The ‘Death’ of Direct Mail and Catalogs

I’m not a big fan of naysayers. Your typical naysayer has a particular agenda that drives the “nay” that they’re “saying.” For instance, pure-play internet marketers do a great job of casting a shadow of impending doom on the direct mail industry.

Why? Simple: They don’t benefit from the competition!

In recent years, direct mail has been positioned as old-school, obsolete, “doesn’t work” and just plain bad. When asked, direct and non direct mailers will tell you direct mail is dead. but, It’s when non mailers get into the act that I get really worried because they are buying into the philosophy sight unseen.

I get it. Direct mailers already have a reputation as junk mailers. So while catalogers haven’t been hit as hard by the junk mail tag, in large part due to their value to shoppers as name brands, the mailing industry as a whole is threatened.

Can’t we all just get along?

Maybe not!

Every time I turn around, there’s a new name and/or affront to direct mail. First it was called push marketing. (We were being too pushy!) Then it was outbound marketing. (“They” coined the phrase “inbound marketing.”) The term I hear all the time these days that makes my blood boil is “intrusion” marketing.

Who creates these monikers?  Answer: marketers!

And while referring to direct marketers as intrusion marketers, they’ve named themselves “attraction” marketers. Let’s attract; let’s start a conversation; let’s communicate. Oh please!

Setting the record straight…

So I’d like to take this opportunity to clear things up for those who put forth the garbage that direct mail intrudes and/or is dead. Consider the following:

1. Direct mail isn’t going to die anytime soon. Direct marketers will evolve, survive and thrive. By taking advantage of personalization, variable data printing, PURLS,  and the multitude of tools online, direct mail will continue to find new ways to drive leads, sales, and increase their response rates.

2. Your goal is to be relevant. Direct marketers don’t want to mail to people who don’t want to receive their offers. And those consumers who don’t want to receive catalogs/direct mail can turn to suppression services such as Catalog Choice and the Direct Marketing Association’s mail preference service. All mailers should run those suppression files against their prospect lists, not their housefiles.

3. So-called “intrusion” marketers set the rules for direct marketing and internet marketing. We’ve created a medium that’s all about measurement and metrics. Direct marketers are responsible for the tools that differentiate themselves from those dot-bomb sock puppet marketers, so why are they dissing you?

4. You’d think there’s room for all types of media in today’s marketing mix. Direct marketers don’t bad-mouth pull marketing. They embrace it, use it, measure it — and if it works, roll out with it. They’re driven purely by return on investment. If it works, they love it.

5. Direct marketers have taken big hits on paper and postage rates, the economy, even anthrax in the last decade, but they continue to soldier on. The truth is, they still get response and ROI. If not, they’d stop mailing. Consumers still buy via the mail, and will continue to do so.

The bottom line: Don’t buy into the self-fulfilling prophesy that direct mail is a dead medium. It ain’t! My clients are seeing good to excellent results in the mail. Just follow the principles of direct marketing and you’ll succeed.

10 thoughts on “The ‘Death’ of Direct Mail and Catalogs

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    jim –

    Love your call-out on “intrusion” marketing. Because the people behind it are the ones that create meaningless “viral video” to entire consumers to “sign up” or come to a website. And then, hit them with the fact it’s all about selling their stuff.

    Which is better branding? Sending a direct commercial appeal that is honest in its objectives and offers something of value? Or using “bait & switch” (a tactic which is illegal in many applications) to fool consumers into so-called bonding with a brand?

    The other thought I’d love to hear you discuss is getting to the reality of social media. There’s obviously going to be some great uses. Dell has apparently built a big name list from their other advertising, then used that list with Twitter to send out deals/coupons.

    But, it’s sad that I have to work hard to get social media practitioners to reveal the whole truth behind a campaign. (What they don’t understand is that their biz needs the whole truth so we can all figure out when and how to use social.) Even worse, when I refuse to accept mythical numbers and seek for truth, it seems to offend them.

    It’s all marketing. We just need to learn when/how to use each. And, back to your point, there are many things where there’s a lot more money made with a physical catalog than an email or a website.

  2. Martin Gross-Albenhausen says:

    Great post, Jim. And thinking that our German Direct Marketing Association changed it’s name to “German Dialogue Marketing Association”, you see that many actually seem to be ashame to try to sell directly.

    We have the same moniker in Germany. Interesting thing, though. Otto Group is also one of the few remaining Big Book catalog publishers. Last year, this activity had about 60 % of sales from the website. So the catalog is dead? I asked and they said: No way. They increased frequency and mail or distribute much deeper. The number of pages of individual catalogs may recline as the heavily promote the web, but the number of pages circulated over the year is growing. They sent out about 100 million catalogs last year and will send out some MORE this year.

