Email: Why It Isn't Digital Direct Mail

Email is not direct mail.

"Duh," you might be saying if you are an experienced email marketer. But I've noticed a continuing increase of marketers with direct mail or other offline backgrounds entering the email world, and who seem to be surprised at the differences.

Frequently, I sense an assumption that the same basic rules apply to both channels. At some levels this is true, of course--with common principles including the role of segmentation and personalization, the importance of good creative, recency and frequency models.

But beyond these core shared principles, email has a number of unique challenges and rules of the road that require direct marketers to approach their email programs quite differently.

If you are new to email, welcome to the party! Because the rules of the road for email marketing can be a little perplexing, the following is a quick guide to some of the differences between email and direct mail.

1. The email consumer runs the show.



Consumers have more control over and are more proprietary about their inboxes than their mailboxes.

  • Permission: This is perhaps the number-one difference between email and direct mail. While not all email is permission-based and not all direct mail is unsolicited, email's opt-in focus is clearly a fundamental driver of the channel's high return on investment.
  • Transparency: With a simple click of a link, email consumers can read your privacy policy and often view and update their profile. The ease of online transparency increases trust, engagement and ultimately ROI.
  • Unsubscribes/Spam complaints: Email provides recipients with an instant out, either through the unsubscribe or the spam complaint. Both can sting, but you can turn them into positives by tracking and learning from them.
  • Preferences: While variable printing has made personalized direct mail pieces commonplace, Web and email technology has made it easy for recipients to "design" their own emails via the topics, interests, format and frequency they want.
  • Frequency: In direct mail, if you mail too much, your ROI simply declines. In email, send too often and your spam complaints will jump, possibly getting your emails blocked or filtered.

2. Successful email delivery is more complicated.

The post office will deliver your mail as long as it meets postal regulations and you pay enough postage. Email has many more players judging whether your email should get through to the recipient.

Some key differences:

  • Delivery speed: Good news here, with some exceptions, email messages usually get delivered within minutes after you hit "send.".
  • ISPs: Many emailers bemoan ISPs that block their email or filter it to junk folders. However, play by the rules and follow best practices and you'll achieve high delivery rates and better ROI than your competitors.
  • Junk folders and filters: Judging by my postal mailbox, I'm guessing that if the U.S. Postal Service used similar filtering rules as the ISPs and corporate email filters, 10-25 percent of "legitimate" mail would never get delivered.
  • Bounces/Change of address: In the postal world, when someone moves, there is a good chance that person's mail will be forwarded to his or her new address. Not so in email. Get used to losing a small percentage of your list every month.

3. Campaign performance, success and ROI are measured differently.

  • Both direct mail and email use metrics to measure performance, but the tools differ:

  • Metrics: If you are a direct mailer, you've been lucky in that most of your metrics revolve around end goals and ROI. In email, get used to tracking a plateful of process metrics from opt-in form completion rates to spam complaint rates.

  • Easier testing: Some great news here--no need to wait a few weeks to declare the winner of a direct mail drop. In email, within 24 hours you can typically determine the winner in an A/B split test.

  • Cost: The direct mail world has this one nailed--typically knowing to the penny what a campaign costs. In email, the distribution costs are so low comparatively, that a lot of companies fail to accurately track the true total cost of email--often leading to some poor practices and decisions.

  • Definitions and standards: The email industry has yet to standardize a lot of metrics and a term used in direct mail (e.g., "response rate") has little or a different meaning in email.

4. The email message your recipient sees can appear markedly different from the way it looked when you designed it.

  • Direct-mail circulars sometimes get mangled in shipment, but otherwise appear as designed. An email, on the other hand, can look quite different on the hundreds of combinations of email clients, mobile devices and personal settings. Design challenges unique to email include:

  • Preview panes: Users can view just a portion of an email--akin to a see-through window on a direct mail envelope. Ignore this aspect and you ignore a growing means of how your email is being read.

  • Blocked images: Designing direct mail pieces to work with and without graphics would certainly be a unique variable printing challenge. Many marketers continue to design email for an image-centric world at their own peril --leaving money on the table and frustrating recipients..

  • Competing ads: Web email providers like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail serve ads next to your email. Imagine your recipient opening their mailbox to find a competitor's direct mail piece affixed to yours.

  • Multiple platforms: Now this would be wild, if your catalog showed up as a different size, length and number of columns based on each brand and style of mailbox. Designing your templates to work across platforms is perhaps today's number-one call to arms in email.

  • If you have made the switch from direct mail to email, I'd love to hear what you've found to be the most difficult differences between the channels. I didn't include all the differences, and I'm sure I forgot some obvious ones. Or, if you think I'm off base on these concepts, let me know where I strayed.

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