Is direct mail still essential in the media mix?

Royal Mail is aiming to boost the appeal of mail and target its 'image problem' with new research and an ad campaign.

With a cost per unit cheaper than pay-per-click, tactile in a way that digital and TV are not and precision-targeted if you want it to be, why does direct mail feel the need to justify its place in media plans?

That was the question hanging in the air at the recent launch of Royal Mail’s "mailmen" campaign to promote the channel’s effectiveness in the digital era and Private Life Of Mail, an 18-month research study carried out by Royal Mail’s MarketReach division.

To combat what MarketReach’s managing director, Jonathan Harman, calls mail’s "image problem", the study digs deep into mail’s "life" in the home and how it interacts with other media to boost advertiser ROI.

Independent sources are included, such as analysis of the IPA Effectiveness Awards Databank over the past ten years that uncovered mail’s role in 416 winning entries.

Outside the report, brands such as Virgin Media talk of a more sophisticated use of the channel. "Our direct mail has evolved in three or four years from being hard sales brochures to being more entertaining and with richer content," Richard Larcombe, Virgin Media’s marketing and brand director, says.

So while the indiscriminate "carpet-bombing" campaigns of the mid-noughties may be long gone,the challenge now is to provide millennial media planners with evidence of mail’s effectiveness.

But it is no simple task. Attribution tools can track mail’s role in the path to purchase, but few would disagree that digital response campaigns are easier to measure.

Unlike the internet, TV, press, outdoor and radio, direct mail lacks a trading currency – a gap that Private Life Of Mail alone cannot fill.

"This research is a really good first step to help understand how consumers interact with mail and how that leads to value creation for advertisers," Mike Colling, the chief executive of MC&C and a partner in the study, says.

But, he adds, it is only a starting point: "I’d welcome the entire mail industry –not just Royal Mail – coming together to create ongoing audience research to the standards that TV, radio and other channels have."