For Newbies

Direct Mail vs Online Marketing for REIs: How To Make the Most of Both

Direct Mail vs Online Marketing for REIs: How To Make the Most of Both

Sales in real estate are quite unique because there are many ways to get a lead. You can literally knock on someone’s door, you can mail them letters, you can launch a pay-per-click campaign, you can buy Facebook ads, you can browse listings, etc. The merits of each approach can be discussed at length, but no one would argue that real estate investors have many venues when it comes to closing a deal.

On the flip side, since the industry is conducive to all of these types of marketing, REIs are also trying to tailor a marketing strategy that is cost-effective. Time and marketing budgets are limited, after all. So, real estate investors can focus all of their marketing efforts on one single channel (whichever that may be), and reap the rewards or suffer the consequences. As you know, we advocate caution in this regard and we recommend using more than one lead generation channel.

There aren’t a lot of industries where you can combine marketing techniques with proven tactics to improve sales, so make the most of it. Join us as we talk about two in particular: direct mail marketing and online marketing.

We’ll start off by a quick definition of the terms, so if you aren’t a novice, feel free to skip the next section.

Direct Mail and Online Marketing for REIs

A direct mail marketing campaign is actual correspondence that is sent to a physical address with the intention of converting the recipient. It can include postcards, mailers, letters (sometimes handwritten), and similar parcels where you introduce your REI business to homeowners and deliver a call to action (eg. “Call us on xxx phone to get free property appraisal”). Direct mail involves a lot of intricacies, like obtaining mailing lists, drafting copy content, and creating the envelope design – we will touch on some of these below.

Online marketing entails a number of means to reach online audiences. While in the broad sense this includes email marketing and digital mailers, it also includes paid ads on social media, pay-per-click campaigns, search engine optimization, and similar online marketing techniques.

Those of you who follow our REI marketing nerds podcast on a regular basis are aware that we had Ryan Dixon of REI Print Mail as a guest on the show. Boasting experience in printed marketing for real estate investors that spans over decades, he had a lot to share. And we used that as a basis for the following lessons on doing both direct mail and online marketing.

How Not To Do Direct Mail as a REI

When you have the privilege of listening to professionals with a good track record, noting what doesn’t work is as important as the typical proactive tips. So, we will start with the don’ts.

Sabotaging the Campaign by Using Your Own Design

If you have the benefit of using designs that got another real estate investor a good response rate (which, by the way, is around 1% with direct mail), don’t insist on using your own design. Yes, we can all become passionate in defending our own idea about the perfect direct mail letter and its envelope, but the motivated sellers out there are the ones who decide what approach works best. In the words of Ryan Dixon:

..when someone comes in and goes, I really like your mail pieces and yet I want to create my own and I think it’s going to do better, and it completely flops. That happens more [so] than 99% of the time.

How come REIs have all this confidence in their own design? From the world of online marketing, of course, because in the digital space, you can test templates until you are blue in the face. But just because something works online, it doesn’t mean that it will yield results in direct mail. Also, if it’s not tested, chances are, it will fail.

Expecting the Response Rate From a Decade Ago to Be Relevant Today

We all spend a lot of time around entrepreneurs. And what do they (including REIs) would like to know? Usually, it’s a short series of questions:

  • How many pieces of direct mail should be sent?
  • Will this mail bring in an X amount of calls?
  • How many deals can come as a result of those calls?

It boils down to the cost of acquiring a lead that closes within a particular real estate market. Now, if you did this a decade ago, the numbers have probably changed and so should your expectations. What’s more, if you are trying to enter some of the saturated markets (like Phoenix, AZ, Austin, TX, North Carolina, and California), the cost and the response rate might shift even within a couple of years.

Dropping Direct Mail Altogether Because You Believe That It’s in Decline

It’s kind of obvious, right? If you don’t try direct mail, you’ll never learn about its merits. But it goes deeper than that. Marketers are always in search of the next big thing because people change their habits. So the focus of the campaigns goes back and forth between different techniques based on the reactions of the recipients.

These days, people are getting fed up with finding their email inbox full of offers and the email open rates are lower than ever before. You can also consider the effect of social media ads. For a moment, it was the hottest game in marketing, but you can bombard social media users with ads only for so long.

