Direct mail or email – Which marketing option is better for my business?

Pros and cons of email marketing and direct mailTechnology has enabled us to communicate faster than ever. In the digital age, email tops the list of many people’s favoured way of communication, mainly because it’s faster than letters – or even phone calls.

So, in a world where communication is dominated by instant messaging, email and social media, is there still a place in the marketing mix for direct mail?

As David Manton explains, direct mail may be slower, but it still has a lot to offer businesses.

As MD of a company that deals with both digital and direct mail, the answer is definitely yes. But like all forms of marketing communication, there are areas that you need to get right – such as the message, targeting and timing.

It’s also worth remembering that there is no one size fit all. Both email marketing and direct mail have their place. Some work better for different sectors or demographics.

In fact, I’d often advocate taking a combined approach using both. If you get the message right, delivering it in different ways can be a powerful persuader.

Email marketing or direct mail?

In 2005, the Royal Mail reported that 6.17bn direct mail letters were sent, reducing to 4bn by 2012. Forecasts predict a further downturn resulting in around 3.1bn being sent by 2023.

Comparatively, in 2016, 115bn email marketing emails were sent per day. The ability of being able to send the same email to thousands of subscribers in seconds has seen direct mail numbers dwarfed.

However, one of email marketing’s greatest strengths – its immediacy – can also be its most significant weakness. Email is transitory and people generally make a snap decision to open or delete it within seconds (research by the Direct Marketing Association found that 51% of emails are deleted within two seconds).

In addition, spam filters are now so sophisticated that there is no guarantee your carefully crafted email will ever be seen by the intended recipient. To help ensure your emails to reach recipients, you should spend some time on improving your email deliverability.

Despite the spam filters and the likelihood of a quick delete, there’s no doubt digital marketing is a powerful creative tool offering the potential to communicate with large numbers of people using a range of media. It is also easy for people to respond by simply clicking on a link that sends them through to a website or offer.

However, as a medium it can lack staying power. A recent survey by Proactive Marketing found that only 44% people could remember a specific brand straight after seeing a digital ad; this rose to 75% of people able to recall a brand after receiving direct mail.

Furthermore, a recent report from the Direct Marketing Association revealed that the average response rate for direct mail is over four times greater than that of email marketing.

It’s true that a direct mail campaign will almost always have a higher cost than an email campaign, but those costs do need to be put into perspective. Consider how much a new order or new client could spend with you and the cost of postage and paper seems insignificant in comparison.

The power of something tangible

Digital marketing may be more interactive and instant, but the physical presence of a letter shouldn’t be underestimated as it gives the recipient something to hold on to.

The rarity of getting a letter is now seen as something special by consumers simply because it happens less – so the falling levels of direct mail could actually count in its favour.

Compare this to the growing number of marketing emails received daily. How many people wearied of New Year sales emails well before the first week of January and simply pressed delete without even scanning the text?

People are far more likely to retain something tangible. The Private Life of Mail report by Royal Mail Market Reach showed that 66% of respondents kept direct mail and door drops that they consider useful for an average of 38 days.

Certain sectors also seem more suited to direct mail, for example, the financial and tourism sectors reported particularly high levels of direct mail retention. As a general rule, the more specific to a sector and its problems, the better the response – something which is equally true of email marketing.

Although it doesn’t offer instant access to websites or social media channels at the click of a mouse, choosing direct mail enables you to include more material and more detail.

Converting potential customers can be a long game and direct mail is great way of starting the marketing process, giving your product, service and company a physical presence in someone’s home or office.

The direct mail industry has also moved on in terms of offering clients faster, more efficient services such as high speed multi-insertion which enable those using direct mail to maximise speed and minimise cost.

Creating effective marketing communications

Whichever you choose, there are certain key factors that it’s important to consider when embarking on any form of marketing communication.

  • Be clear on why you are contacting the recipient. Do you have a new product/service? An offer? You should always have a reason for getting in touch.
  • There are certain key words that are more likely to trigger a response: now, new and free are just some of them. It is advisable to include at least one of these in your subject header or letter headline:
  • Timing is (almost) everything. The day your letter arrives is key so ensure it is sent out on the right day. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best arrival days.
  • First impressions count. It’s worth getting your letter professionally designed to create the right impact, catch the eye and look professional.
  • Use the right data. Segmenting data will enable you to target direct mail appropriately. For example, FastAnt can offer a free data health check to ensure you aren’t wasting time, money and goodwill contacting the wrong people.


One of the great myths in business and specifically in marketing departments is that print is dead. Many believe that direct mail was killed on the birth of the internet. In fact, the majority of studies show that it offers a superior marketing channel.

Instead of looking at the internet’s birth as the death of direct mail, marketers should look how to incorporate technology into their direct mail campaigns.

For example, QR codes can take the receiver directly to your website and can even hold special discounts. These help direct mail to evolve and entwine the traditional with new innovations.

Direct mail doesn’t have to be the dull junk that many associate it with. Successful direct mail should encourage social media activity, downloads and online purchases whilst still building a rapport with the receiver.

If you have a good product or service and there is a market for it, direct mail will work for you – it’s just a matter of finding the key to unlocking the door.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by David Manton, head of new business at marketing communications company, The Taylor Bloxham Group who work with companies across the UK in the areas of direct mail, fulfilment, e-commerce and web2print.

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