Reaching Younger Generations in the Mail
The common consensus is that the older the audience, the more direct mail-friendly it is. Thus, seniors and baby boomers are often considered better direct mail prospects than Gen Y and iGen (also called Gen Z), for example.
However, it's never that simple. First of all, that consensus doesn't hold true for all industry sectors. Second, the format, offer and creative chosen have a big impact on how a particular generation responds to the mail piece. Third, in the cases where the generalization does hold true, it doesn't mean that an entire generation should be ignored—quite the contrary, it's an invitation to figure out a better way to access it in the mail.
Here are four ways to develop mail that works for younger generations or, in most cases, for all.
1. Send Out Bold Efforts ... and Be Less Cynical
"The young folks don't get direct mail." "They don't want direct mail." "Don't send it to 'em."
Hold on just a second, direct mail experts caution. "I've seen quite a bit of research lately that suggests younger people use media pretty much the same way older people do," asserts Elaine Tyson, copywriter and president of Tyson Associates. "I'm not convinced that nothing can be sold to young people through the mail." Tyson does a lot of teaching in the direct marketing field, and she notes that her classes are always jammed with young people who want careers in print media and are determined to learn as much as possible about direct mail.
Nancy Harhut, former senior vice president/managing director of relationship marketing at Hill Holliday and executive creative director of Harhut for Hire, also agrees that direct mail remains viable for the younger generations. "I've seen studies that indicate even younger consumers prefer certain types of communications (financial being one of them) that arrive in the mail," she says.
"The less mail that gets sent, the more novel it will become, and that may work in direct mail's favor regardless of age of target," adds Harhut, who remarks that it's significant that young people aren't giving up their mailboxes the way they're giving up their landline phones. They still want and even need that mail connection.
2. The Offer Still Matters a Ton
It's a grave mistake to count out Gen Y and iGen, agrees Merritt Engel, vice president of the direct marketing agency Merrigan & Co. "Direct mail has its place when it's an offer that lands in the hands of someone who wants it at the right time. Times change, but the fundamental direct marketing principles apply," she insists.
Pat Friesen, copywriter and owner of Pat Friesen & Co., admits that targeting younger generations is a complicated matter and that studies are always coming out that contradict each other in some way. "But it really does hinge on the product/service being offered, the offer being made, the media most appropriate for carrying the message and reaching the targeted audience, etc."
3. Recognize Them With the Right Format, Then Deliver the Right Message
While the addiction to all things electronic appears to be pervasive among the young, direct mailers actually can gain by all the electronic data that's been gathered about these young prospects—especially when it's used to produce relevant mail.
"People read what is of interest to them," says Grant Johnson, CEO of direct marketing agency Johnson Direct. "Data, from multiple sources, will continue to grow and make relevancy more common in direct mail and should lead to its continued use, regardless of age. Yes, the formats will differ, but messaging will play a much more important role than it does today."
According to Keith Goodman, vice president of corporate solutions for Modern Postcard, seniors and boomers are more receptive to the more traditional letter-type formats, while Gens X and Y are more receptive to postcard and other self-mailer formats.
"The Gen X and Gen Y generations are many times labeled as A.D.D. because of their short attention span, while some studies have shown (like USPS Mail Moment) they have been so accustomed to having the information they want, when they want it, that they don't want to be bothered with having to open an envelope to see what is on a mail piece," describes Goodman.
4. Even the Nonresponders Will Respond ... Eventually
Of course, there are groups of young people who will not respond to direct mail no matter how expert it is, just like some segments of older generations once didn't give direct mail any attention either. But this all could change as the younger mature, make more money, buy houses (there's something significant about actually owning an iconic mailbox, for example) and perhaps shed some of their prejudices (such as against direct mail).
"Back in the '80s and '90s, all the talk about 'the death of our donors' gave rise to widespread fears that boomers wouldn't respond by mail," reminds Mal Warwick, founder/chairman of fundraising agency Mal Warwick Associates. "They do. I believe that philanthropic habits are a function of life stage and lifestyle and not necessarily tied to generational experiences."
Warwick, like many other experts, strongly suspects that today's 20-somethings and 30-somethings will become just as responsive to direct mail as their forebears, once they reach the "philanthropic age" of 50 or so.