    Did it ruin their bottom line? No, they made more profits, because after all the money is made from excellence in very different parts of the company (think buying, think logistics…). And since they buy for the Web they can choose the catalog-products according to prior sales-figures from the online-store. The ratio of advertising cost vs. sales is getting even better, or so they say.

    One interesting bit of info: Some old rules seem to apply. In catalogs, only about 15 % of products were selling really good. And with all the scoring and other techniques, this old ratio has stayed the same on the web. But for the catalogs, it went up. That means, catalogs are more “productive”. But you can no longer measure exactly, because orders get diverted to the web.

  3. Direct Mail Diva says:

    Hey Jim,

    Great post. I agree every form of marketing has a place in the great world of promotion! Although direct mail is my background we now work with a lot of other options as well, and I gotta be honest nothing pulls a direct response like direct mail.

    In the past 18 mos with all the hits our industry has taken (like you mentioned-economy, paper costs, postage, etc…), the professionals that are still in the market have done nothing but improve response and the products we use as vehicles for the message. In ’07 our average response was a little over one half of a percent, now we have some products that average over 2%!

    The nay-sayers can say what they will, but direct mail is one of the only mediums that can actually be tracked…and the track record is quite good!

    Thanks again for getting the positive word out there about direct mail!

  4. Madeleine Hannah says:

    Just want to say your article is striking. The clarity in your post is simply striking and i can take for granted you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the ac complished work. Excuse my poor English. English is not my mother tongue.

  5. Rob Green says:


    Love the post! I’ve been in the internet marketing field for a few years and continue to do so. But, I am currently in the process of launching a new direct mail and web marketing service in my home market. (I know, begin direct mail in 2010!).

    Thanks for the great post regarding a solid standby medium within the marketing arena!

    PS. shared the post of twitter for ya!

  6. Judy H says:

    I agree with everything you state, Jim. Just a couple additional points (from a former direct marketer speaking now as a consumer) –
    (1) If direct mail is dead, how come I’m still getting so much of it? I don’t have any data, but I have to think direct mail accounts for a lot of Internet orders. I, for one, don’t usually “shop” online, but I do “buy” online as a result of direct mail promotions.
    (2) I, personally, don’t find direct mail to be anymore “intrusive” than e-mail and online ads.

  7. Patrick Surrena says:

    I have to agree with your post. It seems to me that folks like to be associated with the newest, hippest, coolest. But in the end, it’s all about performance, marketing accountability. We have so many marketing tactics to choose from and they all have their role and place. But they all contribute to different degrees, in different ways.

    People often talk about being more effective by being multichannel. I agree. But you don’t pick the channels to use by which one’s are less expensive, or the newest or coolest. You select those tactics through strategic integration of various channels selected based on strong front end data analysis resulting their accountability and predictability to achieve your key performance indicators. I call this “Multigration”. The combination of both multi-channel and integration which can yield, if done properly, excellent results.

    Every market, every audience, every product/service, every situation is different. It’s not a one size fits all world to which we automatically say let’s put it on the internet, facebook, twitter, email, and every other social marketing tool we can think of. If those are the best performers for my situation, then great. That’s what I’ll do. But if the data says it DM, then great. That’s what I’ll do. Or any combination of “outbound” and “inbound”.

    I don’t care about the medium–I care about what it does for me and my client.

  8. Connie Jacoby says:


    As a US Postal Service Direct Mail Sales Specialist, I was especially pleased with your article. You hit the nail on the head! When used correctly, Direct Mail gets your message to your target audience without being intrusive because it allows customers to respond to your offer at their convenience.

    Thanks for letting this group know what we have known all along – Direct Mail works!

  9. Marty Thomas says:

    Another good way to give your response rates a boost is to use personal urls. An example of a Personal URL would be: and when “Jim” visits his personal url, the website will usually be customized to him. It also allows the marketer to track who is responding.

  10. Bob Meyer says:

    Just something in from International Paper . . . relates to this . . .

    Print Pays Off – from International Paper

    According to the latest research on advertising, printed communications are making a significant contribution to the economy and have a positive impact on business. Statistics show the following:

    * Campaigns combining direct mail and internet yield up to an additional 25 percent response rate.
    * Nearly 80 percent of households either read or scan advertising mail sent to their household.
    * Direct mail give advertisers a whopping 13-1 return on their investment.
    * Nearly 80 percent of internet users surveyed said they were directly influenced to purchase an item or service because of a direct mail.
    * Brand recall is substantially higher using print vs. onscreen. On-screen information is 20 to 30 percent more difficult to read.
    * Small and medium businesses still rely on newspaper and magazine articles (43.6 percent) and direct mail, including letters, postcards and catalogs (3.5 percent) to get results.

    All this and more from:

    click on the downloadable link for “Down To Earth” Is it worth printing?

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