According to a February, 2012 article in Advertising Age, email marketers may be risking long-term damage to their brands by overloading consumers with offers and marketing materials. It's not hard to understand why this might be a concern.

Responsys, a company that tracks the email marketing activity of more than 100 of the top retailers, says retailers sent each of their subscribers an average of 177 promotional emails in 2011. That's an increase of 16% over the previous year. And 51% higher than in 2008.

This kind of overwhelming volume in consumer inboxes could be viewed as an opportunity for direct mail advertisers who may elect to promote the value of delivering messages to a less crowded receptacle - the good old-fashioned mailbox. But not by duplicating the mass-mail practices of the past. Direct mail today can be more targeted and relevant than ever. We know how to do that and we have all the tools, such as sophisticated document composition engines and reasonably-priced color printers. In fact, because it's more expensive to produce, mail has to be more accurate and precise than email to create a compelling ROI argument.

A Silver Lining for Direct Mailers?
Consumers that are fed up with all the promotional content coming to their email accounts might just be willing to pay more attention to physical pieces. If printers and mailing service providers who have been worried about the volume of their work that is migrating to electronic channels are patient and smart, things might turn out better than they thought.

Consumers know that physical mail costs more than email. If the mailers can communicate that they only spend money on sending mail to customers who are worthy, then "junk mail" doesn't seem so trashy anymore.

Of course this only works if the direct mail pieces that get produced and mailed are truly targeted, and individualized. The investment in selecting the chosen participants and crafting the communication must be evident.

Regaining the Trust
Using existing data and information provided by customers to make the communications more relevant and beneficial to the recipients can make a big difference. In a survey conducted in 2011 by LoyaltyOne, 88% of consumers believed personal information gathered by companies was used only to benefit the company. And 74% said they didn't believe they received any benefit at all by providing personal information. That has to change if direct mail is to shrug off the negative image it has in the minds of most consumers.

Consumers distrust marketers. And email is probably the least trustworthy communication channel because of scams, viruses, and the sheer volume of messages. Just getting emails past spam filters and making them seem safe enough to open is getting to be a struggle. Of course there have been deceptive physical mail pieces as well. But they have never been delivered on the scale seen in consumer inboxes today. And no one worries that just opening an envelope is going to put their privacy or finances immediately at risk.

If I were considering a direct mail marketing program today I think I'd be doing everything in my power to make sure I only mailed to prospects that were likely to find the offer relevant. No more mailing customer acquisition pieces to the current customer list, no more gutter-replacement coupons sent to apartment dwellers, and I'd discontinue the practice of buying lists I couldn't qualify as legitimate prospects.

I'd also use the tools at my disposal to make the recipients feel special by personalizing content, and using information they provided about themselves to suggest appropriate products or services. I think it would be a good idea to invest in quality materials as well. If every well-qualified prospect received a personalized and relevant offer, it's worth it to make sure the mail piece looks important. This will lessen the chances that consumers will discard the envelope unopened because it looks like all the other junk mail that gets delivered every day.

Maybe it's time for direct mail to prove that it's the best way to reach consumers. Competing with email may not be the answer. But rising above it just might be an angle worth pursuing.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. For more ideas about how to keep mail relevant, efficient, and less expensive, connect with Mike directly at Or visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations.