DM has shone in a challenging year

Richard Stuart-Turner
Friday, December 18, 2020

Direct mail has proved resilient during the pandemic, with brands and more exploiting its unique cut-through.

Earlier this month England emerged from a month-long second national lockdown.

Considerably less severe than the first lockdown in terms of restrictions, and at a time of year when many businesses traditionally increase their marketing activity anyway to stand out in all the festive noise, the impact on direct mail was thankfully not as severe this time around.

Many clients had already committed to major Christmas campaigns before the lockdown was announced by the government, while others decided to press ahead regardless.

Speaking just before the second lockdown began, Judith Donovan, chair of the Strategic Mailing Partnership, said: “Mail producers still have many clients who are looking to communicate with people, whether that be sharing details of what they are offering at Christmas or letting their customers know about a change of service such as takeaway rather than dining in.

“Not only that, charities still need to reach out to supporters in order to fundraise. The decision by HMRC to apply standard rate VAT to all charity advertising on Facebook, resulting in a rise in cost of around 20%, is another move in favour of physical mail.”

The coronavirus pandemic presented major challenges for businesses across the world, and mailing houses felt the full force of the impact right at the start, back in March.

Advertisers started to pull or scale down campaigns in their droves, either hitting pause until they could more clearly gauge how events might play out or, in some cases, because their industries had shut down altogether.

Printers serving sectors such as events, tourism and hospitality were especially badly hit and many had to pivot into other areas in order to keep themselves afloat.

Direct mail volumes suddenly dropped, although there has been strong recovery in the months since the first lockdown was eased, at least in sectors that have been allowed to resume activity.

And while the numbers of campaigns and run lengths may have gone down, many mailers found that their clients were increasingly looking for better targeting, to avoid their ROI falling off a cliff on any campaigns they did put out.

In a recent poll of Printweek readers asking ‘Has the direct mail you receive changed since the start of the pandemic?’ nearly a quarter (24%) said the mail they now receive is more targeted, while 34% reported no change and 42% felt it was less targeted. Feedback on volumes of mail received was also mixed.

But more specific targeting is increasingly happening, at least according to many direct mailers across the country, and it is “data, data, data” that is helping to achieve this, according to Ben Snutch, group sales and commercial director at Go Inspire Group.

“By using the data insights, we can offer personalisation and targeting that is more effective than ever before. Going forward it is highly likely that the goalposts will continue to move within the trading environment. Therefore, agility will be key for many of our customers.

He adds: “We have developed a number of always-on marketing propositions to enable our customers to get their message out quickly efficiently. We also have the digital printing firepower to mail large volumes in a short window if required.”

Go Inspire saw mail volumes dip back in April to around 50% of normal levels, but as of November Snutch says the business was seeing volumes at around 80% of pre-Covid levels.

Many brands and businesses that continued to advertise during the pandemic are likely to have experienced better than expected results, with direct mail proving its resilience more than ever as a captive audience, often with more time on their hands, were waiting at home.

The Q2 findings from the Joint Industry Committee for Mail (JICMail), which covered the first national lockdown, reported record-breaking double digit increases in the effectiveness of direct mail and door drops.

The average piece of direct mail was interacted with 4.58 times in the period, an 11% increase year-on-year and a record high since JICMail began tracking mail activity in Q2 2017.

The average door drop, meanwhile, was interacted with 3.19 times, another record and representing 15% growth year-on-year.

Even business mail, which is essentially addressed mail that contains some form of bill or statement, saw interaction figures rise by 7% to 4.87 times.

The lifespan of these channels was also increased in each case, with direct mail living in the home for 8.5 days on average before it was filed or thrown away, door drops for 6.9 days and business mail for 9.6 days.

The JICMail stats for Q3, which predominantly covered the summer months outside lockdowns, were not quite at such levels but were still impressive in comparison with previous years.

In Q3 the average piece of direct mail was interacted with 4.43 times, with an 8.4 day lifespan in the home, door drops were interacted with 3.03 times on average, with a 6.4 day lifespan, and business mail was interacted with 4.93 times, with a lifespan of 9.5 days.

