Direct mail: Old-fashioned? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.

While digital marketing techniques currently enjoy widespread adoption and support (after all, Facebook generated nearly $34 billion in digital advertising revenue in 2018 and Google generated nearly three times that number) — the fact remains: direct mail is a channel with a long, proven history of success.

In fact, we have clients using direct mail as part of a larger strategy who have seen year-over-year increases in account growth ranging from 20-70%. That’s why we wanted to talk with Trish Witkowski, a direct mail expert who teaches others how to use the old-fashioned snail mail for the best effect.

In our conversation, Trish shared hard-won learnings and recommendations specifically for community financial institutions who want to up their direct mail game.


Direct mail can build relationships, not just find new prospects.

People used to send a lot more mail than they do today. Less mail in the mailbox means your opportunity to get noticed is much higher. Plus, mail enjoys guaranteed delivery, and it requires the recipient to handle it — as opposed to an email that can be deleted with a click.

If you really want your direct mail to avoid the trash or recycle bin, you need a well-defined purpose. A common mistake marketers make is to only use direct mail to announce a big sale or promotion. Direct mail can and should be treated as a relationship channel. And relationships are important, as studies have shown that it is 5–25x more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to keep a current one (Harvard Business Review). Community financial institutions (CFIs) can stay top of mind with their existing account holders through drip campaigns — “drips” of valuable content delivered on a predetermined schedule, light on selling, heavy on useful information. Frequency is a major key to success with direct mail.


Add value by talking about ways you can help your account holders.

When you’re planning you drip campaign strategy, you want to think in terms of information that will cause the recipient to think “Wow! That’s really helpful; they seem friendly. The next time I have a question, I’m going to call/email them.” By building trust through regular communication, you open the door to a deeper relationship. Think about your drip campaign along the lines of a blog, where you publish information that people want to read, vs. a marketing initiative where you’re just asking for their business.

Millennials, especially, expect brands to practice corporate social responsibility. And community financial institutions often have a head start in this area due to their history and connectedness to people’s everyday lives. This type of information is perfect for a drip campaign; it builds goodwill and is beneficial press for the organizations that your institution supports.

Other ideas for drip campaign content:

  • A series of FAQs or useful tips
  • Seasonal reminders
  • Community events
  • Reminders of free services or benefits you offer

What you shouldn’t do: hastily send a piece of mail, then wait 4-5 months before you send another unrelated piece. People can smell a rush job or a half-baked idea when it arrives in their mailbox.


Customize your campaign with variable data.

When planning your direct mail strategy, look for ways to use the data you have. With the right details, you can have each piece of mail customized to the recipient (beyond name and address) — also known as variable data. This can allow you to tailor the message in a way that feels personal and catches the reader’s eye. Think about the relevance of the message and imagery. Don’t send empty nesters a mailer with a young couple and a baby on it. They’ll tune out.

You can even give your current database to a direct mail company that is able to cross-reference with existing databases and pull publicly available information that you may not have access to. One such company called AccuZIP works with small businesses to clean their lists and pull in additional data. AccuZIP also works with a company called PostcardMania that has all sorts of services to help you send more effective mail. PostcardMania even has a thing they call Direct Mail 2.0 that integrates with Google for automatic follow-up and phone-call tracking.


Determine (and track) your success metrics.

One of the first things that should happen once you’ve decided to initiate a direct mail campaign is to sit down and agree about what a successful outcome would look like. Skepticism about direct mail can often be traced back to a lack of defined success parameters, or a subsequent mistake in the planning or execution of the campaign.

Account opening is just one metric. You should also consider phone calls, emails, web form submissions, or referrals as legitimate indicators for success. And your mailings should always include three different ways for the recipient to respond, such as email, phone, text, or social media.

Mail is one of the most traceable things — not only how and when it arrives, but also what people do with it. Just make sure there are multiple ways to track it. Did they call the main number, did they go to the campaign microsite? Is there a code you gave them on the mailer, or a coupon they used? These are mechanisms that make it much easier to track how effective your campaign has been.


9 mistakes businesses make with direct mail


1. One and done

So you decide to mail a promotion and you get it out the door, but you don’t have a plan for a follow-up. Maybe you think “we’ll see how it performs,” and when the results don’t blow your socks off, you give up. Or maybe you just forget to prioritize a follow-up mailing in your direct mail marketing strategy. Either way, this approach almost guarantees disappointment. Your list needs time to develop and the key to generating interest in your audience is sending regular mailings.

2. Too much going on

Usually a symptom of mistake No. 1, and you can’t narrow the offer down to just one thing. You’re not sure if or when you’re going to send another piece of mail. In the end you decide to include multiple offers on a single postcard. Rather than maximizing your marketing investment, this just confuses the reader and increases the chance of your promotion getting thrown away.

3. Too slick on the design

There is a big difference between a graphic design that fits into your brand standards and a graphic design that gets the reader’s attention and compels them to action. Very often the second type of graphic design is not “pretty” and designers may argue with the direction. It may help to consult a direct mail expert who can help you make tough calls about the design.

4. Unclear call to action (CTA)

If you didn’t think through your success metric, it’s likely that your CTA will be unclear, or even the wrong one altogether. Also, if you’ve fallen prey to mistake No. 2, then the reader will feel confused about what exactly they’re supposed to do (remember, they’re skimming the words).

5. Lack of urgency

For a sales-driven campaign, timing is essential. If you don’t put a deadline on the offer, how can you possibly measure the effectiveness or response? Especially when you get in the habit of sending out mail regularly, there’s no harm in making the offer a second time at a later date.

6. Impatience

Direct mail is a long game. Don’t be surprised if your first and second mailings show lackluster results. Find someone with direct mail expertise who can help you optimize your strategy and execution. You would never set up a blog, post one article and then decide that blogs are worthless because no one ever comments. Consistency is key.

7. Failure to show appreciation for your account holders

There’s nothing wrong with sending promotions and asking for the sale, but if that’s all you do, it will eventually turn people off. Earmark part of your direct mail budget for “account holder appreciation” and thank people for trusting you with their money. Think of it as a retention strategy — one of the main reasons people leave a business is because they feel unappreciated.

8. Getting the size wrong

When sending direct mail, the cost of postage is highly dependent on dimensions and the proportion of the piece you are sending. If you specify the wrong size, even by a small margin, the cost of your postage can increase exponentially. Consult your printer or mail house before you go into production to be sure you’re producing a mail piece that will meet postal regulations and arrive in mailboxes at the intended time...

9. Poor list hygiene

According to the USPS, there are 86 address changes every minute of every day, or about 45 million moves per year. So, if you are not regularly running your mailing lists through a list hygiene program (like AccuZIP), you are very likely sending mail that will never reach its destination—which kills your metrics and wastes your money.


You can learn more from Trish Witkowski!


Trish loves helping businesses of all kinds optimize their direct mail strategies. To learn more, you can take one of her courses at LinkedIn Learning. She recommends “Learning Direct Mail Strategy” as a good course for community banks and credit unions who want to up their direct mail game.

Tags: Marketing