Mail sector has learnt plenty of new tricks

The world has changed immeasurably since the start of the Covid pandemic and while it has clearly been a devastating crisis in so many ways, there have been some positives, particularly in the ways that society adapted to cope with the situation, and many of those have been retained.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes is greater flexibility around work, with many businesses now operating hybrid home and office working for roles where that is suitable. For direct mail this has been a boon.

It was hardly surprising that mail benefited at the start of the pandemic, considering the captive audience, often with time on their hands, sitting at home.

But data shows that, two years after the first lockdown, mail is still proving incredibly effective. JICMail, the joint industry currency for ad mail, recently released its data for Q4 2021, which found that 9% of mail, across direct mail, door drops, and business mail combined, prompted a website visit.

The proportion of mail driving consumers in store, meanwhile, doubled in comparison to Q4 2020, to 2%. And 5% of mail drove a purchase, the same proportion as in Q4 2020.

JICMail also found that the average door drop was kept in the home for 5.4 days before being filed or thrown away/recycled, with direct mail kept for 7.4 days, and business mail retained for 9.4 days.

Ian Gibbs, director of data leadership and learning at JICMail, suggests this is part of a broader trend: “There continues to be something about mail being this sort of trusted, tactile medium in an age of digital saturation and digital scepticism, it clearly does have an effect.

“While we all know that digital ad impressions are dirt cheap, they only last on screen for less than half a second whereas mail will last in the home for a week, it’s a different ballpark in terms of longevity.”

Also encouraging, Gibbs notes, is that while older audiences still show the highest engagement with mail overall, younger audiences are displaying the biggest growth in engagement.

“I think some younger audiences are almost too young to remember the days of carpet bombing; they’re not necessarily used to having their letterbox absolutely inundated with junk.

“So I think there is a sense that it is possibly a channel which could be used to reach younger audiences – they don’t receive much mail at the moment but what they do receive they’re engaging with.”

This increased engagement has come at a time of general heightened opportunity in the mail industry, as numerous advances in technology converge with various new industry initiatives.

51% of respondents to a recent Printweek poll that asked ‘What do you think is the biggest opportunity for direct mail?’ said increased personalisation and targeting, with 31% selecting technological advances (e.g. linking print with online channels).

Mail has proven especially effective when used as part of a multimedia strategy and many mailing houses are therefore no longer just print providers but now offer a more holistic service that encompasses the use of other digital platforms to get messages out to the most relevant audience.

Helping brand owners make the best use of their customers’ data has therefore become essential, to ensure accurate targeting and tracking.

“Mailing houses can offer invaluable strategic expertise to their customers by supporting not only with data hygiene but increasingly with different mail audience targeting approaches,” says new Strategic Mailing Partnership (SMP) chair Lucy Swanston, also managing director at Nutshell Creative and Topic Heroes.

“Increasingly more mailing houses have insight and analysis data services that will help bring their customer strategy to life and plan their campaigns for them across multiple channels. As well as planning campaigns, measuring performance and ingesting mail performance data into brands’ econometric modelling datasets to help brands understand the true value and performance of the channels used as part of a multimedia strategy will continue to increase in importance.”

She adds: “First-party customer datasets are richer and therefore can be more impactful when it comes to campaign performance. Mailing houses can help brands and marketers use their own customer data to effectively target a pool of prospective customers based on a similar audience profile. Prospects are created based on different criteria, such as socio-demographics, geographical or audience segmentations, for example, high value customers.

“Data hygiene services will also remain an important part of mail targeting because you’re maintaining the quality of your customer database by ensuring that you have permission to mail and removing duplication, etc, which avoids wastage.”

Other growth areas for the sector are programmatic mail, for example quickly sending customers a follow-up mail piece – rather than an email that is much more likely to be ignored – to encourage them to return and complete an online purchase left in their ‘basket’. The mailing could include a personalised discount voucher to help close the sale.

Go Inspire Group CEO Patrick Headley says that having “always-on marketing campaigns that are sending out daily mailshots in response to people’s behaviour in order to maximise their spend as a customer” is one of numerous reasons why there are exciting times ahead for mail.

