Why would you hate direct mail?

Russell Parsons

Tonight (4 July), the BBC’s long running investigative show Panorama, will ask the rather unbalanced question “why hate junk mail?” The answer, seeing as you weren’t asking, is there is no reason to. If you don’t like it, then there are plenty of avenues to ensure that it doesn’t arrive on your door step, and if you have no objection then the communications could just lead to an improved life.

I have to confess, at the time of writing, I haven’t seen the show. What I can guess, by virtue of the title’s proposition, it is set to be a hatchet job. Use of the pejorative “junk” does not lend itself to a reasoned probe into the merits of the channel.

What it will show, I can speculate, is a series of extreme examples of poor unsuspecting souls in any place, UK that are barely able to breathe under the sheer weight of unsolicited mail. It will also, I wager, throw some pretty numbers to illustrate the cost of recycling discarded mail.

In the past, there was plenty of justifiable criticism about direct mail and mailers. Blanket bombing mailings, no apparent targeting and no eye on the environmental impact of mail.

But less so now. Direct marketers that practice the physical form soon realised two things. It pays to improve targeting, and upsetting people by over mailing does not a prospective customer make.

Industry-led initiatives have driven significant improvements in reducing waste. The volume of direct mail going to landfill has fallen 80% since 2003, according to the DMA. Mail accounts for just 0.4% of the unrecycled waste.

Direct Marketing Association and the BSi environmental standard, PAS 2020 provides guidelines for producing sustainable campaigns.

And, if customers are so offended by unsolicited mail dropping through the door, then they can opt out via the Mailing Preference Service (MPS), or opt-in via newer ventures such as the Green Preference Service or Allow.

Direct mailers are trying to turn prospects into customers, in the same way as those brands using press, TV or digital ads are. The difference, of course, is that same charge of environmental irresponsibility cannot be levelled so freely at the others.

There is more the industry can do, and wastage from unwanted mail needs to continue to be reduced. Location and behavioural targeting needs to improve and the opt out options better publicised.

Critics might want to see it consigned to the marketing history books, swept away by newer, and arguably greener email and social media channels.

That could happen but will not anytime soon. In the meantime, direct marketers will continue to use direct mail, and continue to reach for better targeting. Why? Because mail works. According to the DMA, mail generates £16bn in sales every year.

For all those that are constantly searching for answers to the question “why hate DM?” there are plenty of brands offering reasons why they love the channel, and plenty of customers who were quite happy to receive the ad.

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