direct mail vs. print advertisingLong before the Internet, direct mail vs. print advertising was a common debate among both B2B and B2C marketers.

For some, it still is.

Even with so many online opportunities around them, many retail stores, restaurants and other local businesses still rely on their local newspapers, free standing inserts and solo direct mail to reach their local audiences.

In B2B, the trade journals are smaller these days, but print advertising is still being sold.  And direct mail continues to be a strong suit for B2B lead generation.

It should be noted these businesses are not living in the dark ages.  They have websites and many use some online activities (such as paid search) to promote their business.  And a large number use email marketing to nurture leads and build loyalty.

So there’s still a place for offline – and depending on your business, it could be a very big place.

Now back to the debate – direct mail vs. print advertising – how do you decide?

Let’s look at some quick comparisons:

  • Print advertising reaches groups.  Whether you’re using newspapers, magazines, trade journals or free standing inserts, your message will reach a defined audience or group.  That audience may be paid subscribers, free subscribers (aka controlled circulation subscribers), all households in a defined location or all businesses in a defined industry.

  • Direct mail reaches individuals.  Some direct mail is designed to reach everyone in a defined location or industry, but it is largely used to reach individuals of a certain characteristic.  That characteristic may include demographic information and/or behavioral (psychographic) information.

Very often for direct mail, we use the subscription lists (or list segments) from these same print publications.

Advantages of print advertising

Total Cost – generally, a print publication makes advertising accessible to a larger number of businesses.  It doesn’t always mean you can afford a full-page or even half-page ad.  For some business, a small classified ad is about all your budget will allow.  But most publications want to be able to offer something to everyone.

Cost per Contact – if you look at your total cost and divide it by the number of subscribers (potential eyeballs), you will come up with cost per contact.  Most print publications have a cost per contact of just a few cents per contact.

Simplicity – because most print sales people deal with companies that do not have an advertising agency or department, they have figured out how to create ads quickly at little to no cost.  Larger advertisers will typically produce their own ads, but many of the smaller ads are created by the publication’s in-house design team.

Reach – this varies with the type of publication.  Paid publications reach the fewest people but you could argue those people are more likely to see your ad because they are more invested and more consistent readers.  Free publications reach more people.

If subscribers are required to fill out a survey form (or qualification card), they have at least demonstrated an interest in the publication.  Some publications go out to everyone who fits a specific profile.  This reaches the most people, but many have little interest in receiving it.

Measurable – I realize most advertising is not measurable but that’s not because of the medium.  It’s because the people creating the ads don’t understand direct response.  If you want to generate leads and customers from your advertising, there is a simple way to do it.  By adding an offer, a call to action and some tracking codes, you will be able to track and measure the effectiveness of your advertising.

Testing – testing is possible for print advertising, but not as simple as direct mail.  Some publications actually provide A/B split testing by producing two separate runs of the publications.  This allows you to test different ads in the same issue with your ad in the same location – a true laboratory for print ad testing.

But most publications don’t offer this.  In this case, you will have to test different ads in different issues of the publication.  While this gives you some results data, you have to take into account the fact that different issues may have higher readership than other issues –which could affect your results.

Now for the disadvantages of print advertising

Shared exposure – the business model for all publications is to use multiple advertisers to support the publication.  This means your ad will be appear with 20, 50 maybe 100 or more other ads.  And depending on the size and location of your ad, you can easily get buried.  The larger the publication, the more likely you will get lost.

Limited space – many ads don’t need much space.  You have a headline, short intro, a photo, logo and telephone number.  For these, working within the limited space is no problem.  But sometimes, you have a longer message.  This could mean spending more money on a larger ad.

Fixed schedule – try as you might to get an extension on your ad submission, print publications have deadlines and they need to keep them.  Hopefully those deadlines and print schedules will align with your business objectives, but we know that’s not always the case.

Waste – often when you find a publication that reaches your audience, you quickly learn that is also reaches people who are not your potential customers.  Maybe it reaches beyond your geographic area or reaches industries beyond your scope.  At some point, you need to decide if it’s worth the waste.

Advantages of direct mail

Targeting – this is what brings people to direct mail, the ability to reach individual targets on a one-to-one basis.  The challenge is two-fold – creating a specific customer profile and finding lists that match that profile.  Sounds simple and sometimes it is.  But sometimes it’s very complicated.

Standalone Ad – you stand alone with direct mail.  Your message might arrive with an assortment of other mail, but when the sorting process begins, you know that someone at your target location will see the mail piece and be forced to make a decision about what to do with it.  Even people who throw it away will have to look at it first.

Flexible Cost – you have complete control over quantity.  You can mail as many or as few direct mail pieces as you want or can afford.  Mail just one piece at a time if you want.  Some companies will print and prepare a larger quantity but only mail what they can afford on a weekly basis.

Measurable – most everyone knows direct mail is measurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get people to respond.  You still need to do the work of mailing lists, offers, format selection and creative to generate a response.  But don’t get caught by response rates only.  The quality of your response is also important because not all leads are going to have the same potential of becoming a customer.

Unlimited Space – you have no limitation on space with direct mail.  If the need arises, you can fill your envelope with as much information as you want.  But knowing when to use long copy vs. short copy is important thing to understand.

Flexible Schedule – you can mail anytime on your own schedule.  The deadlines you set are your deadlines.  If you’re running behind, reprimand yourself, but you can also go out the next day.  But be aware of postal delivery times for different types of mail.

Minimal Waste – if you do your own mailing list research correctly, you should have no waste.  Everyone you reach should be a prospect for you because they matched your customer profile.  Realistically, we know that perfect matches don’t exist and lists are often out of date with plenty of inaccuracies.  But overall, you can assume that direct mail has minimal waste.

Testing – direct mail makes it easy to test different variables in your campaign.  You can test lists, offers, formats and multiple copy/creative components.  It’s best to constantly test to be in search for the best performing components. It’s wise to test one element at a time.  Best to start by testing your lists and your offers.

Disadvantages of direct mail

Cost per Contact – this may be the biggest complaint of direct mail.  Even though you can manage your budget by controlling quantities, the cost per contact for direct mail is very high compared with print advertising.

Depending on quantity and format, your direct mail costs are likely to be between 50 cents and$1 per piece.  Postage alone will likely cost you close to 30 cents each.

Complex execution – compared to other forms of advertising, direct mail execution can be complex meaning many things can go wrong.  Postcards are simple, but even they require some attention to detail to meet postal regulations.

Other direct mail packages are more complex because they involve creating multiple components that all need to fit together in the end.  Personalization adds to the complexity.  And lead times for list rental, printing and mailing services using multiple vendors can also complicate the process.


 In summary

I hope you found this overview helpful.  There is no obvious answer here.  Both direct mail and print advertising have their merits – given the right situation.  It’s important to weigh all the factors to make the right decision.

If in doubt, test.  I know you’ve heard this before, but it will help you to answer some questions.

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."