“A direct mail piece is ineffective. It’s just going to get tossed.”

Sound familiar? Direct mail is something we’re all victim to—we check our mailbox, find a handful of promotional postcards and ad slicks from companies we don’t recognize and immediately toss them in the garbage. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So are they really effective anymore? Research proves they are, in fact, still a viable marketing tactic … when used correctly.

A Direct Marketing Association study found that the response rate for direct mail to an existing customer averages 3.4 percent, compared to only 0.12 percent for email. Another study from the Magna Advertising Group says advertising mail pieces dropped from 84 billion in 2011 to 80 billion in 2012, making mailbox space less competitive.

However, there are many variables to consider when deciding if direct mail is the best vehicle to promote your message. The No. 1 consideration would be to know your audience. For example, if you’re looking to get a message to senior citizens, a postcard or dynamic mailer may be the way to go—only 45 percent of seniors have Internet access (according to a 2013 Huffington Post article), so they are more likely to pay close attention to their mailbox contents.

And what if your audience is cats? Cats don’t usually have the means to check email, but they do have access to their owner’s mail. Take this fun, catnip-laced mailer, for example. To get a message about a new cat litter to cat owners, this company creatively got its customers’ kitties’ attention first by printing the mailer on catnip paper. The results? Purr-fect. Cats sought the mailer out of the pile, went nuts and got their owners’ attention.

But lacing your printing paper with catnip is just one avenue for a very specific audience. Here are some other ways to ensure your direct mailer doesn’t become junk mail:
• Make sure you have a quality mailing list. A lot of times, we know our customers’ email addresses but don’t have the proper mailing addresses. Scrub your lists to avoid your postcard not making it to its correct destination. And verify these are, indeed, the demographic you want to target.
• Have a strong call to action. What do you want your customer to do? Call for more information? Visit a blog? Take advantage of a sale? Be clear with next steps so you can continue the conversation.
• Spend time writing it. A 3D mailer can look really cool, but if it doesn’t have information of value on it, it’s sure to be trashed. Take time to build a clear message with valuable information to the recipient.
• Extend an offer, but don’t get too sale-sy. You don’t have to splatter “FREE!” across your mailer to get someone’s attention—in fact, it may have the opposite effect you want. But offering a discount or access to more information will help increase your piece’s value and help foster the relationship with your customer.

Of course, there are times when a direct mailer is simply not the proper communication vehicle. Sometimes small budgets and large target audiences get in the way of being able to do a mail piece. Although 3D mailers are fun and interesting, a well-written yet simple postcard with a great incentive can go a long way. Make your message on-key and send to a targeted list, and you’ll have a communication piece that will make your customers say “Meow!” (I mean, “Wow!”).

When have you done a successful direct mailer, and what do you think made it a success?