The direct mail marketplace continued to evolve over the last 12 months, adjusting to cooling inflation, solid economic growth, and the continuing implementation of USPS’s “Delivering for America” plan. Through it all, we’ve continued tracking direct mail campaigns and active mailers.
WMW! Stats + Views from Experts = Insight
At Who’s Mailing What!, we track a lot of data about the mail we catalog in our collection each month.
So, for this year’s article, we’ve run some of the numbers to see what trends are important to talk about.
Also, as in the past few years, we have once again been honored to include valuable insights from direct mail professionals interviewed for our “Meet the Mailers” video podcast series. Their expertise and experience as practitioners shape their thoughts on how the world of direct mail marketing will shake out in the year (or more) ahead. We thank each of them for sharing their thoughts and opinions with you, our audience.
These 12 trends represent a good cross-section of what’s going on in the direct mail marketplace.
1. Eco Terms: A Mixed Bag
This chart covers direct mail pieces that include a sustainability stance from 2020-2023. From a trend perspective, we see this becoming more prevalent.
The popularity of eco terms has had some mixed results:
- A sharp increase year-over-year in usage of “FSC” (Forest Stewardship Council)
- “Organic” & “renewable” became less popular compared to 2020-2021
- “Recycled paper”/”please recycle” are unstable but more popular in 2023
- “Responsible sources” are also unstable and are on the same level of popularity as in 2021 (but less popular than in 2022)
Industry experts express optimism about using more sustainable practices.
One of the things we’re seeing is that marketers are seeking sustainable products. We want to work with companies who have sustainable processes and procedures. At PFL, we have a printing facility that is wind-powered, and we partner with PrintReleaf; [for] every tree that’s consumed by the production of paper and corrugated products, a new tree is planted in a global area in need of reforestation.
Chief Marketing Officer
It’s definitely part of our whole vision and values. It tends to be a large investment for most companies. And we’ve noticed a shift over the last decade where people used to say that it was important, but when they found out [that] the alternative costs were more money, maybe it wasn’t important to them anymore.
And now, we’re finding some of the bigger players are like, “OK, this is important. We are gonna spend the money, let’s do this right. And let’s try to leave the world in a better place”.
2. Formats: Preferences are Stabilizing
Our previous review of format statistics showed marked increases in postcards and, to a lesser extent, folded self-mailers from around 2000 to 2020. We cited higher postage and paper costs as the big driver for that trend. And let’s face it, how people read mail has changed since the turn of the century. Fewer words, more images and online CTAs … it makes sense that we see less envelopes.
From 2021 through 2023, we see:
- Postcards started getting popular in 2021 and continued until 2023. The popularity of postcards remains similar in 2022 and 2023.
- Self-mailer becomes more popular than 2 years ago (2021 and 2022)
All the same, envelopes continue to work well, especially for several big verticals.
I think the traditional long-form letter will continue to be an important part [of the marketplace], especially in the donation and the non-profit arena.
3. QR codes: The Sky is the Limit
It should come as no surprise that the usage of QR codes in direct mail continues to soar:
- Adoption of QR codes is steadily climbing year-over-year
- QR codes popularity grew to 34.08% in 2023 from 3.96% in 2020
Think about it. Tech and smartphones made QR codes easy to use by the time so many people learned to use them during the pandemic. Marketers recognize that when incorporated into a mail piece, they tie the physical and digital worlds together. And USPS offers promotional discounts for using them in your mail. So keep scanning!
4. Word Count – Is Now …Increasing?
In Direct Mail Trends 2021, we said that mail copy is getting more concise. Well, it’s not anymore. Our stats show that compared to the period 2017-2020, the average word count in mail pieces of all formats increased by 146 words (26%).
