No one wants junk mail. Getting rid of it is one of those universal routines — no matter who or where you are, the process is the same. You open your mailbox, grab your letters, and spend the next thirty seconds sorting them into two piles: the letters you want to open, and the direct-to-trash junk.  

Now, let’s be honest here — not many of us go to the mailbox thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to see which advertisements I get today!” People are skeptical by nature; if they see a letter that looks like a mass-produced promo, they’ll drop it into the trash without ever opening it. 

But if direct marketers can convince their recipients to go the other way during that split-second sort, they stand to reap significant benefits. According to a 2020 report from Compu-mail, 68% of surveyed marketing professionals see more website traffic when they combine digital and direct mail strategies, and 60% report an increased ROI. 

Amid an increasingly digital world, direct mail has become the most effective marketing channel for acquiring and retaining customers. The shift makes sense when you think about it — as the popularity of digital channels like email and text increases, the number of letters sent will naturally decline. We’ve already seen this logic in action; USPS reports that total mail volume has dropped by over a third since 2006. Customers now receive an average of 36 emails for every letter in their mailbox. The decrease in letters sent only helps direct-mail marketers, who have less clutter to compete against when a consumer opens their mailbox. 

But winning that competition isn’t a given. It doesn’t matter if a person receives five letters or fifty; if they think the mail they receive doesn’t have value for them personally, they’ll trash it. 

Marketers need to steer clear of “junk mail” genericism and focus on designing letters that look and feel personal. Consider the difference that a small gesture of personalization makes; according to The Mail Shark, just adding a recipient’s name to direct mail increases response rates by a whopping 135%. 

If one small touch can make such a resounding difference, imagine the response rates you might achieve if you managed to convince your recipient they were opening a personal letter. 

I know what you’re  thinking — “That’s impossible. No matter what you do, it’s still an advertisement.”

I disagree. Years ago, when I was working in the automobile industry, I successfully created a direct mail ad that was nearly indistinguishable from personal mail.

To accomplish this, I took a full-page advertorial I had created for a well-read executive trade magazine and ordered 20,000 extra copies, each printed with a dye-cut edge so the paper was cut to look as if it had been torn out of the magazine. Then, each page was folded into thirds and tucked into a neat, hand-addressed linen envelope with a precanceled stamp. The end result was indistinguishable from a first-class letter that you might receive from a friend. 

But here’s the master stroke: before sealing the letters, I attached a Post-It note to the folded page with a handwritten note that read, “Check this out, it looks like a winner.” The note was signed with a single letter — an “S.” At a glance, the recipient would have to assume that the initial referred to a friend. After all, who doesn’t know a Steven or a Sam?

Let’s put the pieces together. When a car dealer opened this hand-addressed letter, they would find a page that appeared to have been ripped straight from their executive magazine. They also saw a personal note assuring the value of the article, apparently signed by a friend or colleague (social proof). These assumptions give the ad credibility; the recipient couldn’t help but think, wow, maybe I should give this product a try

In the end, that campaign netted a 4.1% response rate, which was more than nine times higher than the average for direct-mail campaigns at the time. 

Why did it work? It leveraged social proof. The hand-addressed envelope, snipped-out page, and Post-It note all conveyed authenticity; it looked like a personal letter. Because recipients thought — at least at first — that a friend or peer took the time to recommend the magazine article, they were more willing to consider the information it contained. 

This perception stems from the psychological theory of implied egotism, which suggests that most people tend to place more weight on the opinions of those they see as being similar to themselves (i.e., friends, peers and family). The theory has real weight in marketing; according to Chatter Matters’ Word of Mouth Report, 83% of consumers say that recommendations from friends and family make them “more likely to purchase a product or service.” 

I don’t offer this example as a template for how you should design direct-mail campaigns. Instead, I want you to take it as illustration of how important trust and (the appearance of) personalization are in direct-mail marketing.

People are dismissive; if they don’t think a letter has value to them specifically, they won’t open it. It doesn’t matter if you’re sending the same letter to a thousand people; you need to include creative touches that make the recipients think the message was sent specifically for them. And, if you can also leverage psychological concepts such as social proof to convince consumers of an ad’s value, all the better!

The opportunity for success in direct-mail marketing has never been higher than it is right now. If you want to take advantage of it, you need to be creative enough to avoid the junk pile.