Even more impressive, perhaps, were the results that could be attributed to these mail pieces.

JICMail found that 8.7% of all advertising mail, including direct mail, door drops and business mail, drove traffic to advertiser websites in Q3, up from 6.5% a year ago and representing a 33% increase year-on-year.

Furthermore, 5.8% of advertising mail has driven people online generally to find out more information about advertising content, up from 4.1% a year ago and representing a 41% increase year-on-year.

JICMail director of data leadership and learning Ian Gibbs says the Q2 data that covered the first lockdown “showed, quite simply, that people spending more time at home means people are interacting with their mail more”.

“And those advertisers who stayed active during lockdown got a really nice efficiency of spend because more ad impressions were delivered for the same number of mail items that were being sent out.

“They didn’t necessarily have to spend any more money but there were just people looking at their mail more. And that kind of efficiency in an above-the-line channel is quite compelling.”

He adds: “Advertisers who stayed active also got a really nice boost in share of voice or share of doormats. Because volumes did go down in Q2, if you stayed active you were just that much more visible at the doormat versus your competitors.”

Gibbs says the effects now seen for mail seem to be changing, and that “mail does exist in a multichannel world now”.

“DM open rates in Q2 went up from 69% to 80% – a huge increase – and it was particularly good at driving discussions about brands and prompting people to go online.

“Door drops were quite good at driving brand discussions and we actually saw response rates increase by 50% for door drops, from 2% in 2019 to 3% – it sounds small, but if 3% of your door drops are driving a sale that’s not to be sniffed at.”

One of the most notable users of direct mail this year has been the government, which has used the channel to deliver coronavirus-related messaging to homes.

In the early weeks of the pandemic it launched a huge print campaign that saw a letter and leaflet delivered to all 30 million households in the UK, urging them to stay at home.

“The government needed to target people in homes and what better channel for targeting people in their household than targeting at a household level,” says Gibbs.

Although print’s unique attributes will have also been an important consideration in using the medium, he adds.

“A physical, tactile medium just carries that much more kind of weight and trust than quite a sort of transitory virtual or digital piece of comms. Older people definitely interact with mail and younger people do as well, they just don’t receive so much of it, so it cuts through to them and they might be avoiding other ads elsewhere.”

Long-term impact
It is impossible to predict if any of the trends seen by JICMail this year will remain in the long term, particularly as vaccine rollouts begin and many workers inevitably begin to return to offices and other workplaces next year. But Romax managing director Robin Sumner believes direct mail will continue to prosper.

“Apart from it being one of the best mediums for acquiring and retaining clients, the ability and focus that well-targeted direct mail has in terms of consumer engagement as it reaches their doorstep is unparalleled.

“Increased time in the home as mail is delivered, as homeworkers have more disposable time. This plus the ‘noise’ of online marketing means that niche and quality products have increased opportunity to sell.”

The latest coronavirus research from Royal Mail MarketReach backs up Sumner’s points, finding that two out of five people have reported suffering digital burnout, while 44% of respondents said they looked forward to receiving mail during lockdown. Two in five also expressed that the lockdown period reaffirmed the importance of mail.

Sumner adds that, as shopping via the internet becomes more prevalent, direct mail volumes will increase alongside.

“Homeworking is not going away. B2C direct mail volumes will benefit greatly from this shift in location, as lockdown allows more ‘home shopping’. There will also be an upturn in B2B mail as offices open up more. There has been a very significant drop in B2B mail – understandably – as many key buyers are simply not in the office.”

He says that while the second lockdown saw some reduction in activity, it was “nowhere near the impact” of the first lockdown.
“The return to pre-Covid levels has been postponed a little but the future bodes very well.”

The outlook looks increasingly rosy for direct mail, then, although there has perhaps been one potential threat to its recovery in recent weeks.

A number of direct mail printers and mailing houses raised concerns to Printweek about current Royal Mail services levels in some, but not all, areas of the country with deliveries of some campaigns reportedly delayed by up to six days.

