It is received wisdom in the world of marketing that there has been
tremendous growth in direct mail over the past decade as advertisers
have increasingly been won over to the benefits of targeting segmented
But what are the real statistics? The problem is, no-one knows for
According to the Direct Mail Information Service, expenditure on the
medium has risen from pounds 758 million in 1989 to pounds 1,540 million
last year, when almost 3.5 billion items were mailed out to consumers
Yet these figures, though they may well be broadly correct, need to be
taken with more than a pinch of salt. This is not to imply that they are
grossly overstating the position of direct mail in the marketing
communications pecking order. The likelihood is that they are a
But anyone casting around for data on direct mail is confronted with the
fact that there is no comprehensive, industry-wide, officially
sanctioned research system in place as there is for other media, such as
BARB, RAJAR and NRS for TV, radio and press respectively. There is,
however, increasing interest within the direct marketing industry for a
more foolproof system of research and a number of moves are already
being made in this direction.
The main barrier to its creation has been a reluctance by advertisers to
come clean on their expenditure. A reason for this is that direct mail
is what one might call a secret channel of communication. By keeping
quiet about their activities, advertisers using direct mail are often
able to steal a march on their competitors. It can be weeks before a
direct mail campaign comes to the attention of rival marketers, by which
time it may be too late for them to respond effectively.
’Direct mail is a funny medium because it’s secretive and so it’s very
hard to find out to the nearest pound how much is spent,’ says Jeremy
Ridgeway, the sales and marketing director of Market Movements, a
company specialising in providing direct mail information. The company
has a library of direct mail material stretching back ten years
comprising 300,000 creative treatments.
It operates a 6,000-strong panel of consumers which passes on all the
direct mail material it receives.
A more recent entrant into the market, Thomson Intermedia, also has a
panel of 6,000. Backed by the fast-growing market research company, GfK,
it is considering doubling its panel size.
’The only way to do research into direct mail well is to get a large
panel that is nationally representative,’ Thomson Intermedia’s sales and
marketing director, Sarah-Jane Thomson, says.
’There are flaws. But with a panel of 6,000 you can make an acceptable
There will always be doubts about the reliability of such estimates.
More accurate targeting - geographically and demographically - means
some significant campaigns may not be given their proper status or even
picked up at all, even with a well-balanced panel.
Moreover, while extrapolating upwards from the number of mailings
received by a panel may produce a fairly accurate figure on volume of
material sent out, it is not necessarily much of a guide to overall
Unlike above the line, media is not the biggest cost factor. There are
many other variables to take into account when estimating total campaign
spend: cost of creative, paper, print, size of material sent, cost of
putting it in envelopes, whether envelopes are printed, which mailstream
is used and the cost (if any) of obtaining the mailing list.
Producing meaningful research is no small matter. A decade ago, a
company called Nationwide Direct Marketing tried to monitor everything
that was going out - and went belly up. Today, given that direct mail
has taken off in the interim, there is a greater need for research than
before and, as such, probably a better chance of funding it.
’There is a feeling among direct marketing agencies that, for direct
mail to be taken seriously, it needs clients and agencies to have the
same set of data,’ Ridgeway believes. ’It would be useful for the
industry,’ Jo Howard-Brown, the managing director of Direct Mail
Information Service, agrees. ’There’s no greater motivator than knowing
your competitors are doing it.’
The key to how such a system would be funded and given sufficient status
lies with the media owner, Royal Mail. Through RSGB it has run a panel
of its own since the 80s, although it is significantly smaller than
those operated by Thomson and Market Movements.
Royal Mail is about to embark on what it calls a ’scoping study’ to look
at the feasibility and cost implications of various research
The results are not expected until some time next year but it is clear
that, if it is found to be viable, Royal Mail will be prepared to at
least part-fund the undertaking. Although no concrete decisions will be
taken until the study is complete, it is almost certain that Royal Mail
will look for ’co-sponsors’ from within the industry, such as direct
mail agencies. It has held talks with some direct mail research
specialists, which might lead to a joint venture.
’We recognise that some kind of MEAL-type tool would be useful and
galvanise the industry,’ Debbie Moffat, Royal Mail’s media information
manager, says. ’It would encourage others to use direct mail and to
appreciate the extent to which it is already used. Everyone is fairly
unanimous about it being a good thing. The issue is whether it can be
There is, however, a feeling among agencies that other research needs to
be done. Alison Payne, a planner and director at Craik Jones, has been
trying to persuade several of her clients to fund a study into how
direct mail works once it has been received by a household. The aim is
to understand what gets binned immediately, what is filed and what is
passed on to someone else and why.
Evans Hunt Scott’s planning director, Debbie Ramsay, adds: ’We need to
understand how the direct part of the marketing mix is affecting the
customer’s perceptions of the brand, as well as whether it is getting
them to buy the product.’
Direct mail industry research would be welcome. However, the growth of
this sort of direct marketing has shown it is not an absolute
And there is already some useful data available, such as the Direct Mail
Information Service Factbook and the Direct Marketing
Finally, direct mail is not like above-the-line media in that clients
know how effective their campaigns have been by the number of responses
and conversions they get. As they already have this data - and have
little desire to share it with competitors - they are less enthusiastic
than agencies about the need for industry research.