more and more.

My business has offered an online/offline campaign bundle, called Everywhere Small Business, since 2013 and it has grown hand over fist since then. A large portion of our orders now include this online/offline integration, and only it continues to grow in popularity.

Joy GendusaCEO at PostcardMania

14. 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.

15. Mailing discounts with partnerships

We are seeing clients seek alternative or additional methods to go past just a normal presorted mailing. Discounts from saturation and penetration for a single mailing are not enough to offset rising postal costs. Optimization and consolidation across multiple mailings and\or mailers is required for direct mail and lightweight parcels. In a world of shrinking quantities, few mailers have enough volume to obtain the discounts alone. Mailers are asking for tools to truly optimize and not merely presort to survive and stay competitive.

Brian EuclidePresident at TEC Mailing Solutions

16. Higher response rates

In 2020, we consistently saw higher response rates with direct mail. This was due to more people spending more time at home and having more time to go through their mail. Many businesses have made the shift to have their employees work at home. I think this trend will continue in 2021 and with more people at home, I believe response rates will remain high.

Craig SimpsonDirect Marketing Consultant
Simpson Direct

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.

17. Millennial marketers & learning opportunities

The biggest trend is actually a big problem. It’s this: Millennial marketers have a strong preference for digital marketing and much less interest in paper marketing. As a result, they have minimal interest in, experience with, or knowledge of direct mail.

Direct mail is perhaps the most difficult print marketing channel to master. There are many well-established rules, techniques, and strategies – perhaps more than in any other offline channel. These range from how to design an outer envelope and mailing list selection to offers and DM copywriting.

Robert BlyWriter
The Direct Mail Revolution

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.

18. Productization of mail

One of the things I see trending is the productization of mail. More specifically this is where one-off direct mail ‘jobs’ are slowly being replaced by vertical market mail products which are offered pro-actively by agencies and marketing service providers. This trend gives way to the mail owner receiving a higher quality product and the mail producer retaining higher margins on print/mail work.

Chris HuberCEO at Print Reach

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.

wmw!Top Direct Mail Trends for 2021

  1. 1. More sophisticated variable data
  2. 2. QR codes
  3. 3. Voice Activated Call To Action
  4. 4. Triggered direct mail
  5. 5. Programmatic direct mail
  6. 6. Additional specialty branding features
  7. 7. Interactive direct mail
  8. 8. B2B dimensional mail
  9. 9. Better segmentation with data
  10. 10. The shift from “junk mail” to personal mail
  11. 11. Increased personalization
  12. 12. Shorter direct mail pieces
  13. 13. Coordinated online & offline advertising
  14. 14. Investing in direct mail tools
  15. 15. Mailing discounts with partnerships
  16. 16. Higher response rates
  17. 17. Millennial marketers & learning opportunities
  18. 18. Productization of mail

Final thoughts

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.

Paul Bobnak

Direct Mail Evangelist

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