Direct mail trends can be difficult to forecast, even without the turbulent record of the last year. Recession, civil unrest, political strife, and of course, a raging pandemic were all factors that produced a very different year for marketers than anyone could have imagined.

Recently, Who’s Mailing What! participated in the Variable Data Print & Mail Summit, where we shared some of the trends that we discovered along with some key insights. That is why we decided to update this article to highlight some of our learnings.

1. Postcards are on the rise; they’re growing in popularity.

We looked at the past 12 years … looked at all the mail formats … and postcards have been steadily increasing.

Distribution by mail formats (2009-2021)

Some possible reasons?

  • potentially … higher postage and paper costs
  • maybe, a response to a shift in how people read mail – a postcard is smaller, with less words, so it’s faster to read and either get customers to respond to an offer or go online for more information to make a decision

As postcards gain popularity, these are the industries where you see the most significant drop in the use of Envelopes (or letter packages).

  • The average drop across all industries is 15% in envelopes,
  • Marketers and Brands are still using them – just less frequently

drop in the envelope distribution

We’re seeing marketers changing how they campaign – with less pieces and copy. Here’s an example – Kay Jewelers in 2008 was mailing more envelope campaigns as in this Valentine’s promotion, but by 2020 … postcards.

shift from envelopes to postcards

In some industries though, the drop-off is smaller. For them, envelopes are still a proven way to deliver a sales message.

Recommended reading: 8 Direct Mail Envelope Ideas to Boost Your Open Rate [+22 Examples]

Looking at self-mailers – the same factors come into play – why use a self-mailer when a postcard will do much of the same at a lower cost – which means better ROI for your campaigns.

  • 16% was the average drop across all industries
  • The industries with the most prominent drop are highlighted here; pretty similar to envelopes with the exception of the Arts.

industries usign self mailers less frequently

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about – 2 different mailpieces from Disney Vacation Club: at the top, this 2007 folded self-mailer has a lot of copy covering a 2-panel spread but in 2021, a single postcard is the norm. It’s more affordable to mail – and again … less copy.

Which brings me to our second trend!

drop in self mailers

2. Copy Gets Concise

Let’s talk about word count – over the last 20 years, according to our stats, direct mail copy became shorter by 62%.

The word count changes in the direct mail copy (all formats)

Let’s look at Amazon – for years it’s been mailing letters to remind Prime members that they’re entitled to watch Prime Video – but there’s a big difference in word count from 2014 to the 2021 example you see:

  • Shorter sentences
  • Much smaller paragraphs
  • A few bullet points

amazon prime direct mail

If you’re a fan of copy, restaurants LOVE copy when marketing themselves. Not only are they mailing more postcards – they’re using more words…98% more in just the last 4 years!

dominos direct mail copy

So there are exceptions to trends.

3. Digital Interactive is more prevalent.

Direct mail is a fantastic means of engaging with a target audience and it reinforces online efforts. We looked at how companies and organizations are opening avenues for customers to reply and we see that digital call to actions are gaining in popularity:

Prompting the consumer or donor to interact with your brand or organization via some digital channel:

  • whether it be a social media channel
  • via a QR code, or
  • prompts a visit to a website

Usage of these response terms in the mail has doubled in just the last 4 years!

digital interactive elements

Here we see multiple business categories or industries leveraging digital elements. Top 3 are Retail, Non-Profit and Financial Services.

Industries leveraging digital interactive elements in 2021

Sharing some examples of these digital elements.

digital elements 1 digital elements 2

How does 2021 look? Our analysis shows that of the main digital callouts:

  • Social media profiles are #1
  • QR Codes are #2
  • at #3 we have – “Visit Our Website”

popular digital cta 2021

@username takes the consumer directly to where you want them to be; “follow us” requires the consumer to do a bit more work (they have to find you themself).

The lesson here is that you want to give your customers and prospects as many ways as possible to interact with you, and respond to your offer with a purchase or donation.

Read in detail: How Does Digital Boost Direct Mail Response?

4. Business Reply Mail is getting less popular

Another way that traditional mail has changed over the last 20 years is the decline in what was a standard response option for many years: Business Reply Mail.

53% of companies are no longer sending Business Reply Mail (this chart is not reflective of the amount of BRM being produced, but gives you a view into the company usage of Business Reply Mail).