“Physical media is absolutely fantastic because the channel – i.e. the letterbox – is pretty underused. The last time I looked, if you’re buying a door from B&Q it still has a letterbox in it!”

Another big opportunity is hybrid mail, which essentially lets businesses outsource often short-run mailings such as letters and other documents that they might have previously produced in-house on an office printer and then posted out themselves. With hybrid mail, the files can be transferred to a mailing house, often using something akin to a web-to-print portal, the hybrid mail provider then print and distributes these runs on a customer’s behalf.

“Hybrid mail is great for businesses who want to outsource their mailroom, effectively, which through Covid has been a massive opportunity because people are working remotely,” says Eight Days a Week Print Solutions (EDWPS) managing director Lance Hill.

“We’ve got a customer, for example, that was sending out 2,000 letters a week from their own mailroom. And it was just a pain, so we have automated that for them so that it’s a daily fire every day. It just drops in, goes into the print queue, gets produced and goes out every day.”

Hill adds that using hybrid mail enables users to save time, eradicate fiddly jobs, and reap the benefits of scale in terms of production costs and postage costs.

Unaddressed door drops are another of mail’s current bright spots and Bruce Thomson, managing director at Bakergoodchild, says he is seeing the largest demand for these from restaurants and takeaways, but that many other B2C businesses are also keen to increase their door-to-door activities again.

“This is an area that has really grown again for us post-pandemic. Although it is not core business for us it is still a significant area of our business. We’ve seen much greater demand for this for the last three-to-four months and GPS technology – on the distributors themselves – has removed a lot of the fear around ‘leaflets ending up in the canal’.”

The SMP’s Swanston says door drops can be targeted using geodemographics, region, census, ONS survey and a customer’s own sales data. 

“As the UK economy enters a period of growth, post-pandemic recovery, and brands are investing more in customer acquisition activities, there is significant growth potential in door drops.”

She adds: “With an unrivalled UK reach of 30 million homes against a backdrop of brands seeing declines in cost-effective reach in online and other traditional channels, door drops present brands with a significant opportunity to meet their acquisition targets and exceed their return-on-investment goals.”

Continued advances in print technology – especially inkjet – that allow for higher quality, more personalised campaigns, and in finishing and embellishment, making the mail piece and its packaging more visually enticing to the customer, are also helping mail to prosper.

But, as with the rest of the print industry, there are also challenges to the rejuvenated mail sector’s renaissance. Namely the increased cost and supply of paper and other consumables, but also postage price increases and the ever-present trend of greenwashing, the combined effects of which are seeing some brands and marketers either moving away from print altogether or slashing their print runs.

“Since we’ve had this issue with paper we try and get all of our customers to think early on about planning, because the main thing has been lead time and also cost,” says EDWPS’ Hill. 

“Where we operate in the short-run sector, we haven’t been impacted too badly by lead times. It has on certain grades, but for the bread-and-butter stuff we use it’s been okay. Where it has impacted is cost – you might have a business that’s got a set budget, which has stayed the same but they’re obviously getting less for the money now. So this means that volumes are coming down because of budget.”

The SMP’s Swanston says that, despite these challenges, the case for mail “is very compelling in a crowded and complex media landscape”.

“Looking at industry data from Nielsen Media Research on advertising spend over the last nine months, the mail channel is experiencing significant increases in the number of new customers coming into the channel for the first time.

“Growing new users is clearly critical for the mail industry and an important area the industry needs to focus on if it wishes to grow volumes moving forward.”

Swanston also emphasises the importance of innovation in sustainability and the industry’s response to the climate crisis, and says it must ensure that the entire lifecycle of mail is more sustainable in the long term.

“Material product innovation – e.g. paper wrap vs polywrap – and different print techniques, in addition to rigorous data hygiene methods, will help to lower the carbon footprint of every item of direct mail,” she says.

