The Idea Center - Blog

Swipe to the left

Do Millennials Read Direct Mail? The Answer May Surprise You

August 17, 2016

If you’re like most people, you probably conceptualize millennials as the “digital generation.” Born between 1979 and 2000, this demographic is young, numerous, and of great interest to marketers and advertisers. By 2020, this generation will have a cumulative $1.4 trillion in spending power. Millennials have grown up. No longer children or young teenagers, millennials have entered the working world. There are a lot of them, and together, they have a lot of money to spend.

When you think of marketing to millennials, what comes to mind are probably things like social media, SEO, and content marketing. Direct mail has been around for at least a century, and to many forward-thinking marketers, using physical snail mail to reach out to tech-savvy young people might sound like a serious misstep. After all, millennials spend an awful lot of time on mobile devices, reading articles online and using social media apps. Do they even read their snail mail anymore?

It’s counterintuitive, but statistics strongly indicate that direct mail is a surprisingly effective way to reach millennial consumers. If you’re not already implementing a direct marketing strategy targeting them, it’s definitely worth considering.


Why Many Marketers Ignore Direct Mail

When you think of “direct mail,” you probably think of older demographics. For decades, direct mail was a staple of marketing and advertising strategies. In fact, its origins may be much older. The first documented example of what we’d call “direct mail” is a staggering 3,000 years old. It’s an Egyptian papyrus, in which a landowner offered a gold reward for the return of an escaped slave. Later in history, direct marketing was a key strategy from as early as the Victorian era, to as late as the 1990s.


Direct Mail in Decline?

The perceived decline in direct mail began with the rise of the Internet. In the early 1990s, Internet access began to enter the mainstream. By the mid-2000s, it was an indispensable part of everyday life for nearly everyone. With the rise of the Internet, email, and ecommerce, there were ramifications in the offline world. From the decline of brick and mortar stores in favor of online retail, to changes in advertising and marketing strategy that have adapted to an increasingly digital world, it’s no surprise that direct mail would struggle to find its place in the new order of things.

In 2014, the Direct Marketing Association released statistics confirming the decreasing focus on direct mail among contemporary marketers. In the United Kingdom, the number of direct mail items received by households fell from 7.2 billion in 2012 to 6.5 billion in 2013, a 9% decrease over the course of a year.

This may sound dire, but the reality behind those statistics is more complex than that. The DMA’s “20th Annual Door Drop Industry Report 2014” attributed the drop in direct mailings not to decreased interest or effectiveness, but to more efficient processes. They cited “improved targeting techniques, more sophisticated planning, and greater integration with other media, which have resulted in greater accuracy and less wastage.”

While it may be true that marketers aren’t sending out as much direct mail as they used to, this is because of recent advancements in better audience targeting. Ironically, many of these advancements wouldn’t be possible without the internet and digital marketing, which allows advertisers and brands to gain access to more data than ever before. Rather than sending out mailings en masse and hoping for the best, marketers can now target more strategically, sending out fewer mailings that are also more likely to convert.


Direct Mail’s Questionable Reputation

As marketers, we call it “direct mail,” but to many consumers, it’s simply “junk mail.” This is especially true when it’s poorly targeted and doesn’t connect well with the recipient. Combine that with the financial and environmental cost of printing so many pieces of paper, and direct mailings leave a bad taste in people's’ mouths. With that said, however, it’s historically been effective.


Direct Mail Faces Challenges, but It’s Still Going Strong

Direct mail is far from dead. In fact, recent statistics gathered in 2016 indicate that even though we’re well into the digital era, direct mail can still be a highly effective tactic. A surprising 70% of people reported that they consider snail mail more “personal” than emails or online ads. 56% of Americans reported that they enjoy reading promotional mail. 50% actually prefer direct mail mail to email.

Your first thought might be that these respondents are probably Baby Boomers, or perhaps older Gen X. Older people may still read their mail, and may feel less trusting toward the Internet. But what about millennials, the generation that grew up with the internet? Do they share their parents’ affinity for direct marketing mail? Most people would guess that they don’t, but research and statistics tell a very different story.

Contrary to what you might otherwise assume, direct mail is actually an effective means of marketing to millennials.


