E-mail Versus Direct Mail:
Which works better?

by Ivan Levison

Email or direct mail? Which is the better way to reach customer and get them to buy from you? This article discusses the merits of both.

Using opt-in e-mail can be a great way to generate leads and sales. But so can regular snail mail. Here's a quick guide to the pros and cons of direct mail and email to help you choose the right way to contact prospects and build your business.

Email Pros

  • Email is cheap. Which is why spammers love it. They don't care whether response rates are low because their costs are negligible. If you want to reach a large number of people and if you have access to a solid, opt-in list, go for it. A test sure won't cost you an arm and a leg.

  • Email is fast. In two senses. First, your production time is minimal. As soon as you get an idea to test, you can write a motivating email, and hit the send button. Second, your prospect gets your email instantly so responses can start pouring in within minutes. Speed, from start to finish, means you can be a super-agile marketer.

  • Email is a fabulous testing medium. As a result of the speed I mentioned above, you can get virtually instant answers to your marketing questions. Is a cross-sell offer going to be a winner? Send a group of prospects an email and you'll have an answer. Have you written two great headlines but can't decide which one to go with? Do some email testing and get your answer fast!

  • Downloadable fulfillment pieces are instantly accessible. For example, if you're offering prospects a White Paper filled with valuable information, they can click through to your landing page, fill in a little qualifying information, and download your White Paper in under two minutes. The fact that they don't have to wait long to get their free fulfillment piece boosts response rates.



Email Cons 

  • The email "environment" is poor. Thanks to the spam avalanche, sorting through email messages is a real drag. That means your prospects are looking for messages from colleagues, family, and friends, and everything else is out. And fast.

  • Email messages have to be (relatively) short. When prospects are going through their email, they want information quickly. So long copy is out. Complex offers are out. Supporting facts and arguments are out.

  • Emails limit your creativity. An all-text email is obviously visually quite boring. The message is the whole ball game. Even in an HTML email, you can throw in some color and photography, but the look is never great. Let's face it. With email, your graphic designer is fighting with one hand tied behind her back.

  • Great email lists are hard to find. Yeah. List brokers promise you a high-quality "opt-in" list but you're often playing with fire. The simple fact is that the direct mail list business is a lot more mature and you can find ethical and helpful list brokers if you shop around.  

Direct Mail Pros

  • The direct mail environment is a good one. Sure, people call direct mail "junk mail." But they use the term with a lot less anger than they do when they speak of "spam." When you read through your email, you're sitting at a desk staring at a monitor and you're busy. When you sort through your postal mail, you're probably much more relaxed and feel less put upon. This difference in receptivity is, in my judgment, incalculably important.
     

  • Direct mail gives you the space you need to tell the whole story. If you write a compelling letter, readers will stay with you. They will NOT stick with you in an email.
     

  • In direct mail, you can use emotion. In your letter or flyer you can inspire, frighten, cajole, convince, make cogent arguments, and motivate. Readers just don't want that in an email. They want you to tell them the facts and get out. Which, for a writer like me is very limiting, indeed.
      

  • In direct mail you can include different pieces you can hold in your hand. I'm talking about a colorful flyer, a testimonial sheet filled with raves, objective product reviews, you name it. You never know what's going to capture a reader's interest or attention. With an email you get pixels on the screen and nothing more.  

Direct Mail Cons 

  • Direct mail can be expensive. Postage is sky high and heading higher. Printing often costs a ton of money and there are list rental and letter-shop costs to consider. Not to mention creative development.

The bottom line? Direct mail can be very cost effective but there's no question that your front-end costs are going to be higher. That's the only big "con" I think you have to worry about.   

Final Thoughts
As you can see from the pros and cons listed above, email and direct postal mail both have their advantages. Lately, direct mail has been in a bit of a decline, partly because of the economy and partly because email marketing has made inroads.  My own feeling is that direct mail will be making a huge comeback as spammers continue to destroy a legitimate marketing channel.

My advice? Keep on testing email but don't neglect the proven, money-making power of a letter package or self-mailer!  


Ivan Levison is an award-winning freelance direct response copywriter who creates direct mail sales letters, emails, and ads. He publishes a free monthly newsletter. Visit his website at http://www.levison.com.

 
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