Is Lumpy Direct Mail Dead?

Since the mid-nineties, lumpy mail and other dimensional mail have been important strategies to break through the boundaries of direct response statistics. And there’s no question that they have worked very effectively. Open rates have been higher; response rates have been higher; and ROI is higher, despite the extremely high initial investment in packaging and product.

Lumpy mail or dimensional mail has been particularly targeted at B2B mailing, where the audiences are relatively small but the payoffs are large, so the higher investment can be more easily justified.

The lumpy favorites are many. Many of them sound like direct response revivals of the corniest elements from the 1950s sales repertory:

* The Round Tuit – “I knew you hadn’t returned my call because you hadn’t got a Round Tuit, so I thought I’d send you one.”

* A packet of cinnamon candies to introduce a “red hot” offer.

* A Band-Aid to suggest that unlike what competition provides, mine is no “Band-Aid” solution.

* A little aspirin pack because this offer is going to “put an end to your worst headaches!”

And yet they have been working. What drives the response? Nostalgia? A need for any laugh during the pressurized business day? The questions people raise about these programs, despite their clear success, come from several directions:

* Resource use. The response rate may be higher, but does it justify the environmental cost of the shipping boxes tossed, the Round Tuits trashed?

* The impact of changing postal regulations. When these strategies took off, standard envelope and package sizes didn’t enjoy as strong a benefit from lower postal rates. Now lumpy and dimensional mail can cost much more to deliver, which has an impact on ROI. MSP in Pittsburgh came up with a smart, lightweight plan for a pre-convention mailer: they mailed a logo color cocktail napkin to priority contacts offering “a drink on us.” The contacts who came to the booth (many!) got a bottled water.

* The difficulty of choosing inserts that draw positive attention to your overall message. Not every business owner can come up with inserts that represent their firm both memorably and well. Boxtopia did a great campaign for an IT firm that wanted to reach a small number of C-level execs in construction: each package contained a framed limited edition print of a watercolor painting commissioned especially for the campaign. The ROI was extremely high. Rob Anspach, who teaches marketers to capture “the big fish” included a Swedish fish candy with one letter and wrote on the envelope “Have you seen my fish?” For him, it brought great sales.

Despite the questions and the post office hurdles, direct mail is still reaching audiences that we want to address. The challenges are not new ones: What letter, in what package, with what insert (if any) will this particular group of people respond to? And our increasing ability to finely target our mail lets us focus these relatively expensive larger packages to the people or businesses where we most reasonably expect larger payoffs.

Smart use of lumpy mail still brings excellent returns. Our job is simply to be smart about how we use it.