Not So Fast: Print Ain’t Dead Yet (AKA Direct Mail Outperforms Digital Channels by 600%)

If you think direct mail is dead, I say you, my dear reader, may have your head in the “cloud”.  

Before you call me crazy, consider the following: 

The Direct Marketing Association recently reported that direct mail’s response rate surpasses that of all digital channels — by a long shot.  

According to their research, direct mail achieves a 3.7% response rate with a house list, and a 1% response rate with a prospect list.

OK, sounds very respectable, right?

But it gets even better:  Mobile, paid search, social media, email, and internet display combined (yes, combined) only achieve a .62% response rate.  Put another way, print outperforms all digital channels combined by over 600%.  

Print outperforms all digital channels combined by over 600%.

If that’s not a repudiation of the “print is dead” mantra, I don’t know what is.  (By the way, when people say “print is dead,” I take it to mean one of two things: they believe print no longer performs well in the face of digital media, or that print output is declining in the United States.  We’ll talk more about this in a moment.)

Update: Wondering what the Trump Administration’s impact on print and non-print marketing might be? Read our analysis here including 3 trends which may drive more demand for print.

Let’s get into a few more of the details to understand how these response rates break down.

Direct Mail Response Rate Highlights

In comparison to direct mail, how did each of the digital channels stack up?  Here are the average response rates reported in the survey by channel:

  • Mobile: 0.2%
  • Email: 0.1% (for a prospect list);  0.1% (for house list)
  • Social Media: 0.1%
  • Paid Search: 0.1%
  • Display Advertising: 0.02%

You like charts (right?), so here’s a handy bar graph illustrating each channel’s response rate:

Response rate, by Chanel

Which offline channel has the highest response rate?   Did you catch that in the chart?  It’s the telephone.  Yep.  It had the highest response rate at 9-10%.  So pick up that phone and start making calls.

How does direct mail’s cost-per-acquisition compare to other channels?  Cost-per-acquisition for direct mail is very competitive. Direct mail stands at $19, which fares favorably with mobile and social media (both at $16-18), paid search ($21-30), internet display ($41-50) and even email ($11-15).  

Are there certain direct mail formats that do better than others?  Yes.  Formats play a role. According to the study, oversized envelopes have the best response rate at 5.0%, followed by postcards at 4.25%, dimensional at 4.0%, catalogs at 3.9%, and letter-sized envelopes at 3.5%.

In addition to direct mail, how many channels are marketers using?  Marketers continue to embrace multi-channel marketing, with 44% of the respondents using three or more channels for their marketing efforts. In these instances, the most popular channels tend were direct mail, email, and social media.

So What Are the Opportunities With Direct Mail?

As with all data, we can draw a variety of (often conflicting) conclusions.  

But follow me for a moment:  The study also asked, why, if direct mail performs so well, do marketers object to using it?

They found that marketers say their biggest problems with direct mail are: its cost, the effort to deploy it, and difficulty tracking results.

Let’s break each of those objections apart:

  • Cost should only be an issue if the overall marketing campaign is not ROI positive.  If direct mail creates leads, and those leads turn into opportunities — and those opportunities turn into enough sales to exceed your investment in the campaign, what’s the problem?  You may not have a handle on your metrics, or maybe you have a math problem — but don’t blame it on the medium.
  • If deploying direct mail is difficult, keep in mind that there’s somewhere around 25,000 printers in the United States (not to mention agencies and other types of service bureaus).  If you can’t find one that meets your needs, give us a shout and we’ll connect with you at least half a dozen.  There’s plenty of great talent and hardworking people who will take the burden of direct mail’s complexity upon themselves to free you up to drive revenue.
  • If you’re having trouble tracking the results of your direct mail campaign, then perhaps you’re unaware of the variety of solutions that are available to make print measurable.  The good news is multi-channel marketing automation software (like MindFire’s that includes Personalized URLs for Direct Mail) can help.  If you’re not using a platform to track your mail and generate more leads, you’re most likely leaving money on the table.

“But wait a moment,” you say to me, still unconvinced, “doesn’t the study also find that fewer companies report using direct mail?  Doesn’t that suggest it’s not working for others, and thus companies use it less?”

Yes, my friend, you’re right.  The study does find this to be true.  We’ve all seen the print forecasts and there’s no denying that there’s a diminished output across the United States.

But I submit to you that within this challenge lies your opportunity.

Why?  What if it’s also true that because there is less competition in the mailbox for your prospects’ attention, your message may get more easily in front of your prospect?  Combine this thought with something else the DMA has reported: direct mail response rates over the past 2 years are rising.

So, not only are you competing against fewer people for your prospects’ attention, but response rates are also moving in your favor — meaning that you’re more likely to generate leads.

In light of these facts, the only sensible thing for us to do is test, test, test.  Get out there and see if this might work for you.

You might be surprised.

By the way: That amazing Photo of the HP Indigo 30,000 in the Blog Image above is from our friends over at Tap Packaging Solutions…go check them out! What a beast of a press…Print Clearly ‘Aint Dead for them!

