How to Test Direct Mail in Times of Uncertainty

Image of woman reading mail at home.

It is tough to be a direct marketer right now. Not only are you responsible for tightening the budget, you are also held accountable to preserve the market share you have worked so hard to gain. With your eye on the future, you must determine the tactics that will get you through the crisis of today.

Crisis presents an opportunity for brands to build trust and affinity among consumers, and that is what keeps your brand moving forward. Without a line in the water and a consistent way to stay connected to your audience, you may find yourself struggling to stay afloat when the waves settle. Evolving your acquisition and retargeting strategies by sensibly testing marketing channels, such as direct mail, could have a lasting effect on your brand’s current and future health.

Here are six things to consider as you determine the current viability of direct mail for your brand, along with three ways to responsibility test direct mail.

Is direct mail right for your brand, right now?

Before investing in the direct mail channel, take the following factors into consideration:

Your industry. There is a small group of DTC brands that fall on the extreme ends of the current COVID-19 spectrum. Either demand for their product or service is so high that acquisition marketing isn’t necessary (such as home fitness or streaming services), or demand is so low that investing in acquisition marketing would be irresponsible considering our current landscape (specifically travel or hospitality industries). To stay relevant, these brands should consider revising their marketing strategy to determine how they can continue to engage with customers in a meaningful and manageable way.

For the remaining 80% of brands that fall somewhere in between (i.e. general ecommerce, financial services or lifestyle products), direct mail could be the channel that helps you stay connected to consumers at home without getting lost in the realm of digital communications.

Your metrics. Keep a pulse on your daily metrics and what they are telling you about product demand and consumer behavior. As you analyze, consider your brand’s marketing strategy over the last 45 days. Have you ramped up, cut-back or halted your pre-COVID tactics? Your recent marketing actions are likely influencing your results.

Your past performers. If direct mail has always been a strong acquisition channel for you, consider how you could use it to stay in touch with today’s consumers. Since many DTC brands were always positioned to deliver products and services directly to the homes of their audience, and more than 90% of the country is staying home, the impact of your mail piece could be consistent with pre-COVID results, or even better, especially from an incremental standpoint.

Likewise, pay close attention to ROIs from your current channels. Consider shifting budget from channels that are not performing to a channel that has a strong history for your brand, is able to reach your homebound market, and presents scalable growth opportunity once we land on the other side of the coronavirus.

Your pre-COVID strategy. Were you exploring the direct mail channel prior to the startling pandemic? There are many desirable qualities to direct mail, such as its advanced targeting ability, favorable response rates, and the ability to integrate with your digital marketing campaigns. These same qualities can be just as effective in our current market conditions.

Your competition. In this time of disruption, an acute awareness of your competitor’s marketing activity is especially important. We all know the stats from past recessions regarding brands who go dark during turmoil. So, if a few top competitors are actively marketing, now is not the time to lose your voice in the market. If those same competitors are not actively marketing, it would be to your advantage to step up to the plate.

Your timeline. Do not be caught flat-footed. What specific metrics or economic circumstances (leading indicators) will signal a shift in your brand’s marketing strategy? Direct mail programs can take six to eight weeks to execute, with most campaign expenses not due until the campaign is underway. If you are waiting until the pandemic is over, or for an upward market trend to show up in your metrics, your prospects may already be acting on a competitor’s piece before yours has been scheduled for production. By planning ahead, you will be able to stay fluid through this uncharted situation.

Responsible ways to test direct mail

Although consumers may not be actively seeking your products or services right now, that does not mean they don’t need it or are less likely to buy should a compelling offer arrive in their mailbox. As with any other advertising channel, you will not know its viability in your market until you test it.

If the above testing considerations signal for your brand to test the mail channel, there are a variety of strategies that support a financially responsible, yet agile approach:

  • Customer acquisition: build a profile of your ideal customer from your existing customer base and start small, or utilize your social media followers and email subscribers (who are not yet customers) to build your own high-performing house list.
  • Win-back: reconnect with lost customers or retarget abandoned online carts with a personalized invitation.
  • Cross-sell/up-sell: segment your CRM audience based on past purchases or engagements, and retarget with similar products and services, or loyalty offers.

Before going to print, conduct a sensitivity audit of your campaign’s creative to ensure it is reflective and sensitive to current consumer situations.


Right now, your marketing strategy needs to be fiscally responsible without parting from your brand’s growth spirit. Rather than completely dismissing a channel due to unfamiliarity or fear, test direct mail to determine your way in or out of the channel. Once you have launched your campaign, use your direct mail testing approach to identify key trends and correlations and enhance your list, offer and creative as needed. Incorporate a hold-out strategy to further prove your investment.


Featured in Target Marketing on 4.29.2020, and in BRAND United on 6.16.2020