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Direct Mail Explained: How It Works, Types, and Examples in Marketing

Last updated 03/20/2024 by

Alessandra Nicole

Edited by

Fact checked by

Direct mail, an age-old marketing strategy, involves sending advertising materials via postal mail directly to potential consumers based on demographic data. This article explores direct mail in-depth, providing insights into its workings, various applications, and its continued relevance. We’ll delve into how direct mail works, the types of businesses that use it, and why it remains an effective marketing strategy, despite being labeled as “junk mail.” We’ll also discuss a prominent application of direct mail in the credit card industry—pre-approved credit card offers.

How direct mail works

Direct mail is an advertising strategy that relies on physical mail and the postal service to deliver advertising materials directly to consumers. It’s not just about sending generic flyers or brochures; it’s a method that can be highly targeted based on demographic data, such as location, income, age, and political affiliation. Here’s how the process generally works:
  1. Data collection: Direct mail marketers begin by collecting relevant demographic data. They may purchase this data from third-party providers or compile it from their sources.
  2. Segmentation: The collected data is then used to segment the target audience into specific groups. For example, a retailer might want to send different mailers to customers in urban and rural areas.
  3. Design and printing: Marketers design and print the advertising materials. This can include catalogs, brochures, postcards, or even personalized letters.
  4. Mailing list: The segmented data is used to create mailing lists. Each list corresponds to a specific group of recipients.
  5. Bulk mailing: To reduce costs, marketers often take advantage of bulk mailing rates offered by postal services.
  6. Delivery: The printed materials are mailed directly to the intended recipients.
Direct mail offers several advantages. It allows businesses to create highly targeted campaigns, ensuring that their message reaches the most relevant audience. The physical nature of direct mail can also make a lasting impression, and recipients tend to spend more time with tangible materials compared to digital ads.

Types of businesses using direct mail

Direct mail is a versatile strategy that finds applications in various industries. Let’s explore some common types of businesses and organizations that benefit from direct mail:
  1. Retailers: Retailers often use direct mail to promote their products through catalogs and flyers. The ability to target specific geographic areas is particularly valuable for local businesses.
  2. Restaurants: Local restaurants may send out mailers with menu updates and special offers to attract nearby customers.
  3. Nonprofits: Charities and nonprofit organizations utilize direct mail for fundraising campaigns. They can reach out to potential donors and explain their causes through printed materials.
  4. Financial services: The financial sector, including banks and credit card companies, employs direct mail for various purposes, including sending pre-approved credit card offers.
  5. Political campaigns: Direct mail is also widely used in political campaigns to convey messages to voters, especially during election seasons.
  6. Real estate: Real estate agents often send out mailers featuring property listings to potential buyers and sellers in specific areas.
  7. Local services: Small businesses offering services like landscaping, plumbing, or electrical work use direct mail to target potential customers in their vicinity.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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The ‘junk mail’ perception

One significant challenge direct mail faces is the perception that it’s simply “junk mail.” This term is often used to describe unsolicited advertising materials that recipients receive in their mailboxes. While it’s true that some recipients may not welcome these materials, it’s essential to note that direct mail serves valuable purposes and is far from being universally undesirable.
Despite the nuanced reputation of direct mail, it remains a substantial income stream for postal services, and businesses continue to invest in it due to its effectiveness. In 2021, the United States Postal Service delivered a staggering 128.9 billion pieces of mail, reflecting the enduring relevance of direct mail in the digital age.

