On the surface, direct mail vs. email seems like a no-brainer.  Email is faster, easier and cheaper than direct mail.  End of story.  Right?   Well, not so fast.  It’s more complicated than that.  Let’s take a closer look.


I should confess to a little bias here.

As a long-time direct mail guy, I was not an early adopter of email.  I had invested close to 20 years in the mail business before I had ever even heard of email.

So naturally I was a little slow to embrace this (at the time) brand new marketing channel.

And while I was a little frustrated with having to shift gears midway through my career, it became pretty clear that email was something that was going to dramatically change the marketing landscape … and something I needed to learn quickly.

The expanding role of email

Like everyone else in business, I started using email in my day-to-day communications, but in the early days, using email for sales and marketing was considered taboo.  Remember those days?

Eventually companies like Constant Contact, Vertical Response and iContact came along and introduced a powerful, yet affordable, platform for delivering professionally looking graphical (html) emails.

For the small business marketer, this was a real game-changer as it gave them the ability to compete with much larger competitors.

I immediately signed on with Constant Contact and I’ve been a business partner with them since 2005.  I have recommended Constant Contact to all of my clients, and for some, this has revolutionized their marketing.  They continue to use direct mail, but email has expanded their communications and made them so much more efficient.

The “opt-in” condition

But Constant Contact and virtually every email service provider have one key requirement that puts a wrinkle in the plans of some marketers.  To prevent being labeled a spammer, these firms prohibit the use of outside lists – either purchased or rented.  They only allow you to send email to your own opt-in names and email addresses – people who have given you their permission to send them emails.

As a result, the vast majority of email marketing today is being developed for lead nurturing and customer communications – not for prospecting (aka lead generation).

This works for me.  I have developed many programs that use direct mail to generate leads and email to nurture them.

Email for lead generation

But email’s role in the sales process continues to expand.  Not satisfied with lead nurturing, more marketers are now turning to email for lead generation.

Maybe it’s because we are getting used to seeing spam in our inbox, or that our junk folders are better able to filter out these emails before we see them.  Or maybe it’s because we are all less protective of our email addresses.

Whatever the reason, it appears that we are seeing a growing trend in email for prospecting.  Email lead generation seems to have become more acceptable to both marketers and their audiences.

(Constant Contact and others, however, are still warning against it and are refusing to allow you to use their platforms for prospecting.)

The growing email list business

The main impetus for this expansion is that list companies of all types are now flooding the marketing with email lists you can buy or rent.

There are still many spam lists on the market, but the good news is that many list companies have gone to great trouble to ensure that the people on their email lists have agreed to receive email from other marketers.

And to further protect the integrity of their lists, most of these list companies do not release their lists to clients or their agencies.  They keep the lists in-house and will only allow email campaigns to be delivered by their own servers.

By retaining complete control over their lists, these list companies are at least reducing the potential for abuse.

Now we are seeing direct mail and email being used for both the “front end” (lead generation) and the “back end” (lead nurturing and customer communications).

How direct mail and email are being used today.

There is no question that many direct mail users shifted a good portion of their marketing to email over the past decade or so.  Some replaced their direct mail.  Some simply added email to the mix.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either-or.  In fact, many marketers don’t see it as a competition at all.  Instead, they have found ways to integrate their direct mail and email.

For some, it means using direct mail for prospecting and email for nurturing.  For others, it means using both direct mail and email as a “multi-touch” prospecting campaign.

But how do they compare?

