Direct Mail

I was never a big fan of traditional direct mail, sending something printed through the postal service or other courier. Not even back when I used to check my mailbox every day, as opposed to only once a week these days. Such mailings were rarely ever that targeted, so therefore they were rarely ever that useful.

One of the reasons they tend to be so poorly targeted is because the mailing lists are often outdated. The companies that sell these things talk a good game, claiming that they have carefully curated lists based on census data which they can then carve up by a number of different demographic factors to suit your needs. But they are selling you crap. The census is taken every 10 years, and Americans change addresses every seven years on average – and even more frequently when you are younger or live in a city.

As for the demographic targeting these companies like to promise, I have doubts about that as well. For example, when I became the Marketing Director of Asphalt Green, I had already been living four blocks away from this nonprofit sports and fitness center for eight years, and I had been visiting its campus regularly to watch my nephew play soccer there. Yet, the local mailing list they had been buying, which claimed to include my exact demographic, did not have me on it. Nor did it include my brother, who was in the same demographic, lived a few blocks further away, lived there a lot longer, and had been a long-standing customer. In fact, we discovered that many other customers and staff members who should have been on that list were not.

That said, direct mail can be far more effective in business-to-business settings. This is because you can usually acquire better mailing lists (purchased through a trade association, or from a trade show, for example) or even build your own with a little online research and the help of your sales department.

I did plenty of B2B direct mail earlier in my career, before the internet. I used to write, produce, and mail newsletters for clients such as S.C. Johnson Wax and Windmoeller & Hoelscher. And, of course, back in those days, a lot of the media pitches we did were technically direct mail as well.

There is, of course, the power of the three-part mailing, which studies have shown to be far more effective. And I even once used a three-part mailing to pitch reporters for a particular campaign. In fact, it was a 3D mailing, which studies have also shown to yield better results than conventional mailings.

But with the advent of email, it has become so much easier and cheaper to send marketing messages to everyone – including individual consumers. It has also, as noted earlier, made the necessity of checking your mailbox almost a novelty these days. And that has taken traditional direct mail from being a universal annoyance to a mild environmental concern.

Why does printed direct mail still exist in the digital age? Because it is incredibly cheap. In fact, the postage is often more expensive than the printing. And most bulk printers will accept a PDF so you don’t even need to hire a designer (though I highly recommend you do). Traditional direct mail is fundamentally a numbers game: you send out large volumes in hopes of modest returns, with the low cost (and low effort) making it seem easy enough to break even.

At Asphalt Green, I began to ween the organization off traditional direct mail in favor of email blasts and email newsletters. And as a freelancer, I have helped a number of real estate sales professionals do the same, using Mail Chimp and Constant Contact to create monthly email newsletters.

For these real estate email newsletters, I typically feature three to five pieces of content designed to be of interest to the agent’s target demographic (the kinds of things that make people think about where they live, and why) along with a featured property listing (which, incidentally, is all they used to be able to convey in those ubiquitous postcard mailings). In addition to writing a little teaser copy for each of these items, I enrich them with images, infographics, and even the occasional video – linking everything back to the original content. And the open and click rates I have been generating from these email newsletters have been regularly exceeding the industry averages by 47 and 83 percent, respectively, which is quite impressive.

The challenge, of course, is building a useful email database. After conducting a seminar on email newsletters for Douglas Elliman, the fourth largest residential real estate company nationwide, an agent approached me and asked where she could get a list of emails.

If you are targeting businesses, you can likely purchase a list of email addresses from a trade association. But if you are targeting individuals, like most residential real estate agents, you have to collect your own, acquiring people’s emails as you network, make contacts, collect business cards, connect via LinkedIn, etc.

But keep in mind that businesses, like consumers, can flag any unsolicited email as “spam.” And if that happens often enough, your emails could end up going directly into people’s spam folders, which could make it very difficult to communicate with even the people you know – including friends and family.

And you cannot easily acquire the email addresses of everyone who lives in a specific residential building, which is something New York real estate agents often have reason to do. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily revert to the old postcard mailings. If you really want to put yourself on the radar of everyone in a building, why not send them all pies or something? Yes, it is more expensive, and technically still direct mail (a genuine 3D mailing). But it is far more creative and memorable – and therefore more likely that the recipients will turn to you for their real estate needs when they are ready to make a move.

Which goes back to the problem I have with traditional, printed direct mail. Because it is so easy, people tend to put minimal thought into it. If you are going to do it, whether sending a monthly newsletter to your customers or sending something to the residents of a specific building, put some effort into it. Get creative. Stand out. Make an impact. And keep it on strategy, reflecting the message you are trying to send (pies, for example, are associated with the home, in addition to being a traditional gift given to new neighbors).