Direct mail and pre-approved credit card offers

One of the most prominent applications of direct mail is in the credit card industry. Pre-approved credit card offers are a favorite strategy for credit card companies to reach new customers. Here’s how this process typically works:
  1. Eligibility assessment: Credit card companies determine eligibility for pre-approved credit card offers by running soft credit checks on potential customers. These checks are not as comprehensive as the ones used during a formal credit card application.
  2. Creating mailing lists: Once eligible customers are identified, credit card companies build mailing lists. These lists consist of individuals who meet specific credit score criteria.
  3. Mailers with special perks: Credit card companies enhance the appeal of these offers by including sample credit cards and special perks. These perks may include reward programs, exclusive annual percentage rates, or other benefits.
  4. Application process: It’s crucial to understand that responding to a pre-approved credit card offer doesn’t guarantee approval. Customers must still go through the formal application process, and the offer may be declined if there have been significant changes in their credit report.
  5. Identity theft concerns: To safeguard against identity theft, recipients who decide not to apply for pre-approved credit cards are encouraged to shred the mail before disposal.
While identity theft risks are generally minimal, taking precautions is advisable. Credit card companies have implemented measures to minimize identity theft, and victims are not held liable for fraudulent transactions. Nonetheless, addressing identity theft issues can be a complex and time-consuming process for all parties involved.
Weigh the risks and benefits
Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.
  • Targeted marketing: Direct mail allows businesses to reach specific demographic groups, ensuring their message is delivered to the most relevant audience.
  • Tangible impact: Physical mail can leave a lasting impression on recipients, and they tend to spend more time engaging with tangible materials.
  • Local advertising: Local businesses can effectively target potential customers in their vicinity, increasing the likelihood of foot traffic and sales.
  • Perceived as junk mail: Despite its effectiveness, some recipients may consider direct mail as unwanted advertising, leading to potential negative perceptions of the sender.
  • Environmental impact: The production of direct mail materials involves paper and printing, which can have environmental consequences. However, many companies are adopting eco-friendly practices.
  • Costs: While bulk mailing rates can reduce costs, direct mail campaigns can still be expensive, especially for small businesses.


Direct mail, a traditional marketing strategy, continues to thrive in the digital age. Its adaptability and effectiveness in reaching specific demographics make it a valuable tool for businesses and organizations across various industries. Despite being labeled as “junk mail,” direct mail’s tangible impact on recipients ensures its continued relevance. Whether you’re a marketer exploring advertising methods or a consumer curious about the impact of direct mail, this guide offers a comprehensive understanding of this enduring marketing strategy.

Frequently asked questions

Is direct mail still effective in the digital age?

Yes, direct mail remains effective, especially in reaching specific demographics like Baby Boomers and Gen X. Its tangible nature can leave a lasting impact on recipients. As technology and data analysis advance, direct mail becomes even more targeted, increasing its return on investment.

Are there any environmental concerns associated with direct mail?

While direct mail involves paper and printing, many companies now prioritize sustainability. Recycled paper and environmentally friendly printing practices are becoming more common in the industry.

How can businesses measure the effectiveness of direct mail campaigns?

Businesses can measure the success of their direct mail campaigns through various metrics, such as response rates, conversion rates, and return on investment. Tracking and analyzing these data points provide insights into the campaign’s performance.

Are there any regulations governing direct mail?

Yes, various regulations, including the CAN-SPAM Act, govern direct mail. These regulations ensure that recipients have the option to opt out of future mailings and that marketers provide accurate contact information.

Can direct mail be integrated with digital marketing strategies?

Absolutely. Many businesses use direct mail in conjunction with digital marketing efforts. For example, a direct mail piece may include QR codes or website links to drive recipients to online platforms for more information or to make purchases.

Key takeaways

  • Direct mail is an age-old marketing strategy that involves sending advertising materials via postal mail directly to potential consumers based on demographic data.
  • It is highly versatile and is used by a wide range of businesses and organizations, including retailers, nonprofits, and credit card companies.
  • Despite being labeled as “junk mail,” direct mail remains an effective marketing tool, especially in reaching specific demographics like Baby Boomers and Gen X.
  • Pre-approved credit card offers are a significant application of direct mail in the credit card industry. However, recipients should be cautious about identity theft risks.
  • Direct mail can be integrated with digital marketing strategies to enhance its effectiveness and reach.

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