6 Horrific Direct Mail Tactics (and What Great Email Marketers Do Instead)

It‘s 2023, and our physical mailboxes are still getting stuffed with junk mail — those disruptive, often deceptive mailers that make you wonder, "Why do companies still do this?" While many savvy marketers have shifted to permission-based email marketing, some stubborn brands cling to the old ways of direct mail.

The truth is, direct mail‘s shotgun approach wastes money and alienates consumers. Response rates have plummeted to just 2.9% in 2022, down from 4.4% in 2003 (DMA Response Rate Report). Meanwhile, email marketing delivers an impressive $36 ROI for every $1 spent (Litmus State of Email 2022).

So what makes direct mail so ineffective compared to email marketing? Let‘s examine six of direct mail‘s most cringe-worthy tactics and what great email marketers are doing differently.

1. Deceptive Subject Lines vs. Clear and Honest Email Subject Lines

The Direct Mail Tactic: You get an envelope emblazoned with "IMPORTANT ACCOUNT INFORMATION ENCLOSED," but inside is nothing more than a cheap sales pitch. This bait-and-switch tactic blatantly violates consumer trust. In fact, 63% of consumers say dishonest subject lines prevent them from opening emails (Fastmap Infographic). Do this even once, and your brand credibility takes a nosedive.

The Email Marketing Solution: Write clear, honest subject lines that accurately reflect the content inside. The best subject lines pique curiosity without resorting to trickery. Copyblogger recommends using 4 U‘s in subject lines:

  1. Useful: Offer practical value
  2. Ultra-specific: Make it crystal clear what the email contains
  3. Unique: Say something fresh to stand out in a crowded inbox
  4. Urgent: Communicate timeliness and importance

According to a 2022 HubSpot study, 47% of marketers said straightforward subject lines had the highest open rates, beating out funny (25%), mysterious (13%), and shocking (13%) subject lines. It pays to be upfront.

2. Irrelevant Bulk Mailers vs. Segmented, Personalized Emails

The Direct Mail Tactic: A 20-something woman with perfect teeth receives a mailer for discounted dentures. A vegan gets coupons for steak restaurants. A city dweller with no yard is urged to buy a riding lawn mower. With its "spray and pray" approach, direct mail consistently fails to match the right message to the right person.

The Email Marketing Solution: Collect subscriber data—through signup forms, surveys, site behavior, and purchase history—and use it to create targeted email segments. With an email platform like HubSpot, you can easily save contact properties and build dynamic list segments that automatically update as people meet specified criteria.

The stats prove that segmentation works:

  • Segmented email campaigns have a 14.32% higher open rate than non-segmented campaigns (Mailchimp)
  • Segmented emails drive 100.95% higher clickthrough rates than non-segmented (Mailchimp)
  • 49% of consumers say they‘re likely to unsubscribe from irrelevant emails (Zettasphere)

Beyond segmentation, insert dynamic content tags to personalize email elements like the recipient‘s name, location, product recommendations, and more. Emails with personalized subject lines generate 50% higher open rates (Yes Lifecycle Marketing).

3. Scammy, Salesy Copy vs. Valuable, Educational Email Content

The Direct Mail Tactic: Slimy copy that screams "BUY NOW! LIMITED TIME OFFER!" Outrageous claims of "REAL RESULTS GUARANTEED!" Unnecessarily bolded, underlined, and capitalized text. If a direct mail piece makes used car salesmen look subtle by comparison, it needs a major overhaul. Pushy sales language just doesn‘t build trust, which is essential for driving action.

The Email Marketing Solution: Prioritize helping over selling in your email content. Share valuable information that educates subscribers and helps them achieve their goals. Depending on your niche, that could mean:

  • In-depth how-to guides and tutorials
  • Exclusive data, statistics, and insights
  • Thought-provoking interviews and case studies
  • Curated roundups of industry news and tools
  • Inspirational stories of customer success

When you consistently deliver useful content, you position yourself as a trusted advisor rather than an annoying pest. And that directly impacts your bottom line: Marketers who prioritize blogging are 13 times more likely to generate positive ROI (HubSpot).

Embrace the 80/20 rule in your email content: 80% educational, 20% promotional. And even when you do sell, focus on the value you provide rather than pushy "BUY NOW!!!" messaging. Compelling storytelling and customer-centric copy wins the day.

