Riding the Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York City for the annual DM Days New York Conference & Expo, I couldn't help but think of how similar train travel is to direct mail. I'm sure the comparison has been made before, particularly because that's how mail traditionally was moved from one end of the country to the other, but going with the slower-but-better metaphor, I'm not even going to bother to do an Internet search to find out.
As anyone who rides on trains knows, they're hard to beat when they go a decent speed and you feel properly taken care of as a customer—you get your own seat, maybe even have a scenic view and a feeling of genuine leisure (rather than the hassled-hectic-hellish feeling that car and airplane travel may inspire) overcomes you. There's something both wonderfully old-fashioned and human about it all. The same can be said for direct mail, which still appeals to many people for those same old-fashioned reasons.
Of course, the Internet remains all the rage, but the blush is coming off the rose just like airline travel is much less popular than it was a decade ago. Put it this way: If direct mail had suffered as rapid a decline in response rates as the average e-mail campaign over the past year or more-anecdotally, many marketers have complained that their e-mail response rates have been dropping—it would cease to exist as a viable channel. Now the hype has shifted to social media, with some justification, but that, too, might decline rapidly—rather than increase as most optimistic marketing models suggest—as a brand booster and interactive tool for companies. We really don't know yet.
Beyond social media and e-mail creating awareness and conducting some sort of informal dialogue with prospects and customers, direct mail and the website remain the two areas where the rubber meets the road (or the train wheels glide down the track)—aka, where the approach is still overwhelmingly preferred (direct mail) and where the response is more likely to be given (the website). In other words, two modes that are relatively old (well, one considerably more than the other) but that may stand a better chance of sustained longevity because of the very sound principles that made them work in the first place.
Finally, it looks like there will be a concerted reinvestment in rail (by the Obama administration) just as interest levels continue to rise. Perhaps direct marketers and companies that use the direct mail channel will similarly put more money back toward direct mail if the public itself grows more accustomed to direct mail again.