Want To Know Where Print Is Headed?
Take your direct mail knowledge one step further. The Economist recently analyzed the future of print in the United States, and we compiled the most helpful data points into an eBook. Get insights to help you create more leads, learn about areas of growth, and see what the experts forecast will happen over the next few years. Download now by clicking below.What Lies Ahead for Print in the United States: Forecasts, Opportunities, and Response Rates.Download now

What Do You Think: Is Print Dead?

Now it’s your turn.  We’d really like to hear if you’re someone for whom print was “dead” — but you’ve come to find it’s not.  What happened?  

Or, if you’re someone who has used direct mail for a while, but suddenly find it weak and ineffective, we’d love to hear your story too.  

And lastly, if you’re looking for the report cited in this post, it’s the 2015 Response Rate Report, available from the DMA here. The list price is $499.

David Rosendahl
Connect w/Me

David Rosendahl

Co-Founder at MindFire
Dad of 2 (wait, no there’s a 3rd, where’d he come from?) and helped launch MindFire. Techno-marketer fascinated with the convergence of print and non-print marketing, machine learning, and entrepreneurship. May run for political office one day (yes, I’m crazy).
David Rosendahl
Connect w/Me

Comments (20)

  1. Great Article. Thanks David.
    Question: What’s the definition of “Response Rate” in these stats? is it a basic successful contact – the ability to only reach the target and the ability to talk/contact someone without necessarily resulting in sales/revenue? Or does the Response Rate consider those contacts that generated sales? For example, the chart showing the Telephone rates, I’m assuming that’s just the ability to actually reach/talk/contact the target but that doesn’t mean that those calls turned into sales? Correct?

    • Thank you, Laurence. Correct — a “response” does not necessarily mean that there was a sale. Let me know if that changes your view of the data and its implications on your business?

  2. Pingback: The Print Industry isn’t Dead, It’s Alive & Well - West Press

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  4. Hey everyone — since publishing this article, we’ve received a number of requests to syndicate the content (folks want this on their site). If you’re interested, please reply here, and we’ll be in touch.

    Guess it means many of you agree that PRINT AIN’T DEAD?

    • Hi Joseph, what vertical are you in? I agree with you that in some cases, .2 – .3 is reasonable and still yields a positive ROI.

      But I have personally seen DM campaigns with much higher response rates.

      Would love your thoughts — thanks!

  5. Being an old direct and database marketer, I am really not surprised at this. The % may be a bit overstated, without more detail about the measurements I can’t say. The real problem is that as the yield from digital fails to meet its promise, the marketers simple redefine the goal. What had the potential to be the most powerful direct medium had devolved into a branding opportunity. Once you start measuring GRP’s and TRP’s (like old TV ratings, you have given up the chance to be a direct medium.Programmatic ad buying makes it even worse.
    Lick ‘em, stick ‘em still works.

  6. David – thanks for the kind words on our blog (, and your’re 100% right – PRINT AIN’T DEAD!

    What we find so interesting is how important it is to blend print and digital to leverage their respective strengths. As direct and digital teams are being integrated at brands and agencies, the expectation for printers and PSP’s has evolved.

    When printers walk into their prospects and talk about how they can plug print & mail services into campaigns that leverage Automation and CRM, they become strategic partners, rather than commoditized service providers.

  7. Regarding direct mail:

    Direct-mail has a much higher upfront cost than social media or email. To make it pay, you need to be highly-targeted, follow best practices in mail piece design (yeah, I agree that adding PURLs works), and most importantly, you need to integrate direct-mail with all of your other marketing methods. The days of “spray-and-pray” direct-mail are over. It’s far too expensive and you will just go broke.

    We start by very carefully targeting our postal mail recipients, making sure to include all contacts that are also on our email subscriber list. We use digital channels to collect postal addresses, and postal to drive visits to digital. We further refine by matching that list with the list of subscribers that actually reacted to the emails in some way. Each of these groups get variable messages and imagery on the direct mail piece.

    When we take these extra steps, the response rates can be fantastic. We regularly enjoy response rates exceeding 12%. By response I mean, the recipient takes affirmative action to directly make contact after getting the mail piece. We use every tool in the toolbox to get the job done, and direct mail combined with digital pays every time.

  8. I’ve been a list broker since 1986 and I turn customers away all the time who want consumer email lists. They don’t work and I don’t need unhappy customers. DM is so much more responsive and personal, but customers today are in love with the idea of not paying postage. If the USPS could ever get their act together, we could have a DM boom again.

  9. Could you apply some numbers to this? Meaning, take an “average” direct mail program, factor in the cost of copywriting, creative, printing, postage and compare it to an online campaign created for the same audience (which will define keywords and the associated click rate and cost per click).

    Also, calculate the ROI of the project, total amount of gross margin generated by the sales from the project less the cost of the campaign.

    Then, judgements can be made as to which form of advertising generates a better ROI.

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