I may not be the first to say this – but I want to make sure I say it clearly.
Direct mail is not simply a marketing channel that “may” still have legs in the digital era. Rather, the case is emerging that it may be the very best form of outreach today.
You read that right. Better than email. Better than pay per click. Better than social or content. Better than perhaps any other outreach channel. How can that possibly be? If this is true, it changes the world view, doesn’t it? Flying in the face of conventional wisdom and the obvious place we were all going … all digital, all the time. Digital apostles will surely scoff at this. And digital experts will be mad.
First, let me set things straight: I am all for digital and all that it brings to the table, but I stop short of washing away all in digital’s path as yesterday’s news.
Playing the odds…
The fact is, when it comes to understanding the new kids on the block, the predictions are all falling short. That’s right, I’m talking about Millennials — the last generation born in the 20th century. They also happen to be the most educated, underemployed, and connected generation in history. And so far, all of our preconceived notions about their behavior, particularly when it comes to digital vs. print, have proven false. Like it or not, digital channels are not necessarily turning out to be the boon for us all that many had proclaimed.
I’ve been around long enough to know that “experts” are often wrong. In fact, as a contrarian, my experience and belief is that consensus expertise more often serves as a reverse barometer. I believe it works a little like playing the stock market: it’s impossible to beat the averages betting on the consensus position. In the end, there has to be a twist or turn that was not foreseen in the consensus position; otherwise, everyone would beat the average. And that’s just not how it works.
This is a truth I try never to forget. Just because an expert says something doesn’t mean it’s correct, especially regarding predictions. Here are a few examples off the top of my head.
Remember when home mortgage rates were like 17% in the early 80’s? Probably not, but I do, and the experts said that the days of cheap mortgages were gone forever and we would never, ever, see their like again. Wrong.
Oil would never come back below $100.00 a barrel. Wrong.
The US was hopelessly and forever doomed to be dependent on foreign oil (I gotta admit, I thought this one was right). Soon to be… wrong.
The housing bubble would permanently dampen the demand for housing as rentals became more attractive. Wrong.
China will eat our lunch and the US is toast. My prediction? Wrong.
I’m going to give you the stats on why Direct Mail is about to become the new best outreach option, but first I’d like to lay out what we missed about the digital era. I’m thinking hard about some of these things, because I believe the reemergence of Direct Mail may just be the beginning in recognizing that digital marketing will coexist with other more tactile and perhaps more personally perceived forms of interaction.
We missed that despite the postal system being horribly broken, misaligned and mismanaged, it still delivers mail almost every day to every home. And, between overnight carriers and the digital universe taking so much of the USPS business away, suddenly, there isn’t that much mail.
Interestingly, this is a good thing. We no longer plow through our mail the way we now plow through our in-boxes. Instead, we pick out the few remaining paper bills and statements, dump most of the catalogues and actually have enough time (and it seems desire) to pick through the rest. It’s almost relaxing! And with 3 out of 4 Americans claiming they are in “email overload”, the contents of our physical mailboxes have become much easier to absorb than most of the information being hurled at us through digital channels. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Direct Mail continues to be cited as the channel with the strongest ROI for customer acquisition.
We missed that email would become a scourge. A demanding workplace and personal taskmaster that gives no quarter and adds to our to-do lists faster than any of us can hope to keep up with — particularly when we are tied up dealing with so many emails! There will be a revolution, I know it. I’m not sure what it will look like, but it’s coming. I can’t be the only one wondering exactly how to get off the email train. Don’t get me wrong, email isn’t going away anytime soon; it has some very strong, good points. But the way we handle email is going to change, the way I handle it is going to change, and the first victim is going to be all the crap I don’t want to see. So much for email as a superior direct channel.
I think my kids are good leading indicators. At 19 and 21, they use email almost not at all. (The little they use it is for school.) They text. Somehow, I do not believe marketers will ever be welcome or effective in that world. Maybe for something you allow as you walk through a mall or store, but I can’t see Millennials putting up with an avalanche of marketing texts. They will defeat it somehow, if it comes to that. They do, however, seem to like getting mail. Doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it has their name is on it, they’ll look at it. Who would have thought?
Old is the new new…
We assumed that the old order would fade and that coming generations, starting with the Millennials, would be digital natives without connection or tactile allegiance to paper. Turns out, it appears this too is wrong, at least when it comes to how Millennials want to be approached by marketers. Anecdotally, my kids bear this out.
Actually, when I think about it, it makes perfect sense. We non-Millenials feel compelled to learn and understand every digital technology that comes down the pike. We were curious; we didn’t want to be left behind. But as we clamored to understand and integrate this technology, the Millennials kept their cool. Amazingly, the Rochester Institute of Technology recently found that more 18 to 34-year-olds than 55-year-olds believe that direct mail will never truly be replaced. In fact, 73% of Millennials still use direct mail coupons when making purchases, just like you and me. Shocking, isn’t it?
But when you think about it, numbers like these shouldn’t be surprising. The Millenials do what youth has always done: they pay attention to what they want and they ignore what they don’t want. Simple. They do not feel compelled to do a deep dive into every new thing that comes along, and they do not feel compelled to reject things simply because they pre-date something newer. It should come as no surprise that Millennials eagerly open a mailer featuring coupons tailored specifically to their tastes. Whether it’s email or print, they take what they want from both, and leave the rest.
The world keeps changing; it always has. But predictions and prejudice? Those are fool’s errands.