Direct Mail’s Identity Crisis

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We’ve all noticed that as emails have multiplied, the complexion of our snail mail has changed.

It seems that Direct Mail is an industry in dramatic transition.

Not only are marketers more able to individually profile and target consumers, but technology is starting to make it possible to eliminate most junk snail mail altogether.
– Consider PaperKarma, which automatically unsubscribes you from junk mail.
– Or more dramatically, the late, great disrupter Outbox, which went for the whole bundle in working through the USPS to allow consumers to digitize all of their postal mail so that individuals could get rid of junk mail, keep important things organized and never have to go out to their mailbox again. Despite strong market response, the USPS squashed Outbox.  See their very interesting story here.)

And yet, there are plenty of signs that there’s a lot more work to be done.

Consider the following examples:

1) Restoration Hardwareas posted last year, RH again sent its grandiose collection of ‘Source Books’ — only instead of 7 lbs, we got 15 lbs in the form of 12 separate catalogs with over 3000 pages.    We didn’t request this catalog, nor did we buy anything from RH in the last year (nor did we actually open the last shipment).


– The apparent environmental plunder generated predictable outrage, including a clever Tumblr called ‘Deforestation Hardware’.

Seems like an enormous waste to print and ship.  Yet RH claims that by sending once per year on heavy stock, they actually print fewer pages than many competitors, and encourage online shopping, which is a growing % of their business.  At the same time, the shipping label claims ‘UPS CARBON NEUTRAL SHIPMENT’, whatever that means.  You can find their whole array of disclaimers here.

Personally, I doubt that many consumers keep these things on the coffee table for a month, let alone a year, and the optics are a PR disaster.  It seems more like an ego play by the boss, Gary Friedman.  I’m just glad I didn’t run into my mailman the day he had to deliver these to the neighborhood.

Lesson:  As online shopping continues to morph, the role of ancillary vehicles (like direct mail) will continue to morph as well – – in this case, moving from an immediate revenue-generation prompt to (theoretically) serving as a visual brand reminder, much as broadcast media has traditionally done.

2)  Effective Targeting,  Or Not.   In the same week I received the RH catalog/doorstop, I also received glossy pitches for, in ascending order of preciousness:
a) Audi A8  (starts at $77k; optionable to $120k).  Nice car, but nope.


b) Around the World by Private Jet (sent by a company called TCS Expeditions and sets you back about $180k per couple for 25 days or so).  Apparently there are lots of these types of tours available; you can save $80k by going as a single!  Nope again.


c) The jet itself.  Specifically the new Falcon 8X from Dassault.  Yes, I actually got a sales pitch for one of these.  About $58 million.  Nope yet again, even if the garage were bigger.


Somewhere someone has decided that I’m a good target for these extravagances.  I am not, nor is there much in my background to suggest that I am.

So I can’t understand why in this age of micro-targeting, Big Data and 1:1 marketing, that I’m being targeted.

3) DEX.  Like Gene Simmons, the Yellow Pages just won’t go away.  The days where YP was a household staple are long gone; they are now obsolete the second they land with a pathetic thud on your driveway.

Ironically, there is a QR code on the front of the book, which like a snake eating its own tail, leads you to the Dex app (below), as if to hammer home the printed version’s obsolescence.  And in case you needed a further reminder, there is a recycling link to help you dispose of the printed directory you just received.

Dex App

Clearly all of this cannot go on forever.  There are not enough dollars, hours, or trees to sustain this wasteful direct mail.

Lesson: at some point, the ability to get high-quality, appropriately targeted mailings might make a huge difference in an email-cluttered world.  But we’re not there yet.


2 responses »

  1. One other development in direct mail is the Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM) program from the Post Office which lets small businesses target down to the mail carrier routes within zip codes at a very low price. If the Post Office was good at marketing it would be a very highly used program.


  2. i think wordpress needs a “like” button.



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