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Is online marketing the future, therefore making direct mail marketing obsolete?

Updated on April 17, 2015

Online marketing, internet marketing or e-marketing, whichever term is used, it has changed the way businesses market to their targets. The internet has become a means for businesses to expand their target market by allowing them to appeal to a mass audience through a truly global tool. Businesses no longer have to rely on a marketing strategy that incurs high volumes of waste and in return offers uncertainty on whether or not the desired message has been delivered through direct mail marketing.

One impact the internet has had is that it allows businesses to advertise their product/services across “geographical borders” (Sharma, 2011) with minimal obstruction unlike with direct mail marketing which can only realistically be done in the selected areas, consequently making the world a more accessible market.

It is suggested that consumers do not wish to be bothered by direct mail and are often considered as unwanted pieces of mail, meaning businesses are just wasting money and resources with a marketing strategy that is being ignored, as well as infuriating a section of the market.

There are studies which suggest direct mail marketing is failing and this study is about whether it is time for businesses to stop with this marketing method and adopt a more innovative method such as online marketing.

How effective is direct mail marketing compared with online marketing?

Direct mail marketing is a communication channel used to connect with new and existing customers through postal mail that is usually unsolicited and distributed to a mass market typically in the same living area.

Direct mail “is a major distribution channel for coupons, sweepstakes offers, brand loyalty program catalogs...and magazines” (Lewis, Delnevo & Slade, 2004) and depending on the area, people can get direct mail almost every day. As a result of this, it has lead to research from authors Morimoto & Chang (2006) to study consumers’ attitudes and perceptions towards unsolicited postal direct mail. In the study by Morimoto & Chang (2006) they discovered through primary research that the perceptions of their participants was that they felt direct mail was “intrusive and irritating”, this is very important for businesses to be aware of because the research also revealed that “consumer attitudes towards advertised brands and purchased intentions are believed to be influenced by their advertising evaluations”. Therefore, if consumers are irritated by direct postal mail it can have a negative effect on the business because the consumers’ perception of the business will worsen and as a result the marketing would not have had the desired effect. This result was also found in a study by Mitchell, S (2003) who found that their participants “held negative attitudes towards unsolicited direct mail” and the main reason for this is “control and trust were significant driving forces in the shaping of consumers’ negative attitudes”.

A study by (2010) has revealed interesting information about the attitudes towards direct marketing, because the majority of respondents were marketing managers. The study has shown that direct mail is the third most commonly used method with 70%. Although this sounds relatively impressive the study also shows that direct mail is the fifth most effective method with only 13%. This research seems to support the suggestion direct mail as no longer an effective channel because of the way the internet has revolutionised the way marketers can target their target market. Online marketing came out as the second most used form of marketing with 83% and 19% of the participants rating it effective. With the usage percentage being so much higher in online marketing to direct mail marketing some practitioners may feel that the effectiveness would have been greater for online marketing, but the study still suggests that online marketing is going to increase in its popularity in replacement for direct mail.

Direct mail


Online marketing is a growing communication tool used by businesses via the internet which can take various forms such as display advertising, search engine marketing and social network marketing. “During the last two decades, the internet has grown extensively in importance as a selling and advertising medium” (Spilker-Attig & Brettel, 2010). The internet is a marketing tool which can be used and exploited by all types of businesses whether they are a local business or a global company. Online marketing allows the small businesses to “compete against the industry giants” (Teo, 2005). In order to find the most effective online marketing tool Teo (2005) has conducted a study on the usage and effectiveness of online marketing tools. This study has found that one of the most effective tools is to have the company’s website enlisted in a search engine allowing the user to easily find the website when keywords related to the business are searched. The research conducted by Teo (2005) underlines the defining factors of online marketing which are “Attract, Engage, Retain, Learn and Relate.” Although the research does produce some useful statistics about the effective tools the reader must consider the limitations of the research; the main one being the fact that the study was produced in Singapore meaning the results can be somewhat misleading because of the diverse culture from Western Europe and America. Despite this, one feels the research is still relevant for any size business who would like to exploit the internet as a marketing tool because it focuses on business-to-consumer firms.

An article by Maddox (2005) says “spending in the U.S. will reach $15.6 billion in 2006, up from $12.9 billion this year.” With such a rapid growth in spending on online marketing it is clear its future is looking very prosperous. These are obviously significant figures as they clearly support the theory of the importance and effectiveness of online marketing because businesses are willing to spend high amount of capital in online marketing.

By answering this research question this study has found that the majority of authors are more inclined to agree that the future of marketing lies with online marketing while direct mail marketing is becoming ineffective on consumers. However, to contradict this statement an article by Swedberg (2010) in the Credit Union Management Magazine suggests that direct mail can still be an effective form of marketing. The article proclaims that “We’re in the middle of a generational shift. While many people younger than 40 are used to seeing everything on a computer screen, the 40-and-up crowd still enjoys reading things printed on actual paper” this suggests that although there are a number of people who will not want direct mail as they are more use to computers, there is still a high number of people who would prefer direct mail. So, both marketing techniques are still effective as long as they are targeted to the right market, but online marketing is becoming increasingly more effective as time goes on.



To answer the research question this study has found that there is an increasing number of authors who have documented their view that direct mail marketing is becoming less effective and more irritating for the customers, thereby suggesting the imminent demise of the marketing tool. As well as this, the study has found authors that would support the theory that online marketing is going to become even more popular and be one of the most effective methods of marketing for businesses. This is mainly due to the relatively low costs and the global presence it can have, because as Teo (2005) states “the Internet has changed the face of marketing with its instant yet personalized reach to a global audience.”

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  1. Lewis, J.M., Delveno, C.D. & Slade, J. (2004). Tobacco Industry Direct Mail Marketing and Participation by New Jersey Adults. American Journal of Public Health, 94(2), 257-259.
  2. Maddox, K. (2005). Marketers anticipate online spending rise [Electronic Version]. BtoB Magazine, 90(16), 28-28.
  3. Mitchell, S. (2003). The new age of direct marketing [Electronic Version]. Journal of Database Marketing, 10(3), 219-219.
  4. Morimoto, M & Chang, S. (2006). Consumers' Attitudes toward Unsolicited Commercial E-mail and Postal Direct Mail Marketing Methods: Intrusiveness, Perceived Loss of Control, and Irritation [Electronic Version]. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 7(1), 8-20.
  5. Sharma, A (2011). Take-off of online marketing: casting the next generation strategies [Electronic Version]. Business Strategy Series, 12(4), 202-208.
  6. Spilker-Attig, A &Brettel, M. (2010). Effectiveness of online advertising channels: a price-level-dependent analysis [Electronic Version]. Journal of Marketing Management, 26(3/4), 343-360.
  7. Swedberg, J. (2010). Still Delivering [Electronic Version]. Credit Union Management, 33(8), 42-45.
  8. Teo, TSH. (2005). Usage and effectiveness of online marketing tools among Business-to-Consumer (B2C) firms in Singapore [Electronic Version]. International journal of information management, 25(3), 203-203.


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