How colleges should implement direct mail marketing in a digital era


How colleges should implement direct mail marketing in a digital era

Envelopes are like email subject lines–a student’s first glimpse of an institution and a teaser to the crucial information within.

Understandably—and wisely—many of our partner schools want to customize their packages to increase the likelihood their mailings will stand out from the crowd, be opened, and elude recycling bins.

Often, schools aim to elevate their envelope’s graphic design to the visually-rich standard of web-based media, and, for many years, we cautioned schools about the impact that change might have on paper-driven response rate.

However, I have good news: our recent research has discovered that certain strategic package variation works as well as the tried-and-true white #10 envelopes. And that students—half of whom admit being “addicted” to digital media—still value and desire paper mailings from colleges.

What makes the perfect package?

To learn what kinds of packages are most effective, we tested paper-driven response rates against a range of envelope options. With the standard #10 envelope as a control, we experimented with variations in envelope sizes, shapes, layouts, imagery, perforations, address windows, and transparency.

While some of the alternative packages—like faux policy envelopes and 4.25″ x 8″ self-mailers—resulted in occasional decreased paper-driven response rates, most of the new package designs worked as well as—and, in several cases better than—the control.

For example, we tested 5″ x 6.5″ mailers with tailored changes in layout and imagery at six partner institutions. Five of those schools enjoyed a fresh look without a decrease in student response rates. And one institution—a small, private school in the Midwest—enjoyed a 17% increase when it implemented its redesigned mailer with the data-driven rubric we have developed.

The success of these alternative mailers means we can differentiate the design of envelopes within an established norm without diminishing the impact of mailers. So although schools should not assume anyhastily designed, new fangled envelope will revolutionize their outreach campaigns, we can work together to thoughtfully generate strategic package novelty that will not diminish the strong paper-driven response rates of our finely optimized direct mail.

Why mail is still important in a digital age

My research team has found that despite—and perhaps, because of—the multitude of digital messages in the lives of prospective students, direct mail has remained a special—and effective—means of communication that should be an integral part of any multichannel outreach strategy.

Our recent comprehensive study of student communication preferences again confirmed the enduring value of paper mail. Seventy-eight percent of our more than 5,000 survey respondents cited paper mailings from colleges as a useful source of information, and 62% indicated that personal letters received from colleges had influenced their choices.

We believe that traditional mail continues to hold student attention because it stands out from the deluge of digital messages that teens receive and ensures that the broader family is included as part of the conversation. In short, direct mail can signal importance in an era defined by the ability to easily send a lot of rather unimportant messages. (Do we really need to post our pictures of the awesome pho we got from the food truck?)

The taps, swipes, and clicks of the “digital experience” are, well, not very experiential at all. Although digital communication is fast, affordable, and highly effective for certain types of messages, it lacks the suspense or physical engagement of paper mail. Envelopes, by contrast, are little bundles of anticipation that we can see, touch, smell, and even hear—the suspense of tearing paper imbues whatever is found inside with importance.

We hope our partner schools will continue to embrace this old-school channel because many prospective students continue to believe that paper mail is palpable proof of a college’s interest in them—even in the digital age.

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