Companies sending Business Reply Mail

Marketers have to meet customers where many of them are … which is online.
So we’ve had an increase in digital reply options:

  • Websites / personalized URLs
  • QR codes
  • Apps

Here’s PayPal – mail reply only in 2005 …. BUT …. in 2021, no more – instead it’s a branded QR code.

mailers shift to digital

They’re fast and they’re easy. But …We don’t want to set the wrong tone here. Business Reply Mail is still considered an effective response device evidenced by the large mailers across many industries.

companies using business reply mail

  • Looking at last year and this year’s statistics, you can see that 12% of AMEX’s direct mail packages include a business reply device.
  • Citibank – 15%
  • In the Nonprofit sector, 36% of Feeding America’s packages include business reply devices

Not all audiences are always comfortable with responding to an offer by going online. They appreciate the security and convenience of using an envelope provided for them for making charitable donations or returning an insurance application.

Always consider your target audience’s interests and reactions to your campaign before you mail.

Read in detail: Should You Still Use Business Reply Mail?

5. Sustainability is moving to the forefront in recent years – Eco Friendly Grows

This chart is highlighting direct mail ads that include a sustainability stance. Out of the mail pieces with sustainability language, 75% have been sent in the past 5 years. From a trend perspective, we see this becoming more prevalent and coming to the forefront.

Top General Green Message Words

Read in detail about Eco-Friendly Trends in Direct Mail

6. COVID-19 Lasting Impact

Maybe the biggest trend in direct mail developed just in the last year: the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s taken an enormous human toll, as well as an economic one. So it showed up in mail in a lot of ways.

Looking at words and phrases related to COVID, comparing this year to last year: in 2020, we were adapting and canceling; in 2021, you can see we’ve been adapting and transitioning to virtual environments.

covid-related words and phrases

Marketers are adapting to a new normal by including COVID-related messages into their campaigns and highlighting different benefits in their campaigns.

marketers are adapting to the new normal

Read more: The Impact of COVID-19 on Direct Mail Marketing: Stats and Trends

7. Does Direct Mail Still Work?

We’re going to give you an enthusiastic ‘YES’!

We’ve got companies of all ages leveraging direct mail. Companies founded as far back as Proctor & Gamble … to companies founded in the “age of digital”, quite a few of them trendy startups, are including direct mail as part of their mix.

  • Just over 20% of companies in WMW! Collection were founded in the past 20 years.
  • Young companies are also using direct mail.

_Companies of all ages are using direct mail

Let’s look at a few of them.

We’ve got companies founded in 2020 represented in the database. Even newly-established companies, founded during a global pandemic, have opted for direct mail marketing.

companies founded in 2020 using direct mail

Established digital leaders are embracing direct mail.

Why?

  • Because they understand that it works. When it’s done well, direct mail has a higher response rate than online tactics
  • They need to reach audiences that digital channels don’t.
  • They also need to stand out in the mailbox from other, well-known companies in their marketplace.
  • Paper, ink, finishing, and great marketing come together to make an impression – and a sale – that other tactics can’t match.

digital industry leaders using direct mail

Read in detail: Top Digital Companies Using Direct Mail

Our full presentation with examples and stats is available on SlideShare.

→ Watch Direct Mail Trends 2021 Report on SlideShare

What Other Experts Say

We’ve also consulted with other industry leaders on their perspectives. We also wanted to tap the expertise of some of our friends to find out what they think lies ahead in 2021. Each brings a unique perspective to our discussion, and we thank them all for their participation.

8. More sophisticated variable data

I believe we will see increased interest in more sophisticated variable data projects from our direct mailing division. Also, I think we will see some printing companies, such as ours, thinking more outside of the box with metallic inks, specialty folds and die cuts along with other ways to get the customers attention and to retain the message the mailing piece was designed to present.

9. QR codes

QR CODES!!!! Has everyone said that? Proving ROI.

Deborah CornIntergalactic Ambassador
to The Printerverse
Print Media Centr

Analysis of data from Who’s Mailing What! has indeed shown an increase in usage of QR codes in direct mail. Some of the factors driving the greater use of QR codes are:

  • USPS campaign discounts. In recent years, marketers have enjoyed 2% postage cost breaks for campaigns that include a QR code. However, compared to when they were first introduced in mail, they now have more stringent requirements to demonstrate their value in creating a better consumer experience.
  • More awareness of the value of multichannel mail. When incorporated into a mail piece in a way that makes sense — i.e., it actually provides a benefit for the customer, something that ties together the physical and digital worlds.
  • More comfort and familiarity with QR codes. QR codes are being used in signage, restaurant menus, and print ads to provide helpful information that’s up-to-date, high-tech, and contactless at the same time.

10. Voice Activated Call To Action

A trend I would not overlook for 2021 is the Voice Activated Call To Action (VACTA), this new tech allows marketers to connect their mail piece to a smart speaker interaction. This multimedia brand experience enhances their mail campaigns by adding an audible experience and allows the prospect to request a text to complete the transaction. Think of it as a QR code for voice.