“Digital Natives” Still Read Snail Mail

The term “digital natives,” often used to describe millennial and “Gen Z” individuals who grew up using the internet on a daily basis, implies that millennials are essentially “digital only.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Believe it or not, millennials actually like getting physical letters in the mail. In fact, according to a 2016 study from InfoTrends, millennials are the most likely of any generation to read direct mail.

25% of millennials surveyed reported that they enjoy reading direct mail. In today’s increasingly digital age, getting a letter in the mail is an interesting novelty, even if it’s just an advertisement. Researchers have found that 18-21 year olds, in particular, read mailings immediately up to 62% of the time. Rather than ignoring mail, millennials have embraced it.

Not only that, but these letters are incredibly likely to influence purchasing behavior. Direct mail is actually more effective, in many cases, than marketing emails. 92% of millennials have been influenced to make a purchasing decision through direct marketing, versus 78% by email. This isn’t purely by chance, or due to the novelty of something old-fashioned: there are deep behavioral reasons that make mail so effective.


The Science Behind Direct Marketing

Not only do millennials still read direct mail, but neuroscientific studies have indicated that there are deep-seated underlying reasons for their seemingly unexplainable affinity for it. At Bangor University, the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology used MRI to examine neurophysiological changes associated with both digital and physical advertisements. They found that millennial subjects not only responded more strongly to physical marketing materials, but they subjectively viewed them as more “genuine” and trustworthy than digital advertising.


A Seminal Study Supporting “Snail Mail”

In the study from the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology, carried out in collaboration with British marketing agency Millward Brown, researchers took a scientific and quantitative approach to examining the impact of digital advertising versus print advertising. Their results, while well substantiated, were decidedly counterintuitive.

20 volunteer participants were shown a combination of actual ads, all of which were currently being used by companies, and miscellaneous images that were used as a control. The materials were shown in two formats: on a computer screen, and printed on physical paper cards. While the test subjects viewed and interacted with the material, their brains were examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI provides a measure of brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow patterns in the brain. These blood flow changes provide information about what areas of the brain are active during particular activities and experiences.

The researchers that tangible materials had a deeper impact, at a neurophysiological level, than materials viewed digitally. The material shown on the cards produced more activity in left and right parietal lobe regions associated with the integration of visual and spatial information. The existence of that spatial element is conducive to better memory, bringing the brain’s spatial memory networks into the process along with visual processes.

Along with stronger memory pathways for physical materials, it was also found that viewing physical ads involved more emotional processing. When physical materials were presented, neuroimaging revealed more activity in the right retrosplenial cortex, a region associated with vivid visual memories. On top of this, the neuroimaging indicated higher activity in brain regions associated with personal internal feelings, specifically the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex. This strongly suggests that people may be much more likely to genuinely “internalize” print ads than digital ads.

Physical media’s “real” presence and concreteness has very real behavioral implications.

Twitter Direct mail is more likely to be retained in a person’s memory, and more likely to elicit an emotional response.


Experiences with physical marketing materials are internalized more effectively than digital information, making it more effective for influencing consumer behavior. While digital marketing is certainly useful, effective, and incredibly worthwhile, physical advertising methods should not be thrown aside.


Direct Marketing Drives Both Online & In-Store Sales

Direct marketing isn’t completely isolated from digital marketing efforts. In fact, they can work together in a carefully designed synthesis. Both print mailings and digital advertising can drive sales-- including both online sales, and in-store sales at brick-and-mortar retail locations.


Yes, Millennials Still Go Out Shopping

As “digital natives,” millennials have a reputation for desiring instant gratification. The internet provides anything you might want, accessible through merely a few mouse clicks or taps on a mobile screen. Instead of physically traveling to the library and sorting through books and microfilms, a simple Google search can provide millions of answers in a fraction of a second.

They’ve also gained a reputation for being almost exclusively online shoppers. Instead of going to multiple stores trying to find the right product, it can be ordered in a few minutes from the comfort of your home. Why would an impatient, demanding generation go through the comparatively involved process of brick-and-mortar shopping?

Critics may assume that millennials simply can’t wait for anything, but this isn’t true. Even online shopping requires time for shipping. The truth is that millennials’ purchases are approximately evenly split between in-person and online shopping.

