Lessons from Las Vegas: Is Direct Mail Dead?


When a client or fellow entrepreneur complains about not having enough business, I first take a look at their marketing strategies. In most cases, direct mail is either absent or grossly underutilized. Now, when I mention direct mail, these people usually look at me as though I’m wearing a tinfoil hat… but there are reasons why I’m a proponent of this strategy.

As usual, explaining this involves a story… so here we go:

I grew up outside a very small village in Ohio – the kind of village where, if you ran into somebody at the mini-mart, you either knew them, were related to them, or they babysat you when you were “this tall.” The village’s gas station served pizza and subs, rented VHS movies, and had a decent selection of fishing bait.

It was about a 10-mile drive to the nearest town – if you wanted McDonalds, new underwear, or a new Walkman (yes, I grew up in the ’80s), that’s where you had to go. Along the 10-mile stretch of fairly nondescript highway, there were perhaps a half-dozen billboards. Since there was really nothing else around, they definitely caught your attention. I never conducted a ROI study, but the fact that the same businesses advertised on those same billboards year after year tells me that their ad placements were working.

This memory surfaced some 30 years later as I rode a shuttle from McCarran International Airport to the Las Vegas Strip. Before I even left the airport, I was met with a constant barrage of billboards advertising hotels, casinos, shows, and (as I recall) a ridiculous number of “adult” services.

It was complete sensory overload… I could no more remember any of the specific ads than I could tell you why anyone would want to ride a roller coaster on top of a casino.

The sheer advertising “noise” effectively diluted the advertising power of the individual billboards. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to tune them out entirely.

I thought about this some months later when I met a fellow entrepreneur named Bill Hughes, who touted direct mail as the “holy grail” of marketing. Having been involved in Internet advertising for years, I had adopted the assumption that direct mail was dead. After all, why would you spend a lot of money to advertise to a handful of prospects when you can spend almost nothing and reach an almost unlimited audience?

Bill bluntly told me, “It’s simple. Direct mail gets noticed.”

I had to mull this over a bit before the tacit concept behind his position made sense. Email marketing and banner advertising can indeed give you access to a mind-bogglingly large audience. But because Internet advertising is cheap and easy, everyone’s doing it… and as a result, your potential customers are subjected to a constant barrage of sales pitches and ads. It’s like traveling to the Strip a dozen times over. And like the sea of glitzy Las Vegas billboards, Internet ads are mostly tuned out.

DM1Even email doesn’t fare much better. My inbox receives between 200 and 300 emails every day. Do I read every email? Hardly. Instead, I wade through the list to find the dozen or so emails from clients, and delete the rest. Unless a sales email comes with a particularly interesting headline, it goes into the trash folder unread.

By comparison, I get about four to six physical mail pieces per day. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I respond to (or even read) every single marketing piece I receive… but each flyer, postcard, and letter gets noticed. And since the mail usually sits on the kitchen counter for a day or so, I see the marketing messages several times. Even if I don’t need a marketer’s products today, I’m likely to remember the business down the road.

I want to make a couple of points here. First, I’m not denigrating Internet marketing. Obviously, I use online resources extensively to create marketing messages. All I am saying is that if you have dismissed direct mail marketing as outdated, you might want to reconsider.

The second point is even more critical: I’m not giving you the “build it and they will come” speech. Plenty of businesses fail at direct mail marketing. As with any advertising strategy, there is a right way (and lots of wrong ways) to go about it. In the coming days, I’ll give you some pointers to help you get your direct mail campaign off the ground.

Categories : Marketing Strategy

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