Direct Mail vs. Email: Which gives the best ROI?

5 minute read

Email, social media, and web marketing all compete to deliver marketing ROI — and when you add SMS and DM the fight gets even more interesting. Find out which one is worth your time and money. 

Our eGuide on Email vs Social Media vs Website Marketing got top marks from marketers looking to boost their marketing ROI, but raised a question: thousands of marketers get results from traditional direct mail and plain-vanilla text messaging, so why didn’t we include them?

We listened. And here it is. So how do SMS and DM stack up against all things ‘e’? Let’s fight!



Round 1: SMS. Text messaging has been around for years, and that’s great — everyone’s used to it! Let’s have a blow-by-blow account.


A bigger potential to be seen as intrusive, as it is a more personal channel than email and spam.


SMS comes out swinging, with fast opening times. While it’s limited in scope and simple, this is also what makes it useful. Culturally, many people see SMS as ‘closer’ than email or DM — after all, the channel’s right there in their pocket or on the nightstand. This is great if you’re looking to build personal relationships, but a lot of people will see it as intrusive.  If there’s one area where SMS punches big, it’s penetration.

Direct Mail

Dingalingaling! It’s round two. Marketing through DM goes back a century-plus — but is it still relevant with two billion people on the web? Let’s see if online has DM on the ropes.


  • The classic, one-to-one marketing channel, with a long history of proven results.
  • 79% of people have a provoked reaction to a DM piece.
  • Established communities of creatives and strategists for marketers to draw on.
  • 70% of recipients act on DM immediately, compared to 79% with email.
  • High response and conversion rates of around 4.4%.
  • Excellent availability of lists, with high audience segmentation potential.
  • Unlimited opportunity for creativity!


  • Can be expensive, with higher production and mailing costs than online media.
  • List management is harder than with email, with need to deal with ‘white mail’ by hand.
  • With ‘offline’ campaigns, marketing automation is harder, needing more thought.
  • Still a noisy environment, with many households and businesses receiving multiple pieces of mail per day.


Everyone is used to DM, and it’s a data-rich medium: lists are available that segment postal districts and demographics in incredible detail. However, one of the downsides of DM is a big one: cost. With greater upfront investment needed, it’s wise to work out your expected marketing ROI in advance. But response rates, retention rates and simple recall are all sky-high with a good DM campaign! This goes to show that the technique of direct mail is not so bad after all.


Which brings us back to email. Things have changed in a year since Email vs Social Media vs Website Marketing — but not much. Here are the ups and downs of what’s in your inbox.


  • Still cost-effective, at pence per recipient, or less.
  • Easier to set-up and deploy than ever, with providers offering innovative technology.
  • Tracking and analytical tools improving every year.
  • Easy to segment audiences and personalize content.
  • For ecommerce sites, it still generates more leads and web traffic than social media.
  • 68% of companies rate email as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ for ROI.


  • With users receiving hundreds of emails per day, messages can be lost in the noise.
  • Spam filters often filter more than spam, with many legitimate messages being stopped – only the best providers offer high deliverability.
  • With mobile use rising, marketers need to create responsive design which responds to the device that the mail is opened on to provide a good user experience.
  • With the speed of technological change, marketers struggle to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to creating email programs that generate increasing ROI.


Email goes the distance against SMS and DM, in terms of potential for rich content, accurate tracking and analysis, and low cost-per-send. Reported engagement rates can be lower than some other channels, but the much lower cost per recipient makes it excellent value for money for most marketers. Where email scores is its high accountability. The biggest thing about email vs DM or SMS is that it’s got a more granular degree of reportability than either of the other two.


  • SMS is great for time-based offers and snappy lead-ins to other content.
  • DM still delivers on gravitas — and doesn’t have to stand apart from online.
  • Email enables deep and trackable content, at a reasonably low cost.

There’s a split vote here. Each medium has its strengths — and all can deliver terrific marketing ROI. So what should marketers do when there’s no clear winner? Easy. Treat them all as winners… and make them fight again. Not against each other – but for you.

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