I’m writing this on the way back from a meeting with a prospective client. They are a pioneering online business. They have invested heavily in all today’s cutting edge marketing techniques, from segment-of-one eCRM to social media. Today’s meeting was about exploring an exciting new medium which the brand has never tested before. Its name? Direct mail.
An exception, perhaps. A fluke of that brand’s peculiar evolution, almost certainly. But the fact that such a brand is re-evaluating its channel mix to include direct mail for the first time strikes me as somehow symbolic. Direct mail used to be the only addressable channel. Now its use is discretionary. We have a choice to make. And to make that choice wisely, we need to reflect on the things direct mail can do which email can’t.
Of course, one thing that direct mail can do with consummate ease is to burn through your marketing budget at a rate of knots. There’s no escaping the fact that direct mail is an expensive channel. However, as any direct marketer knows, cost per contact is a relative measure. Relative principally to the responsiveness and value of the audience being targeted. Of course, results analysis should be our absolute guide here. But are there certain universal rules of thumb that point us to audience segments which still prefer to engage with paper mail?
Intuition would suggest that there are. Furthermore, the very same intuition generally leads marketers to suppose that the paper mail responsive segments are to be found towards the pipe and slippers end of the age scale. But a quick TGI run gives the lie to this assumption. People aged 65 and over are 18% more likely than the general population to have bought or ordered something as a result of receiving direct mail. But annoyingly for our theory, TGI also shows that exactly the same is true for people aged 18-24.
The prejudice that direct mail is a channel best suited to the golden oldies takes a further knock when you consider the following. People aged 35-44 are 58% more likely than the general population to ask for further information as a result of receiving a direct mail pack. While those aged 55-64 are actually 6% less likely to do so. That’s one myth well and truly busted.
If we can’t rely on simple factors such as audience age to help us decide when to use direct mail, we clearly need to think a little more deeply about the channel. Irrespective of the message, every medium carries its own set of implicit contextual messages. To this extent at least, McLuhan was right. For example, television carries a built-in cue about the scale and ambition of the advertiser’s brand. People know telly commercials are expensive; that a brand can afford the medium says something about the message’s sponsor even before the audience has digested the content of the message itself.
So it is with direct mail. During the recent Toyota recall crisis, the company’s leadership made a point of noting (in a YouTube posting, no less) that affected owners were being sent a letter to inform them about the status of their vehicle. Being hired or being offered a place at the university of our choice are two other conditions which only seem real when we have the tangible evidence in our hand. As Don Draper might have put it, ‘You can’t frame an email’. Well you can, but you know what I mean.
Of course, direct mail has a weakness beyond its relatively high cost per unit. As McLuhan observed, electronic media are ‘hot’. They are imbued with the urgency of the breaking news which they alone are able to carry. In the context of email, the equivalent is live transactional information. Not even the best personalised letter can carry up-to-the-second details about your account. And no direct mail pack I have ever encountered boasts a ‘click here’ button that allows you to interact with live data (though a personal URL can offer something close).
However, I have a suspicion that the transactional nature of email is a weakness as much as a strength. ‘Hot’ media are highly transient in their relevance. Yesterday’s newspaper may still be worth reading for its insight and its commentary. By contrast, yesterday’s TV news is rarely worth a second glance. Unless the presenter suffered a costume malfunction or the studio was invaded by lesbian rights protestors. Or both.
Direct mail can be – and is – kept for later reference. If you don’t believe me, look up the question on TGI. In the privacy of their own home and spurred on by the heady inducement of a £5 M&S voucher, a surprising number of adult Britons readily admit to holding onto their direct mail. A curiously retentive activity, perhaps, but given direct mail’s capacity to hang around as a highly salient physical reminder to visit that dealership or take out that policy, perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked.
Let’s not forget that direct mail can be interactive, too. It’s easy to be snobbish about things like sliders, pop-ups and scent strips. But I have seen a focus group of CFOs charmed into cooing obeisance by a simple short-fold reveal. Even now, a study is probably underway in a Mid-Western university into the impact of tactility on memory. And if there isn’t, perhaps there should be.
Measurement is one area where email appears to have the edge right now. When we analyse a direct mail campaign, we don’t know how many people opened our outer envelope, turned the pages of our brochure or showed the pack to their friends and colleagues. But we capture the equivalent information routinely in the case of email.
However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Post-campaign research is sadly under-used by direct mail marketers. A simple telephone study can fill in many of these knowledge gaps, and more. And I would contend that such insight is even more important in the case of a high cost-per-contact medium like direct mail.
More post-campaign research would be useful in another way, too. It would give marketers greater insight into the impact which direct mail has on brand imaging, consideration and attitudinal loyalty, even amongst non-responders. Perhaps then we will begin to appreciate the true power of this expensive, old-fashioned but uniquely tangible and personal form of communication.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.