Moreover, the word count is growing for all three main formats. In the last 3 years, copy length increased:
- for postcards by 14%
- for self-mailers by 38%
- for envelopes by 33%
Below is one of the examples of copy length change (it’s not very distinct but still noticeable):
However, some copy still gets more concise, as shown in these contrasting examples:
I believe the trend in DM word count increase is in reaction to a few factors. 1. Universal reduced marketing budgets have caused companies to do more with less. They may be mailing fewer individual test packages and hope more copy maximizes the pieces they do mail. 2. Digital fatigue may have caused reduced response in campaigns. A print piece with much more content than digital marketing offers an opposite approach.
While the trend is understandable, I think it’s important to continue to think of the recipient. Their attention spans are likely still short which is why I recommend condensed, more focused copy when possible or breaking up longer content into smaller blocks of copy for easier visual scanning.
5. Startups: Yes, They Use Direct Mail, Too
We segmented brands in our database by their founding year and focused on startups that have marketed with mail from 2021 to present, as shown in this chart.
Here are some companies founded in 2021 and 2022 that use direct mail.
[W]hat you’re seeing is these are brands that are very effective on the digital side. [B]ut they’re running into growth constraints. They can’t seem to break through the attention gap or the engagement gap at a certain level …[Direct mail or catalog] is being designed in ways that are beneficial to the brand and the brand-building. And the more you do that, the more attraction you have in terms of the ability to make a sale.
Startups in the digital age understand the value of including direct mail in their marketing mix. They have on-ramps for direct mail like share mail or co-ops before moving up to solo campaigns. And with automation software already built into the DNA of so many companies, the advantages of sending mail to the right customer at the right time are even more clear.
6. Omnichannel: Becoming More Routine
You’ve heard the talk of multichannel and integration … in the nonprofit space, I think there are still challenges to keep pace with commercial and the data that they have. So for us, it might be something like a triggered email, to where we have the mail tracking file that we share with their digital team so that they’re sending emails as the mail is delivered, rather than just doing a generic send of, “oh, it’s been two weeks, let’s just send the entire email file.” It’s really just another additional deliverable date in the production schedule.
7. Personalization: Mail with Intentionality
I think that’s really the beautiful thing about direct mail right now is all of the ancillary tools that can be kind of curated or collated into the intentionality behind the piece. So you’ve got variable data that you can add into the piece.
We talked about personalization and everybody wants to see their name on a mail piece as opposed to a “current resident”. Being able to add in other things that you know about that customer as far as their buying habits or what they’ve been looking at on your website and be able to variably add those in as fields into a direct mail piece that looks seamless and consistent and delivers the exact kind of information that they’re looking for to take that next step is really important.
One of the most impactful things that we’ve seen is we’ve really A/B tested sending of higher impact, more personalized stewardship pieces.
And we’ve seen a massive increase in the follow-on fundraising that comes when people receive something as simple as a Thanksgiving card. It’s important to just ask the person as an individual rather than ask them as a name on your list or a number in a database. And so that means including a personalized P.S., maybe referencing their past generosity, having it signed by somebody at the organization who’s had an interaction with them.
8. Video Integration: Telling a Story
One [trend] that I think is super cool is incorporating video into your direct mail. So there are video cards that we can send where you actually have a video that plays when you open the brochure. They’re still novel enough that you’re not gonna throw it out if you get a brochure that’s playing a video with sound.
[I]t works if you have partners or resellers that you want to position your product because you can put a little product demo in that brochure, mail it out to all of your vendor partners, and then they can just open it up and show it to a prospective customer and share your pitch. [I]f done right, it’s just an authentic and effective way to tell a story.
JENNIFER BELLINChief Marketing Officer
Video in Print tech is an easy way to get your multimedia message in front of your target audience. As in past years, in 2024, USPS will be offering a 4% discount on qualifying campaigns that use it as part of its Emerging and Advanced Technology promotion.
9. Automation & Triggers: Right Message & Time
[T]riggered sending along the entire customer life cycle is definitely a trend we are seeing, especially as marketers become more sophisticated. They are seeing the need to and the value of sending direct mail throughout the lifecycle, but also automating it, triggering it, so it goes at just the right moment with just the right message using their data in their CRM.
