The (Forgotten) Power of Mail

“To think how far those letters traveled to me was amazing, and to have something he had touched so close to me was more than amazing.”

Sasha upon receiving letters from her Marine fiance in Afghanistan


Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow a new service was invented. The plan was to enable the possibility to deliver physical items to every home in America. As a marketer, you could tailor what arrived based on zip code and you could personalize everything so they were addressed to the person living there. You could send packages or letters or post cards.

If this was new I cannot imagine the potential of creativity and PR and innovative customer relationship blog posts that would pop up. But alas, this isn’t new and the only thing anyone can seem to write about today is the dismal state of the postal service and how everything digital is killing it.

To paraphrase the always wise Russell Davies: Don’t mistake something that’s shrinking as something that’s small.

But we have largely forgotten about it. The US Postal Service now says almost two months pass before the average household gets a personal letter, compared with two weeks 15 years ago. Also, only 4% of household mail comes from another household.

And yet we still like it. Nearly two-thirds of standard mail is read or looked at. Valpak reports that often 90% of envelopes are opened. By contrast, email marketing typically averages around 11%.

Fifty percent of us actually prefer direct mail to email. This might be hard to believe. And many companies don’t believe it until it’s too late. Such was the case of Per Annum Inc. who was spending $20k annually sending personally signed letters to their customers. After thinking this was wasteful the company transferred the letters to emails which resulted in a 25% drop in orders.

The mail simply allows us to convey a level of emotion and tangibility that digital can’t do.

Imagine you’re an emerging illustrator and that your hero is John K, the creator of Ren & Stimpy. You gather up some courage and send him your drawings. Then he sends this back to you which you hold in your hands as your read…

Yes, this could have been an email or a blog post–but not really. It wouldn’t have had nearly the impact.

I’ve flown Southwest most of my life. The other day I received this small box in the mail that opened by pulling it apart…

No sales pitch. Just a thank you: a beautifully produced metal luggage tag with my name and Rapid Rewards number on the back. I attached it to my luggage the next morning.

Here’s the good news… The challenges of the postal service actually presents two key opportunities.


The postal service will be reducing their delivery schedule, ending Saturdays with the possibility of other days in the future. One of the things this decrease does is that it makes the arrival of mail more special. And specialness increases our attention. It’s highly likely that once the mail delivery is further limited our attention to the mail will increase. We’re currently examining two thirds of the pieces mailed to us… could this increase to three quarters?


The cost of postage is going up between 3 – 4%. Marketers are considering what to do. But while postage is going up, list prices have fallen a sizable 49% since 2006. This is key. Forty percent of the success of any direct mail effort can be directly tied to the quality of the list. (The remaining parts are 40% offer and 20% creative messaging.) Better list prices help offset some of the costs of rising postage.

Let’s not let our mail become only “junk.” People shift through it to find the good stuff. Marketers who send more of the good stuff are going to benefit. People who send letters are going to benefit. Let’s take a fresh look at the mail system. Let’s pretend it was just invented and tear into it with all the vigor and creativity that we do with the latest online social thing that probably isn’t nearly as cool, pervasive or as personally welcomed as the US mail system.

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John Drake
John Drake
March 19, 20121 min read