Email or direct mail: Which delivers the best ROI?

As a savvy marketer, you want to spend your money on campaigns that deliver the best return on investment (ROI).

In today’s world of mail marketing, you have two choices — traditional direct mail or email. Each is unique, with specific benefits for different types of marketing goals.

This makes the answer to the question of whether email or direct mail delivers more ROI: It depends.

To help you make the best choice for your business, let’s examine the pros and cons of each to discover which is the best fit.

What’s excellent about email marketing

Email is everywhere.

In fact, research conducted in March 2018 by the market research firm Radicati Group showed that worldwide email accounts topped out at 3.8 billion.

If you think that’s a big number, check this out: The quantity of business and consumer emails sent in just one day is greater than 281 billion—and projected to grow to over 333 billion per day by 2022.

That’s not an unlikely number, either, since there were only 205 billion emails per day sent just three years ago. In contrast, only 13.8 billion letters are sent.

So, email is popular and poised to continue to grow. Lots of consumers use it, and marketers love it for some very valid reasons.

Let’s look at a few of them:

1. Cost and value

Email marketing has an incredible average ROI of $38 for every $1 spent, making it a cost-effective channel for your campaign, particularly when you couple this with the fact that most of today’s consumers use email on a daily basis.

Email can be made even more valuable when you personalize your message to grab your audience’s attention. Personalization in the email subject line can increase your message’s chance of being opened by 26%.

2. Campaign monitoring—and tweaking—on the fly

Email messages provide instant gratification for marketing managers who want to know if their campaign is effective.

An email is delivered instantly, allowing quick feedback on open and bounce rates, click-through data, and deliverability.

Having real-time data on campaign effectiveness allows you to test an analyze concurrent campaigns or make on-the-fly changes to a campaign that’s lagging.

3. Affordable for most businesses

Even if you’re a sole proprietor, freelancer, or tiny start-up—an email marketing campaign is within reach.

Email campaign service providers offer variable pricing levels, and many have a drag-and-drop approach to email campaign creation that takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Plus, if you are running an online business, chances are that an email address is the first — and sometimes only—address you’ll have for your potential customers in the beginning.

4. On-the-spot conversions

When your prospects get a direct mail piece asking them to take action, they must usually get to a browser to type in a URL, scan a QR code, or take several other steps to get what they want, be it a download, subscription to your newsletter, coupon, or white paper.

With email, all they have to do is click and they’ve gotten the prize. Instant gratification for them, instant conversion for you.

The obstacles facing email marketing

We’ve addressed the wonders of email marketing, from cost to conversion, but to be fair, we also need to address the less desirable aspects.

1. Email overload

With all those billions of emails circling the globe, there’s no doubt this medium is popular — and that’s the problem.

Over the years email has become less personal and, therefore, less effective. Everyone’s doing it, so it’s become harder to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

2. The annoyance of spam

Your target audience gets tons of emails every day that they don’t want. In fact, spam — or unsolicited emails sent in bulk—currently account for nearly half of all emails sent.

When much of their email contains annoying and unwanted solicitation, consumers tend to press the “Unsubscribe” button on anything that doesn’t seem interesting.

That places extra pressure on email marketers to create compelling campaigns to keep their places in the inbox of prospects.

3. List-building timeframe

The days of “buyable” email lists that are worth buying are over. You can’t purchase qualified leads to grow your business. Yet organic growth takes time and growing an email list requires constant attention, as people come and go from your list.

4. Design dismay

There are plenty of email templates available, but if you’re wanting to stand out from the crowd you might consider customizing your email with brand-specific colors, logos, and creativity.

Some of the boldest campaigns are successful through stellar photography and graphic design, and yet sometimes people don’t wait for their images to generate before deciding how to manage their email.

And, a data analysis conducted by Google’s Gmail service confirms that consumers are blocking up to 43% of emails.

Now, let’s have a look at direct mail for comparison.

Why direct mail is still alive and kicking

Direct mail has been around for centuries, so it’s obvious that, at least at some level, it’s been found to be a tried-and-true marketing device.

Let’s see why marketers are still using it.

1. It has evolved

Direct mail isn’t just circulars and flyers anymore. With the advent of devices like QR codes, direct mail has evolved to be more interactive.

On the marketing side, direct mail can be integrated with your CRM to allow you to collect campaign data and to trigger events based on your prospect’s actions after receiving your mail.

2. Catching prospects at a good time

While emails can bombard people at their busiest times of day, a direct mail piece is waiting for your prospect to have time to spend with it.

Direct mail can live with your prospect up to 17 days, while email is around for two seconds, then gone.

That time span means your message stays in front of your audience for longer.

3. The engagement is real

Direct mail has that “junk mail” stigma to overcome, but that’s made it an easy field in which to stand out. More marketers are using email as a prospecting vehicle, so your chances of making an impression are greater with direct mail.

In addition, 75% of people who received direct mail were able to recall the advertiser as opposed to 44% with email.

Add that to the fact that 79% of customers who act immediately on direct mail, while their email-reading peers are slower to respond, with just 44% acting right away, and you have a powerful marketing tool.

Direct mail flaws in a nutshell

There are plenty of ways that direct mail falls short of being a perfect way to market. Among the most common are:

  • Cost of printing and design

  • Difficulty getting and maintaining physical addresses

  • Cost of postage

These costs are not insignificant and require a larger initial investment — something that might be difficult for the small business owner.

Email or direct mail for the win?

The answer to the question we posed at the beginning of the article as to which is better is still:  It depends.

While email is a fast, effective, and low-cost way to get started marketing, direct mail yields a response rate that’s 30 times greater than email in some cases.

And those words, “in some cases,” are the key. There are numerous factors to consider when comparing the two vehicles since they aren’t quite the same thing.

For example, customers prefer things like catalogs and loyalty rewards by direct mail, but they like confirmation, follow-up and news and updates via email. They see direct mail as formal, believable, and official, while email is seen as spontaneous, quick, and informative.

To choose the correct marketing vehicle for your business, look to your target audience for answers. Decide what information you’re going to be sharing and break down the characteristics of who you’re sharing with. This should give you a more solid idea of which vehicle is best for your purposes.

Wrap up

While both direct mail and email can be effective ways to market to your target audience, reconciling your brand’s persona, the information you want to relay, your budget considerations, and the goals of your campaign will help you make the right choice.

Many businesses find that it’s not an either/or proposition—mixed media campaigns of both direct mail and email work well together—with 51% of consumers preferring to receive both.

So, feel free to mix and match or use the one that makes sense for your brand.

About the Author

Grace Miller

Grace Miller is a content writer with a passion for grammar and the public library. When she isn't writing for Emma, she's probably writing fiction, reading another thriller, or listening to a true crime podcast.

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