There’s a definite value in being able to see and touch a product, in person, before you buy it. This is especially true for certain goods, like apparel and cosmetics. Surveys have indicated that millennials, along with the younger Generation Z, actually prefer that companies provide brick and mortar locations.


The eCommerce Connection

Just as online advertising and promotional emails can drive brick-and-mortar sales, postcards aimed at millennials can lead to online purchases.

Integrating digital elements into promotional mailings, like coupon codes and scannable QR codes, make it easy to redeem “snail mail” offers online in just a few taps or clicks.

QR codes, in particular, have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. These two-dimensional matrix barcodes were first developed in Japan. In the context of promotional mailings, the QR code can be read by a smartphone as a standard URL. This generally leads to a specialized landing page, where consumers will be sent after scanning the code. Visually appealing design, video content, social media options, and streamlined checkout systems can be leveraged to encourage the people who received your mail to make a quick purchase. The promotional offer may have been in print form, but the interaction is digital. QR codes reflect the rapidly growing trend of integrating physical and digital elements into one cohesive brand experience.


Direct Marketing for Millennials: Be Authentic

Millennials respond very well to direct marketing strategies, but it’s still important to create mail materials that are catered to that particular audience. Some of the qualities of good sales copy that resonates with this demographic include:

  • Authenticity. Vast volumes of sociological work have been written about the concept of “authenticity.” It’s hard to pin down the exact meaning of this concept, but like many previous generations, authenticity is something that millennials value. A great example is the current trendiness of craft beers and locally sourced foods. A strong, cohesive brand identity that’s friendly and appealing, combined with social responsibility and transparency, can go a long way toward gaining millennials’ trust.
  • Personalization. Millennials like it when you talk to them like human beings, creating a sense of connection with them as an individual. Humanize your brand.
  • Social awareness. People love to stereotype millennials as self-interested narcissists who do nothing but take selfies all day, but in reality, this demographic is very socially conscious. Highlighting things like environmentally responsible manufacturing and biodegradable packaging, or spotlighting your contributions to charitable causes, can strengthen respect for your brand.

Don’t underestimate the power of “snail mail” for reaching millennial audiences.

TwitterEspecially when combined with digital strategies, using direct mail is a powerful way to connect with young people and foster an emotional connection with your brand.


The Future of Direct Mail Marketing: 2016 & Beyond

Some critics would speculate that direct mail is a dying art, a form of marketing that will inevitably be supplanted by purely digital marketing strategies. As we’ve seen, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than going extinct, direct marketing will continue to evolve and change, adapting in synergy with digital elements. Digital elements will only strengthen its impact.


Digital Big Data Means Better Targeting

“Big data” has revolutionized advertising and marketing, allowing brands to target individuals with startling accuracy and precision. In past decades, a marketing agency may have simply sent the same piece of mail to every recipient. The mailings generally weren’t particularly personalized, and there wasn’t always a clearly defined target audience. It was a “spray and pray” strategy, relying on high volume to increase the likelihood of successful conversions. By the 1980s, advances in computing had led to relational databases, creating the potential for finer targeting than before.

Today, physical mail can be targeted with unprecedented precision. This is a “laser targeting” strategy. Instead of sending high numbers of postcards to people who may or may not be interested, marketers can focus on fewer leads, all of whom are likely to actually be interested in the product or service. Why send a coupon for cat litter to someone who’s allergic to cats?


The Future of Snail Mail Marketing to Millennials

Today’s QR codes may eventually transition into tomorrow’s full-scale augmented reality. A mail piece could eventually produce videos, 3D images, and more, through smartphone screens or devices similar to Google Glass. The linked material could also be interchangeable, switching up with repeat viewings to encourage further engagement.

Near field communication (NFC) chips are also a promising recent technology that could bring a new twist to direct mail postcards. When an NFC chip is near a phone, it can automatically transmit information, making it easier than ever to reach people through their smartphones.


Direct Mail Is Stronger Than Ever

Behavioral neuroscience research has demonstrated how and why direct mail is so effective, and how it elicits emotional engagement and internalization. Millennials are not exempt from this; in fact, they respond surprisingly well to targeted, engaging direct marketing materials. Rather than being gradually killed off by digital marketing, postcards will continue to become integrated with online materials, creating a cohesive experience that combines the physical and the digital into one unified brand experience.