Mike GundersonPresident
Gunderson Direct

This is a great example of a cutting-edge technology that is rapidly approaching a tipping point for marketers. Surveys say that over a quarter of all American adults now own at least one voice assistant. So look for ways to incorporate them into your direct mail, especially when you can save money.

11. Triggered direct mail

Looking at 2021 and its emerging trends, I can’t neglect mentioning triggered direct mail — which is when a single direct mail piece is automatically printed and mailed to a consumer based on a specific event or behavior (a trigger) — because it is going to have a HUGE impact on direct mail as we know it.

Direct mail has finally reached the stage where it can be as singular, personalized and responsive as digital, and it isn’t out of reach for everyday business owners and marketers. Anyone with Salesforce or Hubspot or a WordPress site and a free afternoon can design and program triggered direct mailers that will automatically be mailed (at scale!) to new leads, new customers, new website visitors, visitors who abandoned a shopping cart, visitors who never signed up for your newsletter — you name it. I actually talked to a client of mine recently and he said that SO many financial advisors had triggered direct mail on their 2021 to-do list, and that’s just one example. We launched our triggered direct mail integration early last year (which uses Zapier to create any personalized automation chain you can imagine), and it’s already grown by leaps and bounds.

Joy GendusaCEO at PostcardMania

12. Programmatic direct mail

Programmatic direct mail is in demand today as another key touchpoint in the funnel and justifiably so. It works.

The tried and true official direct mail looking direct mail continues to work.

Grant JohnsonOwner and CEO at Responsory

Whatever name you want to use — programmatic or triggered mail — this is a growing category of mail because it makes so much sense. It brings together the physical and digital worlds to create a unique experience for your customers. Like the first trend mentioned (advertising consolidation), it’s another way for businesses of all sizes to be present in any channel where their customers are, and leveraging the strengths of each one.

13. Additional specialty branding features

Heading into 2021 we are seeing a big rebound in direct mail from the slow down of last year. Along with that there is a large increase in interest from organizations to add specialty features to get more noticeability and recognition with branding in mail. Things like haptic coatings, foiling, embossing, and even scent. There is also more research being done with incorporating Augmented Reality to direct mail. While things are certainly changing in a big way these new trends are exciting and make us even more optimistic about direct mail’s future!

Clint SeckmanPresident
Parkland Direct

Your mail can stand out in the customer’s mailbox by tapping into basic human senses like sight, touch, and smell. After all, every communication seems the same because they can’t create the sensory experiences that direct mail can. Look for ways to spruce up your mail!

14. Interactive direct mail

In 2021 new technology and an abundance of data will empower Direct Marketers to make informed choices when deciding who to target and what message to send. COVID-19 has forced people to spend time at home so this is the perfect opportunity to mail an attractive, interactive Direct Mail piece that will grab consumers’ attention and engage them long enough to make a purchase. A strong loyalty program that includes Direct Mail will keep that person as a valued customer for life.

Michelle FuchsAccount Manager
IWCO Direct

15. B2B dimensional mail

On the B2B side, dimensional mail is working well; because we all receive so many packages today, prospects want to open it and see what’s inside. It cuts through the clutter.

Grant JohnsonOwner and CEO at Responsory

16. Better segmentation with data

Accessing 1st and 3rd party data to further segment an audience will continue to play a huge role in a DM campaign’s success. If you’re able to align targeted messaging and great creative with those different segments, then that’s a recipe for increased response rates. Furthermore, surrounding that DM send with a similar message/offer through various digital channels will only add to that campaign’s success. Being able to hone in on delivery dates and putting an emphasis on speed to market are big contributors to making a direct mail/digital integration program thrive.

Mike EfstathiosBusiness Development at ICS Corporation

17. The shift from quantity to quality

With late, lost packages, and undelivered mail during the height of the holiday season, more customers are inquiring about direct mail tracking and delivering confirmation.

Because of the recent postal increase, customers will also mail less and look for higher results. Mail quantities will reduce, and more focus will be on targeted lists, personalization, impactful mail pieces, and dimensional mailers to achieve a better return on investments.

Thanh NguyenCMO at The Standard Group

18. The shift from “junk mail” to personal mail

A second trend I think we’ll see in 2021 is the shift from “Junk Mail” to personal mail. Mailing a “personal” letter will help give you a better response rate. I often find that it’s better to spend a little more on your mail package so that you can get a better response rate. Making your mail look “Personal” in 2021 will give you a nice lift in response.