Let’s look at email first …

  • Email is faster.  Email is delivered within seconds or minutes after hitting the SEND button.  Direct mail takes at least a few days to arrive – in some cases up to two weeks.
  • Email is easier.  You create your email and hit SEND.  It’s a little more complicated if you a sending an html, or graphically enhanced, email, but it’s still pretty simple.  In some cases, you need to upload your email to a third party distributor.  But all of this is easier than printing, addressing, mailing and going to the post office.
  • Email is cheaper.  Obviously, if there is no printing, mailing service or postage involved, you are going to save plenty.  All you are paying for is the list and the distributor.  However, many list companies that sell both direct mail and email lists charge double for email in order to keep their mailing lists more competitive.
  • Email is more automated.  Marketing is a very demanding, non-stop business so anything you can do to automate some of the activity is a good thing.  With email, you have multiple opportunities to “set it and forget it.”
  • Email is easier to respond.   The true measure of any direct response program – whether email or direct mail – is to generate response.  To get people to respond from direct mail, they need to return a reply card, place a phone call, send an email or type in a website or landing page URL.  With email, you just have to click on a link and it takes you to a website or landing page.

Now let’s look at direct mail … 

Yes, it’s slower, more complex and more expensive, but direct mail has a different impact on your target audience than an email.  Here are a few reasons:

  • Direct Mail gets more attention.  It’s tangible – you can actually hold it in your hands.
  • Direct Mail has more staying power.  Direct mail can hang around for a while and often gets passed around the office or the household.  Some mailers, because of size or creativity, are able to achieve a long shelf-life with some recipients.
  • Direct Mail has less competition – today.  This may not last, but in recent years with the growth of email, we saw less direct mail being used.  Just compare how many emails you get vs. how many direct mail pieces you get every day.  That means if you do use direct mail, you have a better chance of getting noticed.
  • Direct Mail is still more acceptable.  Yes, there are still plenty of complaints about junk mail and killing trees, but we have become very used to receiving unsolicited mail.  Unsolicited email is still frowned upon by many.
  • Direct Mail has more consistent reach.  Today, many people have multiple email addresses – for work, home and other purposes.  Some of these email addresses are never checked.  With direct mail, your mail generally gets through to the right business or household location.  People do move and change jobs, but list companies generally get those types of updates.

The “open rate” concern

We keep hearing about the declining open rates of email.  To be sure, they are declining which can easily be explained by the growing number of emails we all get every day.  The more emails you get, the less likely you will open them all.   I suspect they will continue to decline as long email continues to grow as a marketing channel.

To be fair though, direct mail doesn’t have an open rate – at least not one that can be tracked or measured – so we don’t know how these two compare on that measurement.

The obsession with deliverability

For both email and direct mail, many marketers worry about deliverability rates.  It’s true if your message doesn’t get through, all bets are off.  It’s true deliverability of both email and direct mail depends entirely on list hygiene – how effectively and how frequently the list owners update their lists.

It’s also true that mailers are shocked when they see how many email or direct mail pieces never reached their intended destination.  I learned a long time ago to prepare clients for this expectation.

But I think we pay too much attention to deliverability.   There is no question that poor deliverability can contribute (in fact, is likely to contribute) to a poor campaign performance.  But this is not guaranteed.  It’s entirely possible to find a list that is perfectly targeted for your business offer except that it is not well maintained.  I remember a direct mail campaign in which we tested 10 mailing lists and discovered that the list with the highest non-delivery rate actually produced our best response.  It happens.

Compare the response and the cost-per-response

In the end, the only thing that matters when comparing direct mail with email is the response.  You want to determine which marketing channel produces the best response – not just initial response but response conversions as well.

At the same time, you need to factor in marketing costs because email costs so much less than direct mail.  So be sure to measure cost-per-response, cost-per-qualified-response or cost-per-order.

It is very understandable why more marketers have turned to email in recent years.  You can’t ignore the cost, simplicity and speed of email.

Test them side by side

But before you jump to any conclusions, test them side by side.  Find some lists that offer both direct mail and email.  Take a test quantity from each – without any duplication – and send them the same offer, message and graphics.

Track and measure your response against your costs.

And then you’ll have an answer – for you and your marketing program.


Written by Bob McCarthy

This article may be reprinted without permission as long as the article includes the following credit: Bob McCarthy is a freelance copywriter and consultant specializing in direct marketing and lead generation. You can read his blog, The Direct Response Coach, on his website at Bob can be reached at 508-473-8643 or by email at


About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."