Ultimately, while mail is a more veteran marketing channel than most, it still has new tricks up its sleeve. Its effectiveness and value have been underlined by the pandemic and mailing specialists are largely excited about what lies ahead.

“I think the future will see less great big catalogues; perfect binding will be a treatment reserved for very expensive purchase brochures or high-end magazines,” says Go Inspire Group’s Headley.

“But it’s about targeting and sending something relevant, because if you’ve interested somebody in your product, they will go online and fulfil it. The ability to bypass Google with QR codes is now being widely used – it’s very rare to see a catalogue that doesn’t have a QR code to link it straight to the website so they can prove attribution.”

Bakergoodchild’s Thomson, meanwhile, says his business has seen higher demand for direct mail in the last six months than it ever has in 27 years.

“Interestingly, more clients than ever are asking for advice around lists and data supply. There seems to be a huge appetite for bringing customers back and finding new ones. This, I feel, is where direct mail can be at its most effective when done well.” 


Print’s unique tactility cuts through the digital noise

Tim Bond, director of insight, DMA 

The pandemic created many unforeseen challenges for brands – especially how best to engage customers with people spending more time at home. However, it appears increased remote working and limited in-person interactions also created opportunities for the mail industry. Print has a unique ability to offer a physical connection and tactility, which so many of us craved during the lockdowns of the last couple of years.

Interestingly, the latest JICMail data shows a 16% increase in the volume of mail received, led by door drops, which had a 30% year-on-year growth. Mail also continues to act as a mini ‘In Your Home’ billboard for brands, with an average lifespan of over a week for mail and five days for door drops.

In addition, the pandemic did not have an impact on engagement with the channel – as originally feared by some businesses. In fact, if we look at the positive actions taken by consumers when they receive a piece of mail, they have all increased in the last year. Whether that’s visiting a website (9% of mail items), searching for more information (6%), making a purchase (5%), or visiting a physical store (2%).

This isn’t just existing, loyal customers either. According to our latest Acquisition and the Consumer Mindset report, post remains the second-most preferred channel for hearing from brands (29%). Just one example of the myriad of ways print can offer unique experiences can be found in Jaguar Land Rover’s ‘Build Your Own Adventure’ campaign, which took the Gold for ‘Best Use of Mail’ at the DMA Awards 2021. The tangibility of direct mail helped the marque stand out from the many digital communications customers were receiving during lockdown.

Whether it’s standalone or integrated into a wider engagement strategy, print continues to be an important string to a brand’s marketing bow. In an increasingly connected and digital world, the tactility print offers and the ability to have that physical connection with customers is a unique experience that cannot be replicated virtually.


What are the biggest opportunities for direct mail?

Tom Maskill, sales and marketing director, Webmart

“Integrating offline communications seamlessly into digital-first customer journeys is the biggest opportunity for growth for mail over the coming year in my opinion. While these won’t be high-volume mailers, they will be targeted, timely and personalised, helping to drive response rates. We have seen some fantastic success adopting this approach, and as brands learn how to better utilise their first-party data, that will only grow. A secondary growth area may be using mail as a primer, warming up recipients to increase engagement digitally.”

Robin Sumner, managing director, Romax

“Direct mail needs to be seen not as a standalone direct marketing campaign, but as an integrated part of the customer lifecycle. To make mail applicable to real-time customer activity, printers need to help brands look at customer journey touchpoints and employ a single customer view that incorporates ‘on-demand direct mail’ alongside SMS and email. Print needs to provide a nimble on-demand service that works in conjunction with the ‘mass mailing campaigns’. Once brands see how easy it is for mail to be integrated into the real-time process, activity will increase.”

Stuart Speechley, managing director, KJS Print to Mail 

“People are doing a lot more targeted mailings than they used to so we’re probably going back to shorter runs, but they’re more accurate. Every- body has got a bit more savvy on it and started to look at their projects a little bit more closely. Possibly with money now being tighter for a lot of people, I think people are trying to get the value for money, trying to target their customers more efficiently, and looking at their data a bit more – they are doing a lot more data cleansing than they did.”