Comparing Email to Direct Mail

We have a very small target audience – maybe 50 organizations with 1-3 contacts in each company – that we want to establish lines of communications with and build relationships leading to sales.  Is direct mail or e-mail a better bet?

Founder & President of Midwest Mechanical Contracting Firm


By Jim Sweeney

As you might imagine, there are pros and cons to both tactics.

A physical mailer, particularly if it is dimensional, colorful or incorporates sound, has a much better chance of engaging the recipient.  The receiver is more likely to see it, open it and review it. On the other hand, an email with the right subject line can and will get opened, and if it incorporates good messages, offers and functions, it will also get reviewed.

The life of both mailers is limited (by the recipient’s choice) once opened. However, a direct mailer may survive longer depending upon format and contents (e.g., a pen with imprinted logo may stick around for months).  But the value after the initial mailing is questionable.

A physical mailer can be expensive to produce – copy, design, printing, premium and mailing.  But so too can an HTML email – copy, design, programming and distribution. However, because the database is so small, printing only 50 direct mailers will be a potential problem, since you will be required to either use digital printing techniques (lower quality, higher cost) or overprint jobs based upon printers’ minimum requirements (which could be anywhere from 250 units to 1,000 units).

Response mechanisms for a direct mailer can include a business reply card, a phone number, a fax number, a web site and/or an email address.  An email can offer all of these as well, plus a direct link to a landing page and/or web site. In addition, assuming you employ an email distribution services like iContact, you can get immediate feedback (open rates and click through rates); you can also use web analytics to measure traffic and purchasing patterns related to the email.

A direct mailer can take longer to print (days) and distribute (more days), while an email, once produced, can be distributed almost at will.

But perhaps the most important consideration is the preference/behavior of your target audience. In the case of a mechanical contracting business – particularly in the Midwest –most relationship building and business is still done in person or over the phone. While maintenance personnel are not shunning the Internet, they are not using it routinely to communicate via e-mail. However, if your target audience consists of deskbound executives or traveling businesspeople who are hotwired into their e-mail service, they are more likely to read your email within moments of receiving it.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly encourage you to test both direct mail and e-mail campaigns – either simultaneously or within a few weeks of each other (being cognizant of holidays and business cycles) – and document results.  Then apply whatever analytics you have available to determine the true cost and value of each campaign.

You may discover that one, the other, both or neither is the right answer. But that’s fine; through testing you will find the right answer for your situation.

To discover if you are using the correct strategies to reach your target audience and produce the best ROI, contact me at 440.333.0001 ext. 101 or jim at

Jim Sweeney


Jim is a veteran of the agency industry and the founder of Sweeney. He is uncommonly passionate about the idea of creating and implementing insanely great marketing campaigns that achieve insanely great results. He pioneered the full-service, full-circle agency model and continues to forge new ideas in an ever-changing industry. And he is accessible to everyone about anything, seemingly all the time, serving as a mentor to all agency personnel and clients.