Email Marketing vs Direct Mail: What Is the Difference and Which One To Choose

Email Marketing vs Direct Mail: What Is the Difference and Which One To Choose
04 March, 2024 • ... • 72 views
Varvara Potekhina
by Varvara Potekhina

Direct mail and email marketing are like two brothers. They really have a lot in common: both address the potential customer’s mailbox directly, both require market research to send the right content to the right people. Email marketing is a younger brother who learned a lot from his sibling but is much more into the digital world and new marketing methods. The elder brother, direct mail, is a bit old-fashioned but classy and experienced.

In this article, we’ll explore direct mail and email marketing, what the difference between them is, and which one to choose. Spoiler: the best option is to use these tools together.

Introduction to direct mail and email marketing

To begin with, let’s learn what direct mail and email marketing are. They have a lot in common in the message format and distribution logic, but the implementation is completely different.

What is direct mail marketing?

Direct mail involves sending potential and existing customers printed materials by physical mail. A marketer sends postcards, brochures, flyers, catalogs and letters with the expectation of a client’s reaction: going to a website, making a call, visiting a location, or just a positive emotion.

For example, this letter gives a checklist to find out if one is on track for a successful retirement and an offer to speak with a financial advisor in the local branch or via a hotline.

a postcard from PNC Investments with a checklist to find out if one is on track for a successful retirement and a call to speak with a financial advisor
Source: Who's Mailing What!

What is email marketing?

Email marketing also aims to reach the potential customers’ mailbox. The idea is the same but the implementation is totally different. You don’t print anything: you craft an email and press one button to send it out. If you use platforms like Selzy, you can monitor the data on the emails you’ve sent right on the spot.

Here’s a baseline promotional email from Flings.

an email from Flings offers a 15% discount
Source: ReallyGoodEmails

Direct mail vs email marketing: Comparing pros and cons

Email marketing and direct mail have a lot in common although the implementation of their campaigns differs. Both channels have their strengths and drawbacks. Let’s have a look at what are the pros and cons of these tools, how can marketers benefit from using them and what should they keep in mind. 

Advantages and disadvantages of direct mail advertising

Direct mail is email marketing’s predecessor — it can do a lot of things that email marketing can as well, just in a more convoluted and less affordable way. So, what are the pros of using direct mail in the digital age? Let’s explore those:

✔️ Direct mail has lower competition and higher open rates. The competition in email marketing is extremely high and it is up each year. At the same time, people don’t get that much direct mail and your newsletter or catalog has higher chances to be noticed and opened. In fact, the open rate in direct mail is almost twice as high as the one in email marketing. It varies for different industries, but the range for direct mail is between 57.5 and 85%, at the same time average open rate for emails is only 34.2 to 40.55%

✔️ Direct mail gets more responses. The average response rates for direct mail fall between 2.7 and 4.4%. On the contrary, the average response rate of marketing emails is 0.6%. It means that this loan offer has a higher chance of getting noticed if it’s sent as a letter not an email.

The letter gives a personalized info on current debt and a special offer for a fixed rate personal loan and a calculated sum to save
Source: Who's Mailing What!

✔️ Direct mail has a higher ROI. In 2022, direct mail’s ROI was estimated to be 43%on average. The ROI for email marketing was only 32%.

✔️ Direct mail allows you to send real objects. Direct mail has something that digital channels like social media and emails don’t — it’s tactile. The envelope texture, the paper color, and other physical features can give your customer a unique experience and create a special bond with your brand, which can not be replaced by any digital channel means.

Check out this eco-friendly helmet Smart distributed to promote their new range of green e-bikes.

