Direct Mail’s Short-term Obstacles Could Provide Long-term Benefit to Marketers

By Rene Hamill, VP of Client Engagement, Alliant

In March 2020, when the ad industry slowed to a crawl, there were many questions about what the future held. The uncertainty of the pandemic spilled into everything, and there were questions swirling about when advertising would come back, and what it would look like. More than a year later, recovery is underway. But the changes to the ad and marketing world weren’t uniform, and some channels have felt the pain worse than others.

Direct mail-in particular has felt the pull of the pandemic in various ways. TV ran into production issues, but there’s airtime to hold those ads once they are shot and edited. Direct mail marketing has fallen victim to the supply chain issues gripping countless industries, making it hard to find the very material that mailers are printed on. Those lucky enough to get their campaigns into print may then find it hard to maintain stock of the items advertised within those mailers and catalogs.

These issues may only seem temporary, but the more likely outcome is that it will require direct marketers to turn to new solutions to maintain their long-term marketing goals. Direct mail has been trending toward a more modern era for a long time, and marketers should use this current hurdle as the impetus to adopt more careful planning and begin to experiment with how they reach their audience.

Lack of paper? Get creative

The biggest short-term challenge for direct mail is the supply chain. Printers are going out of business because they can’t meet clients’ needs. Rising prices on Facebook and Google had pushed many direct marketers back to direct mail, but the inability to print catalogs is throwing a wrench in those plans.

While mailings aren’t possible as planned, that doesn’t mean they should be scrapped altogether. Postcards and mini-mailers remain in supply and are a viable alternative to full-size catalogs for the second half of the year. While postcards may be the most viable, efficient way to approach direct mail given the supply-chain issues and postage raises, many marketers may not have a deep experience with them. Quick tests will be critical to get a sense of response and engagement rates, and marketers may find that they need to more tightly target their audience and optimize their mailing lists to drive better results with postcards.

This is even more important as we get closer to the holiday season. There are major concerns that the paper shortage will continue into the late part of the year. Marketers have two options: mail earlier, or plan earlier.

Mailing earlier ensures the mailer is delivered as planned but runs the risk of getting there before consumers are ready to spend. But planning in advance allows marketers to build in flexibility, in the event that there are paper issues or even supply issues for the products they plan to offer.

Focus on addressable audience

Direct mail has slowly been shifting away from a volume-based strategy toward one more focused on audience granularity, and the supply chain issues should finally push marketers toward audience once and for all. Rather than blanketing consumers with mailers, it’s more important than ever to hit prospects that are most likely to be interested in a brand or offer.

This is critical for many of the industries that are now leaning heavily into direct mail right now. Insurance and Medicare are preparing for big Q3 enrollment periods, so this is primed mailing season. These two industries are likely looking at a growing audience as well, as baby boomers reach Medicare age. Marketers have an opportunity to go even deeper into their audience segmentation, in order to not only find age-appropriate prospects but those who are likely to respond to offers.

Meanwhile, there are brands that rode the pandemic to direct mail success that will need to adjust their audience strategies. Food delivery brands are now going to see performance declines as consumers return to pre-pandemic dining habits. Where they may have previously gone really wide with their campaigns, they can now focus on smaller segments that are likely to keep taking advantage. Meanwhile, other verticals, like children’s content and crafting, seem to have caught on permanently. These brands can continue to use the insights gained during the pandemic to expand their audience pool and investment.

If necessary, look beyond mail

Direct mail is effective, but it’s not the only direct marketing option. For marketers whose plans have been altered by supply chain issues, Connected TV and email represent great opportunities for hitting some of the same audience profiles, in a granular, measurable fashion. DTC marketers are already investing more in these two channels, and other performance-based marketers should experiment as well. They may find that they’ve found a new optimal channel for their messages, even if and when the paper supply returns.

Direct mail marketing is in the midst of recovery, and marketers will undoubtedly continue to see performance within the channel. However, the lingering effects of the pandemic are creating the kinds of issues that require marketers to think creatively. By maintaining flexibility and spending more time focusing on the audience, mail-heavy brands may find that they develop a new media mix that translates well into the future as well.

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