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What is Direct Mail?


The phrase “direct mail” is most commonly used to describe a type of advertising in which marketers send printed ads, letters, or other solicitations through the postal mail to large groups of consumers at once. Several different types of advertisements fall into this category, and there are a number of reasons why corporations use this sort of scheme. Direct mailers usually use targeted mailing lists based on demographics and geographic location to maximize effectiveness, and in most cases they can make use of bulk mail and other special postage rates to make the process more cost-effective. In certain settings these sorts of advertising tactics are used between businesses, too. Some of this sort of activity has been augmented or replaced by the Internet, but many advertisers continue using print to very directly reach out to people.

Main Uses

Direct mail can be targeted to customers who are likely to buy an advertised product.
Direct mail can be targeted to customers who are likely to buy an advertised product.

This type of advertising is used in many different situations, limited in most cases only by the imagination of the advertiser. Almost any sort of company or advertiser can use it, to. Stores typically send direct mail to advertise new products or to distribute coupons, while charities may find that it’s a good way to raise money or recruit volunteers. Almost any sales pitch can be made through this sort of publication.

In the Business World

Sales flyers are one form of direct mail that is sent to consumers.
Sales flyers are one form of direct mail that is sent to consumers.

A number of businesses also use mailings to advertise their products and services to other businesses. Business to business (B2B) mailing is a particularly lucrative segment of the market, and it allows marketers to target their messages to precisely those recipients who are likely to become customers. In the end, direct mailings allow companies to isolate their marketing dollars to high-probability prospects and avoid wasting money on those that are likely to be uninterested.

Campaign Basics

Coupons can be distributed through direct mail.
Coupons can be distributed through direct mail.

Mailings of this variety are usually organized into what is known as “campaigns.” Within each campaign, coordinators are usually looking to target certain specific people for certain specific products. The first step is usually to create an ad that will appeal to this group generally. Then, people within this group are actually identified. Sometimes this identification is really specialized, such as age, education level, or ages of children; other times it is broader, like geographic location, gender, or socioeconomic background.

Primary Appeal

Advertisers often find direct mail appealing for a number of reasons. It takes their message directly to the consumer, for one thing; while consumers might walk away from a television commercial or flip past a newspaper ad, they will almost always eventually open their mailbox. These sorts of mailings put the advertiser's message in the hands of the consumer at a time when the consumer might be likely to read and absorb it. Advertisers also like that they can direct their message as narrowly or broadly as they want using bulk mailing rates. These rates tend to be a lot less expensive than regular postage, and as a result the biggest expense is often printing.

Main Challenges

As beneficial as this sort of campaigning can be, it also has its problems. Over the years, mailed ads have also become known by another name in many places: junk mail. Some consumers become irritated by the numerous solicitations they receive each day, and many simply throw away or recycle the suspected junk without really reading it.

Marketers often try to combat consumer frustration with a variety of techniques designed to ensure that people open each envelope. Some go to great lengths to make the envelope and mailing appear personal, even using special computer fonts that look like handwriting or making the deals and offers very apparent from the outside.

Role of Internet and Technology

Advertisers often look to apply the same sorts of strategies to reach clients online. Certain companies make it a habit to send emails with ads to large groups of consumers. They may also target potential clients over social networks. Advertisers in these settings take advantage of the relatively low cost of obtaining email address lists. Perhaps not surprisingly, many computer users reacted by deleting what they perceive as "junk email,” and many mail servers are capable of filtering out these sorts of bulk messages.

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Discussion Comments


Be careful with Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM). It's useful if you are in a business that everyone will have an eventual need for, like heating and air conditioning, but if your business is specialized you will find yourself paying for printing and postage that will be completely wasted because most of the recipients are unqualified. And yes, targeting and timing are very important but your mailing is money down the drain if your offer doesn't motivate.


Thanks for posting the article. It had some good info people can take away from it. Marketing in general can always be a struggle and people can feel like they are getting pulled in different directions.


I liked the flow of the article. I came across this article while I was searching some facts related to direct mailing. I have a magazine publication business and I use a direct mailing service. I've been listening to debates saying that direct mail marketing is no more and all. I was trying to get some numbers on it and actually came across a few. Here is the latest which I would like to share.

Data from the Direct Marketing Association benchmarks say that direct mail still reigns supreme, offering response rates of 1.1 to 1.4 percent, versus 0.03 percent for email, 0.04 percent for internet display ads and 0.22 percent for paid searches.

I loved this article and more such articles should come online, so that people will believe in such traditional methods of marketing.


The USPS offers a great new product: Every Door Direct Mail Retail. No bulk permit needed - no names needed - no address list needed! Cost is $.142 for each piece - mailer can mail up to 5,000 pieces per day. Size/weight requirements involved - check it out on their site.


Direct mail is one of the most maligned forms of marketing- as people hate to receive "junk mail". But if you are really marketing to the right audience, you should be able to offer the recipients something they are interested. So it is not junk mail at all.

Direct mail that is properly researched, professionally undertaken and reported is best for all involved.


Nice, balanced, short and to-the-point description of direct mail. Direct mail also "plays well" with all other printed and electronic media. Responsible marketers always target all of their advertising and communications media to reach responsive consumers who are likely to want to hear their offers and value their propositions!


This is a great post. Direct Mail


Mr. Wisegeek,

I just want folks reading this to know that not all direct mail is mailed to a "large number" of people. One of our most successful campaigns was mailed to only 145 C-level corporate managers and netted millions of dollars in sales.

Another example is a campaign we created for a Seattle remodeling contractor. We mailed three different cards to a total of 2500 homeowners, the first in June 2008, the second in August of 2008 and the final one in November 2008. The remodeler booked over $450,000 in sales from the three cards.

One of the secrets is pinpoint targeting. Another is creating a good offer.

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    • Direct mail can be targeted to customers who are likely to buy an advertised product.
      By: gwimages
      Direct mail can be targeted to customers who are likely to buy an advertised product.
    • Sales flyers are one form of direct mail that is sent to consumers.
      By: Johanna Mühlbauer
      Sales flyers are one form of direct mail that is sent to consumers.
    • Coupons can be distributed through direct mail.
      By: fotopak
      Coupons can be distributed through direct mail.