A carton layout with a specific cut-out pattern to follow transforms to an eco-friendly bicycle helmet
Source: D&AD

There is a whole “genre” of direct mail designed to let the customer try perfumes before purchasing — mail scent. The swipe-and-smell print technology lets the recipient experience the scent by simply swiping your postcard or brochure. There’s no way you could smell a social media post, right? Direct mail samples are not limited to perfumes — here’s a great example of skincare samples from Oriflame:

Oriflame anti-age skincare samples direct mail
Source: Oriflame

Now, let’s take a look at some of the major disadvantages of direct mail, most of which are byproducts of needing to create and distribute printed materials:

❌ Direct mail is pricey. The printing is not free, even if you manage to use your own color printer which is not always a good option. Distributing the mail on a physical medium also costs. Sending direct mail to clients from other continents on a regular basis is going to cost a bomb and take ages. It can also be challenging to get people to consensually provide you with their home addresses in contrast with emails. To get the full picture, keep in mind that in terms of ROI direct mail outperforms email marketing, as stated above. Though it may cost you a penny, it is worth it. 

❌ You need a professional for content production. The layout for printing is not something any computer user can produce — you need a designer skilled in printing layouts for that. And once the edition is printed, you can’t edit it. So you should be very attentive before you pass the final layout to the printing shop. It’s better if you have an experienced person run your edition. It’s ok to make mistakes and gain experience by yourself, but in this case, these mistakes may cost a lot.

the letter contains quotes from happy clients about the Misfits Market
Source: Who's Mailing What!

This letter could be crafted in any no-code builder with ease if it was an email. But this is a printed item, so it requires vector graphics made via special software with margins and colors that are to be printed adequately, as seen on the monitor. 

❌ The analytics are less detailed. You can get some data from direct mail — for example, by including QR codes containing links with UTM tags or conducting “How did you find out about our business?” surveys. However, calculating open rates or getting detailed insights is a lot harder, if not impossible. Email marketing has a bunch of tools for measuring performance, while direct mail simply has no capacity for that.

Email marketing benefits and drawbacks

Email marketing puts mail crafting and distribution in the digital realm. The full cycle of crafting an email, collecting and storing the recipients’ data, distributing emails, and monitoring the analytics is conducted via one digital solution. That means you can send any number of messages to your audience  for a much lower price compared to direct mail.

Check out the advantages of the email marketing as a tool:

✔️ Anyone can learn email marketing. That is a strong advantage. Any person familiar with computers can create and distribute any number of emails. You don’t need special education in design for that. You craft an email in a no code builder, segment your recipients by any relevant criteria and press “Send”. Although you have to learn a lot to succeed, the baseline process is easy, and there’s plenty of email services on the market to choose from.

Yes, you too can learn email marketing — and our course is a great starting point. Start your email journey with Selzy and get a full month on the Standard plan to start practicing right away.

✔️ You have a wide outreach. The internet knows no borders. You can instantly send emails to Paris, Beijing, and Delhi. Your potential customers on the other side of the globe will receive your messages in no time. You can translate your email marketing content to any language and send it worldwide, use one layout for the same email translated into different languages, and implement send time optimization regarding different time zones.

✔️ Email marketing can be put on autopilot. You can create trigger mailing and automate newsletter distribution completely via email marketing services. This saves time, improves customer experience, and allows you to guide subscribers down the sales funnel without lifting a finger — it works wonders both in B2C and B2B email marketing

Well, not lifting a finger is an exaggeration. You need to do a good job preparing this campaign, crafting the emails, segmenting the base and automating the whole process in an email marketing platform like Selzy. But once it is done, you only need to monitor the analytics and check if there is something else to improve. 

One great example of trigger emails is welcome emails. Here’s one from Airtable you get after signing up.

Airtable welcomes a new subscriber, suggests watching a quick video tour and provides a link to the support center.
Source: ReallyGoodEmails

✔️ The analytics are detailed and easy to access. Platforms like Selzy let you monitor analytics for your email campaign in real time. You can see if the email was received and opened, if the reader followed certain links in it etc. 

✔️ You can run split tests on emails. Imagine having to print two versions of a letter, send them to random groups of recipients, and assume that one was more effective than the other using questionable metrics. Now, imagine that you’re doing this with every letter you send — it’s going to cost you a fortune and make the process a lot more complex. Meanwhile, setting A/B tests for emails is a lot cheaper, and analyzing results is easier. For example, in Selzy you can even run quick tests with a defined winner that will be sent to the rest of your contact list. That’s great for making data-driven marketing decisions for your future campaigns.