One direct mail boss said he was concerned the organisation was prioritising parcels over mail, while another was worried that a drop in service levels was “hampering the entire resurgence of direct mail”.

Deliveries of parcels and other personal mail were also being hampered by delays in the run up to Christmas and, as Printweek was going to press, Royal Mail had acknowledged the situation.

It said it was handling “exceptionally high volumes” of post and anti-Covid measures, and that despite “exhaustive planning” some customers might be experiencing “slightly longer delivery timescales” than normal.

Tim Bond
Head of insight, DMA

Despite a challenging year for everyone in the data and marketing industry, it’s been interesting to see how the pandemic has impacted some recent consumer trends. As far from dampening them all it has, in fact, accelerated many of them.

Earlier this year, our annual figures on the door drop industry revealed that this portion of the mailbag has remained remarkably resilient through difficult times. Exactly what impact the coronavirus will have on the medium is still unsure, but I believe it to be an opportunity for it to prove itself invaluable, as it has done time and again. Whether it’s engaging new customers or fostering loyalty in existing ones, door drops offer both an effective and scalable channel.

In fact, in our recently published Customer Engagement: How to Win Trust and Loyalty research, which was conducted amid the pandemic, it’s notable that post held its position as comfortably the second-most preferred channel to hear from brands (behind its electronic cousin, email). This is built on it also remaining one of the most trusted and relevant channels, according to the customers that receive it.

As periods of lockdown and social distancing have become part of our daily lives due to the pandemic, consumers have had to turn to digital channels to maintain daily essential communications. However, they have also turned to more tactile engagement too, with a notable increase in subscriptions for print newspapers and next day delivery services, according to our research.

These factors highlight the opportunity that remains for brands to utilise the tactility that mail and physical print can offer. In a world that looks set to continue being deprived of physical contact well into 2021, it is the postman that can not only deliver a human service, but also a tactile connection to the brands and outside world we all hope to return to.


  • The impact on direct mail of England’s month-long second national lockdown was less severe than during the first as many clients had already committed to major Christmas campaigns in good time, while others decided to press ahead regardless
  • Mailing houses felt the full force of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic right at the start of the first lockdown, with advertisers pulling or scaling down campaigns in their droves
  • But recovery was seen in subsequent months and while the numbers of campaigns and run lengths may have fallen, many mailers found that their clients were increasingly looking for better targeting
  • Many brands and businesses that continued to advertise during the pandemic are likely to have experienced better than expected results, with direct mail proving its resilience more than ever as a captive audience, often with more time on their hands, were waiting at home
  • An expected continuation of some homeworking, even after the pandemic subsides, is forecast to have a long-term positive effect on direct mail


Paul Brough
Managing director, Bakergoodchild
“When the November lockdown in England was announced we had one or two mailings cancelled but in the main it’s keeping its head above water at the moment. Our sales on the direct mail side of the business are down but [clients] are looking for targeted and intelligent propositions around what you can do with the data – how can we mail to less people but more effectively, with a better ROI? There’s also an opportunity to understand further how mail can support the digital piece – I think people look forward to receiving mail at home.”

Tom Maskill
Head of sales and marketing, Webmart
“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a distinct increase in engagement with letterbox marketing. JICMail reports open rates have increased from 69% in 2019 to 80% in 2020 and a 20% increase in transaction rates year-on-year. Of course, this is largely down to people spending more time at home. So, will this trend continue post-pandemic? I’d suggest yes, but to a lesser extent. Time spent at home will increase long-term and mail will continue to provide cut-through and respite from digital fatigue. It is up to us to optimise and make the case for mail.”

Joe Ghadami
Managing director, GB Mail
“Although volumes dipped around March, the tactile nature of mail has demonstrated that it is the most effective method of customer and prospect engagement. Receiving mail has provided interaction with the outside world and something to look forward to during lockdown. GB Mail is passionate about print personalisation and using variable data and imagery to create enticing pieces of mail that boost campaign results. We believe in the power of mail and so do our clients, many of whom have confirmed increases in mailing volumes for 2021.”



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