What ‘Snail Mail’ Dominance Says About the Local Digital Ad Market

In early 2016, Borrell Associates predicted that digital advertising spends would finally outgrow analog alternatives – with newspaper advertising, TV, and direct mail following behind. According to Borrell’s recently released survey results: How Local Franchisees Are Changing Marketing Expenditures, the local ad forecasting company was spot-on with their predictions on digital, but they didn’t foresee which traditional media ad outlets would retain a stronghold on local ad dollars.

The report listed digital media as the top marketing spend, with 76% of respondents saying they placed digital ads in 2016. Okay, no surprise there. But second up is direct mail, used by 64%. The third most-used local ad tactic is newspapers, at 53%, followed by radio, mobile, magazine and TV advertising.

Snail mail – a communication medium first recorded circa 500 BCE – is beating out television, radio and mobile ad budgets. And not only does direct mail retain a significant share of local ad budgets, but its share actually grew in 2016.

Why Snail Mail?

While I don’t foresee direct mail taking the lead back from digital, there’s a reason this old fashioned medium takes a close second to emerging technology. Direct mail has the demographic targeting of a digital campaign plus the deliverability guarantee of an email newsletter (arguably better, until our real-world mailboxes get ‘promo’ folders), along with an element of personalization we’re not yet accessing with digital ads.

A recent feature on the success of a modern postcard advertising company explains the advantage direct mail still offers:

Modern direct mail campaigns are well-oiled machines that marry the best of direct and digital marketing. On one hand, the cards have crisp calls to action on their physical surface; on the other, the actions that the consumer takes are tracked and enhanced using online technologies like retargeting.

Most mailers are more than an ad, also including a coupon or special offer, with a very clear call to action and a permanence that’s found in no other medium besides email. Do other local ads include CTAs? Sure. But I also see times when digital ads lack clarity and/or welcoming landing pages, because click-tracking and website analytics do the heavy lifting.

Why bother with personalization when the ad server does it for you? For example: none of the below ad results actually took me to a local landing page, even though my search had local intent.


On the other hand, direct mail from an insurance company typically comes “from” a local agent, explaining that people in my area have saved $[specific dollar amount] on average by switching to their company, plus the agent’s photo and a request to call or email for more information.

Direct mail has a ‘next door’ factor that many local campaigns, including digital ads, are still missing. There’s also evidence that the tangible feel of direct mail better registers in the minds of consumers than digital content, according to a study by market research firm, Millward Brown.

While local advertising budgets seem directed toward digital and mobile in the coming years, it’s worthwhile to consider the value of technology-enhanced real world campaigns. The direct mail-assance (yup, I went there) wouldn’t be possible without recent printing software technology. And it’s possible that other analog advertising mediums could follow suit. (What about a bus stop ad that changes copy based on the demographics of the closets device ID?)

Snail mail’s persistence also says something about what’s missing in digital – the sacrifice of quality for quantity, making ads feel impersonal, no matter how locally targeted they are.

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