Real estate has a special connection to direct mail because the property itself is a physical address with its own mailbox. As Ryan put it:

Mail… is always going to have a base effectiveness no matter what, because we’re buying the thing that’s attached to the mailbox, so it’s not like you’re going to get it wrong.

Using Lessons From Direct Mail in Your Digital Marketing Campaign (And Vice Versa)

Sometimes, the relationship between methods used in direct mail and those used in online marketing resembles a revolving door – they can bring results with minor adjustments. Let’s check them out:

The Role of Testing Is Indispensable

The concept of constant testing to increase the effect of the campaign comes from online marketing. It’s largely due to two reasons: 

  • The costs associated with these kinds of experiments are relatively low;
  • You can stop a campaign mid transmission (whereas you can’t recall a whole batch of parcels sent through the post office).

However, direct mail has started to adopt testing, as well. Direct mail marketers have started doing A/B split testing (sending two different messages, or envelopes to different lists). Those who do this often enough, usually professional advertisers, have hard numbers on mailing quantity and response rates for a given list (like so: you need to send 10, 000 mails to recipients from a delinquent tax list to have a response rate of 2% in neighborhood X of your real estate market). Plus, you will have a quantifiable idea of what envelope, design, and message gets better results with your target audience.

Segmentation Of Audiences Generally Works 

You can automatically target a specific portion of your Facebook audience or choose to show your ad to search engine users who type in the exact keywords in browsers with great ease. While this is readily available in online marketing, you can replicate it in your direct mail campaign. 

There is one caveat, though: you will have to put some manual filtering of your mailing lists. For example, you can use audience segmentation that is typical for email marketing by using a list of recently deceased homeowners whose household members can become recipients of your postcards. Sifting through obituaries will take some work (I know, not a great example), but it can be done, nonetheless.

The Feedback on Design Must Be Taken Into Account

Again, the testing of different designs was perfected in website design. However, these folks have made a science out of “what needs to go where” based on track record and stats. Direct mail professionals who test out different designs on a regular basis have a wealth of information on what works and what doesn’t, so make use of it. Hint: digital design and mail design are two distinct fields, so treat them as such.

Personalisation Works Both on Screen and on Paper

Real estate investors sent handwritten yellow letters to motivated sellers long before the internet was a thing. Online marketers have automated this exercise so that recipients get a friendly greeting addressing them with their first name, or using other personally relevant data (through tracking online activity) to feign a close relationship. Direct marketing professionals learned a lesson or two as well – they can offer yellow letters which appear to be authentic (using handwritten fonts generators and such) at an affordable cost.

Use Every Advantage of the Campaign to the Fullest Extent

Things that work online don’t always work offline and vice versa. For example, in a direct mail campaign your message is not screened through a spam filter, so you can use fake mail to boost the response rate. As Ryan shared on the podcast:

During COVID, we’d have a fake check mail piece and that became popular. We started to see it getting ordered in small quantities, all around the United States…Then we went to some of our big mail buyers and we said, “Hey, send some of these pieces out. We’re going to pay for it. We just want to see what the response is,” and so then we saw the response was pretty fantastic. It was also incredibly aggressive.

On the other hand, if you are starting an online campaign like email marketing, send as many messages as possible when the cost is low, because you aren’t going to get a physical parcel in direct mail that’s delivered at no cost.


Although the backstory on direct mail and digital marketing is different, there are a lot of techniques that can be adapted for use in the other medium (offline/online). Be mindful of the aspects that simply can’t be tweaked though, so as to avoid spending your time and money on a failed campaign.

One thing is for sure: don’t close the door on either tactic. Direct mail is not dead, and online marketing is cost-effective. You just need to learn how to use them properly.

You May Also Like...

Episode #273 – Encore: Flipping 80 Houses a Year Through The Power of Relationship, with Jesse Trujillo

If you want to scale your REI business, you’re probably thinking about all the marketing tactics, the technology, and who and when to hire help. But sometimes, things are much simpler: Jesse Trujillo does 80 flips in a year in a very competitive market on the back of just relationships. In this episode, you’ll hear

Episode #272 – Encore: Competing in a Hot, Hot Market with Eric Hartsburg

Some investors can run their business on “easy mode”. They’re the only real estate investors in a small market and get all the deals. Sure, they have their challenges too. But they have it easier than you if you’re in a big city full of competitors preying on your leads. If you want to make