JENNIFER BELLINChief Marketing Officer
There’s an awful lot going on with intent data. There are a number of players out there, and we’re starting to get into this with direct mail retargeting. So if somebody visits your website, there are some great providers out there that partner with folks like us who enable us to do that.
There’s intent-based marketing. So folks that are out there searching for products or services that you have that now you can reach with direct mail and/or email campaigns. Those things are really starting to heat up. The cooperative databases that are out there that are collecting and segmenting this data is, it’s pretty remarkable, the computing power and the investment behind these things.
10. Embellishments: Adding Sensory Appeal
Well, I think we’re going to continue to see a combination of embellishments, bringing together a QR code with scent or foil and scent. I think that the USPS is going to continue to drive those innovations with these discounts.
We’re seeing soft touch, we’re seeing some great coatings, we’re seeing glitter, anything, also with spot UV … [E]mbellishments across the board are really strong right now. And it makes it really pretty incredible, because it allows us to produce some just amazing products that I would say five years ago, it wasn’t happening in direct mail, it wasn’t at this level. Now, there are just better products, but you have the opportunity to stand out when a product like this comes to someone’s home.
Embellishments add significant value to a direct mail campaign, whether you use UV coatings, foils, scent … there are many possibilities. Not only can you provide lift, your mail may be eligible for one or more USPS promotional discounts.
11. Targeting & Data: New Advances
Data is gonna get more and more targeted. The data capabilities are growing every day, getting better, more refined. And a lot of the advances being made don’t really violate any of the privacy issues because it’s really based on actions a consumer has taken that would then cause a marketing touch. As those capabilities develop, I think you’re gonna see some very, very cool new products that are on-demand. A lot of those will start to develop into very scaled products that can become enterprise-type solutions, where people can be targeted based on needs, issues, things like that.
If you want to be successful, especially in a time of rising postage, you need to be able to differentiate who you’re targeting versus just casting as wide of a net as possible. And that’s effectively how [modeling] works. It’s not so much that our data, our lists are magically more responsive. It’s just that we’re cutting out the people that would never really respond. So it’s basically like having a model customer or several different model customers years ago. With everything, with social media, people are volunteering a lot more information about themselves than they ever did.
12. 3D Pieces: Engaging Your Audience
One thing that we’re experimenting with is actually more like 3D pieces through ABM marketing. Let’s say we’ve seen some interest. They’ve been viewing our profiles on 3rd party review sites, looking at some of our developer tools or reference material or whatnot. Group those in and really kind of commit to a really targeted, but higher price point touch to them that really shows that we want to get your business and something that’s going to stand out.
It’s not going to fit in the traditional mailbox. We’ve had really good initial success on it. I think that the types of metrics and analytics that can be done now, you can really identify from sales volume, intent to buy, all your brand type of stuff that a marketer is going to go through to understand if a prospect is the right fit for that type of marketing outreach, I think it’s worth the investment. But I think there’s really an opportunity for where people would be a lot more engaging and creative in the types of mail pieces that are delivered.
The other part [of brand management] is really boxes. Typically, we’ll look at a campaign. And we help define where this may work. Where in the funnel, where in the budget, and to what type of potential consumer. We are seeing, as much as everyone is into prospecting and new client growth, people are also as focused on retention, especially in the financial and healthcare sectors. And how do we do that? So we’ve also launched client retention programs. That’s where we’re seeing these come in.
Whether your audience is B2B or B2C, a highly-focused campaign using three-dimensional mail for both prospecting and retention can immediately grab the attention and raise your response rates.
Predicting the future is imperfect. Only time will tell if and how the trends laid out by our distinguished panelists or indicated by our data will continue to develop as we forecast.
To paraphrase a wise friend of mine, if there’s one constant in our direct mail ecosystem, it’s the inevitability of change.