Craig SimpsonDirect Marketing Consultant
Simpson Direct

19. Increased personalization

Personalization in Direct Mail is going to increase two fold in 2021. The need for marketers to achieve that human connection with their customers has never been more relevant than now. Studies have shown that the majority of the population feel as though they have lost that kind of relationship during the times of the pandemic.

Amanda BronowskiSales Executive at Heeter

20. Coordinated online & offline advertising

The biggest 2021 direct marketing trend will be the consolidation of online/offline advertising. Business owners and marketers are smarter than ever, and they realize that generating leads and new business consistently is a multi-pronged approach. Your ads need to be on Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more in addition to physical touchpoints like postcards and mail that leave a deeper neurological imprint. (They’ve studied it and it’s proven!) But campaigns of that size require so much coordination — way more than a one- or two-person team can handle. So, expect to see bundled campaign services popping up more and more.

My business has offered an online/offline campaign bundle, called Everywhere Small Business, since 2013 and it has grown hand over fist since then. A large portion of our orders now include this online/offline integration, and only it continues to grow in popularity.

Joy GendusaCEO at PostcardMania

21. Investing in direct mail tools

At first glance, you may wonder why this is a trend for the year ahead. Who has time for it? But think about it — if now isn’t a good time, when is?

The shaky economy in many sectors and the uncertainty over the course of COVID-19 may be a good excuse for many marketers to cut down, or even end, their direct mail campaigns.

Don’t do it.

Now is when you should be looking at ways to perfect your data, to make sure it’s as accurate and complete as possible. Consider tweaks to your formats, and try USPS Informed Delivery and other opportunities to reach consumers with new technologies combined with mail. New inks, papers, and finishes can also get the attention of newer audiences. And Who’s Mailing What! makes it easy to skip some testing by seeing what’s worked for other marketers.

22. Mailing discounts with partnerships

We are seeing clients seek alternative or additional methods to go past just a normal presorted mailing. Discounts from saturation and penetration for a single mailing are not enough to offset rising postal costs. Optimization and consolidation across multiple mailings and\or mailers is required for direct mail and lightweight parcels. In a world of shrinking quantities, few mailers have enough volume to obtain the discounts alone. Mailers are asking for tools to truly optimize and not merely presort to survive and stay competitive.

Brian EuclidePresident at TEC Mailing Solutions

23. Higher response rates

In 2020, we consistently saw higher response rates with direct mail. This was due to more people spending more time at home and having more time to go through their mail. Many businesses have made the shift to have their employees work at home. I think this trend will continue in 2021 and with more people at home, I believe response rates will remain high.

Craig SimpsonDirect Marketing Consultant
Simpson Direct

This is a trend to watch for sure. Even as the pandemic begins to ease, workplace and home trends of the last year may be permanent.

24. Millennial marketers & learning opportunities

The biggest trend is actually a big problem. It’s this: Millennial marketers have a strong preference for digital marketing and much less interest in paper marketing. As a result, they have minimal interest in, experience with, or knowledge of direct mail.

Direct mail is perhaps the most difficult print marketing channel to master. There are many well-established rules, techniques, and strategies – perhaps more than in any other offline channel. These range from how to design an outer envelope and mailing list selection to offers and DM copywriting.

Robert BlyWriter
The Direct Mail Revolution

We now have millions of people who’ve grown up as digital-first consumers. But how much is too much, especially when people are burdened with too much digital clutter? And when surveys show that millennials and Gen Z love print more than other generations? If you’ve abandoned mail, it’s not too late to relearn the fundamentals. With a subscription to Who’s Mailing What!, you’ll get an education (or a refresher course) in how to create successful direct mail.

25. Productization of mail

One of the things I see trending is the productization of mail. More specifically this is where one-off direct mail ‘jobs’ are slowly being replaced by vertical market mail products which are offered pro-actively by agencies and marketing service providers. This trend gives way to the mail owner receiving a higher quality product and the mail producer retaining higher margins on print/mail work.

Chris HuberCEO at Print Reach

When you create and send a direct mail campaign, is it a standalone effort? Customizing is a major cost for both you and your clients that you can avoid by focusing on aspects of your mail design and production that are repeatable.

Final thoughts

Predicting the future is imperfect. Only time will tell if and how the trends laid out by our distinguished panelists will reveal themselves.

The course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few months — and how marketers evolve their response to it — will play a big role in how direct mail works in 2021. One thread running through many of these comments is the continuing digitization of communications. Smart marketers see this accelerating trend not as a threat to mail, but an opportunity for growth. Integrating channels — where customers want and need it — makes sense more than ever before. New printing technologies and getting to market sooner and better will help direct mail thrive as a vital part of a customer outreach strategy.

This post was originally published on Feb. 10th, 2021. It was updated and republished on June 2nd, 2021.