As with any marketing strategy, the response rate for direct mail may vary tremendously. Factors that influence response rates might include your industry; the quality of your mailing list; the type of mailer you choose to send; the quality of your graphic design; your choice of wording; the perceived value of your offer; and the strength of your call to action.
Not all mailings are created equal. For example, even if all the other factors are aligned perfectly, a campaign promoting a $5 item is likely to have a much higher response rate than a campaign promoting a $50,000 item. For this reason, direct-to-consumer mailings are likely to have a much higher response rate than business-to-business mailings.
Still, it’s useful to have a ballpark number to use as a target or benchmark. When you are planning your marketing strategy, you want to be able to compare the estimated ROI of different marketing channels, so you can determine which one is most worthy of pursuit. So it’s worthwhile to find out what might be the typical response rate for your mailer.
Direct Marketing Association statistics
The Direct Marketing Association provides useful information about direct mail, including its cost and response rates. The numbers cited here are for postcards and letters; they do not include catalog mailings.
When surveyed by the Direct Marketing Association, consumers stated that their intent to respond to a piece of direct mail varied dramatically depending on the type of offer. Intended response rates ranged from a low of 4.4% for financial services, to a high of 18.4% for consumer goods (DMA, 2013). Keeping in mind that intended response rates are almost certainly much higher than actual response rates, these are good indicators of general trends in the effectiveness of direct mail.
Direct Mail volume and response rates
The DMA found that of all business types, the insurance industry is the most reliant on direct mail, with more than 6.9 billion (with a “b”) mailings sent in 2012 alone (DMA, 2013). The credit card industry was in second place, with nearly 5.3 billion mailings sent in 2012 (DMA, 2013). And in 2012, all those mailings earned the credit card industry a response rate of 0.6% (DMA, 2013).
Credit cards are a consumer staple, so they presumably enjoy a higher response rate than business to business mailings. Financial services are at the low end of the curve for response rates among mailings to consumers. Most credit card companies are well-known, and enjoy substantial brand recognition with the target recipient. Put it all together, and the response rate for credit card mailings is just six tenths of a percent. If you are selling to consumers, this is the number to beat. If your industry is business-to-business, you might have a lower response rate, unless you combine your mailing with another marketing channel, as described below.
In his book “Marketing Magic,” industry veteran Don Debelak states that he typically received anywhere between 70 and 400 responses from a “card pack” mailing sent to a list of 80,000 to 100,000 recipients, with a high of 49 leads from a 40,000 piece mailer (Debelak, 1994). That’s one-tenth of one percent at the high end, down to about eight one-hundredths of a percent at the lower end. While keeping in mind that Debelak was usually working with industrial suppliers (and therefore generally expensive products), this is very useful information.
Marketing industry leaders generally agree that personalized letters get a higher response rate than postcards. Letters are also more expensive to print and mail. Marketing guru John Jantsch does not provide statistical figures for an average direct mail response rate in his highly praised best-seller, “Duct Tape Marketing.” However, he does emphasize the importance of the wording of your letter. He states (Jantsch, 2011) that a mailing’s response rate can be increased by 300% just by changing the headline. So think carefully about what you want to say, and test your headlines for effectiveness!
Personalized letters plus a follow-up phone call
Jantsch also shares a direct mail anecdote. He tells the story of a small business owner with a list of just 150 prospects. After mailing a personalized letter to each of these prospects, she called them all on the phone. This follow-up step is a major departure from a basic mailer, and requires bravery, because most people do not like to be called on the phone. (Still, a phone call to follow up on a letter is better than an unexpected phone call.) From her 150 prospects she got 18 leads, 5 of whom eventually placed orders (Jantsch, 2011).
That’s a fantastic 3.33% conversion rate, from a list of prospects to actual paid orders.
Obviously this is a very good result, a gold standard to which we can all aspire. That’s why Jantsch shared it in the book: your marketing campaign could get results as good as this, if you are lucky and you work hard.
Please note, there is actually no response rate at all in this particular anecdote. The sales here were driven by telemarketing as a follow-up to direct mail. The mailing in question got an actual response rate of 0.00%. But when the mailing was combined with an in-person follow-up, the campaign generated an impressive 3.33% overall conversion rate.
Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller literally wrote the textbook, “Marketing Management.” While their discussion of direct mail does not attempt to quantify an average response rate, they do ask the reader to keep in mind that direct mail has a lasting value beyond the immediate campaign (Kotler and Keller, 2009). A mailer that introduces a prospect to your company, or reminds the prospect of your differentiators, could induce them to convert at some point in the future, or to mention your brand to someone in their network of contacts. This type of brand-building is more difficult to measure, but certainly increases your total sales volume and brand image in the long term.
Direct mail is an important part of a well-rounded marketing strategy. You will probably enjoy a higher response rate if you are selling a low-commitment product directly to consumers. If you are in a B2B field, you will probably achieve a higher conversion rate by combining your direct mail strategy with an additional marketing channel, such as telephone sales. The wording and design of your direct mail piece is sure to have a significant impact on the overall response rate.
Response rates for direct mail might range from a few one-hundredths of a percent for B2B mailings, to (self-reported intended) 18.2% for consumer goods. Actual results may vary.
Debelak, D. (1994). Marketing Magic. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation.
DMA. (2013). DMA Statistical Fact Book 2013: The definitive source for direct marketing benchmarks. New York, NY: Direct Marketing Association, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.the-dma.org/graphics/dmaemail/2013_StatisticalFB.pdf
Jantsch, J. (2011). Duct Tape Marketing: The World’s Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Kotler, P., and Keller, K. (2009) Marketing Management (13th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.