✔️ You only pay for the email marketing platform. And you do it when your contact base or sending volume have exceeded the limit or when you want more cool features to go with your bulk email service. Sometimes you don’t even have to pay for one! For example, Selzy is free if there are less than 100 addresses in your contact list.

Looks great on paper but what are the drawbacks of email marketing? Let’s check them out:

❌ Email marketing takes time and focus. All the marketing tools do, but email marketing demands ultimate attention and constant analytics monitoring, otherwise it just will not work. Although it’s easy to learn the basics, emails are more complex than they seem. Setting up and maintaining automated sequences that work takes time and effort, which is why there’s a separate position for email marketers in big companies. The point is, if you’re thinking that emails will do the job for you while you treat them by the leftover principle, you’re wrong.

❌ The competition is high. In 2022, 333 billion emails were sent and received daily around the world, and the growth tendency doesn’t seem to change any time soon. One in three marketers reports using email and 87% plan to maintain or increase their investment in 2024. So, are you ready to compete with thousands of businesses for your subscribers’ attention?

Email fatigue is real. Unfortunately, many marketers around the globe use the “easy”, not sophisticated email marketing, where they don’t take time to study and segment the audience to let each recipient receive the email that fits best for him. And that abuses the channel’s power. People get a lot of junk email and generally don’t feel like reading newsletters from strangers. Crafting an email that will be received, opened, and read becomes a challenge for email marketers and business owners.

The chart shows the reasons why people unsubscribe from a brand’s newsletter
Source: Sinch Mailgun’s Email and the customer experience report, 2023

The bottom line is, email marketing is cheaper and can be automated almost completely, which is why it is rational to use it as one of the main marketing channels. However, direct mail has a higher chance of being noticed, and it gives the recipient a unique “mail moment” and tactile experience, which can create a deeper bond with your brand.

There is also a tool that combines features of both channels — direct email marketing.

How do direct mail and email marketing combine

So how do we combine two marketing channels? As said above, email marketing can be your general channel of communication with customers. The digital tools of email marketing let businesses contact any number of customers instantly and create email design that will cost almost nothing, which is a serious advantage.

Basically, the question is where and when we use direct mail instead of emails. Here are some ideas:

  • Use direct mail sparingly and when needed. Direct mail is a lot more expensive compared to emails, so only run such campaigns if that’s the only way to achieve a certain objective. For example, you can use direct mail to distribute physical objects like samples or gifts. 
    This letter from KitKat, although designed as a delivery failure notification, actually offers the recipient a free chocolate bar, which creates a fascinating impression. 
A classic mail form from KitKat with checkboxes says they couldn’t deliver the packet because it was too chunky for the letterbox
Source: D&AD
  • Contact the elderly customers. Yes, some people don’t use emails. If your target audience is 60+, direct mail can be your primary marketing channel.
  • Send direct mail to your most loyal customers. For example, your most loyal customers would be happy to get a lovely personal birthday postcard — like this one from Chewy. It’s even handwritten!
a birthday postcard from Chewy with handwriting
Source: Chewy
a birthday postcard from Chewy with handwriting
Source: Chewy

As direct mail can be pricey, you should judge from your budget and make a decision on how much you can spend on it during a certain period.

Final thoughts

Email marketing gives marketers an infinite freedom to automate and scale the marketing processes. It takes time and skills to implement emails as a communication channel — but when you do, you move your marketing to a new level. It’s also incredibly cost-efficient since you only have to invest in a paid email marketing app if free plans don’t cover your needs. Why would you need direct mail then?

Direct mail, despite being way more expensive than its digital counterpart, has a higher response rate, lower competition, and it can provide customers with a tactile experience. The latter is especially important for certain goods like fragrances.

Both email marketing and direct mail have their perks and drawbacks, and they may contribute to your business differently. We suggest using these channels together — emails as your main channel and direct mail as an occasional surprise for your customers. And just like that, you can boost your marketing efforts both online and in the physical realm!

04 March, 2024
Article by
Varvara Potekhina
A marketer keen on writing. Experienced in PR, marketing and editing. Writing for Selzy I practice both my editing and marketing skills. I managed email marketing in almost all the projects I worked with for the last 10 years. My interests lie in IT, education and traveling.
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