4. Hidden Calls-to-Action vs. Obvious Email CTAs

The Direct Mail Tactic: Many direct mail pieces play a sadistic game of hide-and-seek with their calls-to-action (CTAs). Maybe the CTA is buried in a wall of text, squeezed in the margins, or printed so small you need a magnifying glass to spot it. Or there‘s no CTA at all. This makes it incredibly difficult for interested prospects to take the next step—a conversion killer.

The Email Marketing Solution: Make your email CTAs impossible to miss. Use a large, tappable button with contrasting colors and action-oriented copy. Place it in a prominent location, typically after delivering your key message or offer. For longer emails, include multiple CTAs throughout the copy.

A few email CTA best practices:

  • Use first-person phrasing, like "Start MY Free Trial" or "Get MY Discount"
  • Create urgency with words like "now," "today," "instant"
  • Limit CTAs to one or two per email to avoid decision fatigue
  • Set CTAs apart with ample white space
  • A/B test CTA variations like copy, color, and placement

CTA buttons have been shown to boost email click-through rates by 28% over text links (Campaign Monitor). And personalized CTAs convert an impressive 202% better than default versions (HubSpot).

5. No Opt-Out vs. Clear Email Unsubscribe Options

The Direct Mail Tactic: Most direct mail pieces offer no clear way to unsubscribe from future mailings. Some include a tiny footnote with vague instructions to call a 1-800 number or visit a website, but the onus is entirely on the recipient to hunt down the opt-out process. The message is loud and clear: We‘ll keep filling up your mailbox, whether you like it or not.

The Email Marketing Solution: Under CAN-SPAM regulations, every marketing email must include a clear, easy way to unsubscribe. Don‘t make people jump through hoops—a prominent "Unsubscribe" link in the email footer is standard practice.

But great email marketers go beyond the legal requirements. They:

  • Allow recipients to update email preferences (content and frequency)
  • Offer alternative ways to stay connected, like social media
  • Bid unsubscribers farewell with a friendly confirmation message
  • Resist temptation to guilt people for leaving or beg them to stay

Believe it or not, a great unsubscribe experience can actually boost your sender reputation and keep your list clean, leading to higher deliverability rates and better overall email performance.

What‘s more, a 2022 Litmus study found that 42% of newsletters are marked as spam after just receiving 2-5 emails. Making the opt-out process seamless prevents frustrated subscribers from reporting you as spam, which can trigger dreaded email blacklists.

6. Tips for Transitioning from Direct Mail to Email Marketing

Ready to leave antiquated direct mail tactics behind and embrace effective email marketing? Follow these steps:

  1. Choose a robust email service provider (ESP). Look for a platform that offers intuitive list management, ready-to-use templates, drag-and-drop design tools, list segmentation, A/B testing, automation, and in-depth analytics. Industry leaders include HubSpot, Mailchimp, Constant Contact, and Campaign Monitor.

  2. Build your email list organically. Never buy lists or add people without their explicit opt-in. Create valuable content assets like ebooks, webinars, and interactive tools to motivate website visitors to hand over their email address. Use popups and sticky bars on your site to feature email signup CTAs.

  3. Clean and segment your list. If you have an existing email list, verify that all contacts opted in and remove any inactive or invalid emails. Create key list segments based on demographics, behavior, interests, and customer journey stage. Determine what dynamic content you‘ll use to personalize emails.

  4. Map out your email content strategy. Outline the key messages and content pieces you‘ll send to each segment. Create an email calendar to plan out topics and timing. Decide what templates and design elements to include. Don‘t forget transactional emails for things like order confirmations and shipping updates.

  5. Focus on value and relevance. With every email you send, aim to inform, educate, inspire, or entertain. Pack emails with practical tips, compelling stories, eye-opening insights, special offers, and other content that improves subscribers‘ lives (or at least their day). Continually gather feedback and monitor email metrics to ensure you‘re nailing the right message for each recipient.

  6. Test, iterate, automate. The beauty of email marketing is how much you can optimize over time. A/B test everything from subject lines to design to CTAs. Use what you learn to better engage subscribers. Set up automated email sequences to nurture leads, onboard customers, encourage repeat purchases, and win back lapsed buyers.


In our digitally connected world, great email marketing is about building trust and providing value, not cluttering mailboxes with "spray and pray" junk mail.

By committing to permission-based, relevant, helpful email communications, you can foster an engaged community of subscribers who actually look forward to your messages. And that translates to long-term revenue growth: The average lifetime value of an email address is $37 (WebFX).

It‘s time to abandon the dark side of direct mail and embrace email as an opportunity to guide and delight your audience. May the deliverability odds be ever in your favor.