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Direct mail

Cutting through online noise

5th January 2017 • Features


by James Lawson, Contributing Editor

As digital budgets continue to rocket towards half of all UK advertising spend, why would you move back into direct mail? Because it cuts through the online noise, because it complements other media, because people take time to read and accept its emotional message, in short – because it works.


“Consumers are increasingly being targeted online, creating digital fatigue,” says Karen Pritchard, Mortascreen Product Director at Wilmington Millennium. “It is no surprise that consumers are actively choosing to switch off. Savvy marketers are turning back to traditional channels like DM.”

The days of shoveling piles of MBNA’s weekly credit card offers from the doormat into the bin are long gone. But this low volume works in mail’s favour, with more attention from the recipient for a well-crafted and personalised mail piece.

That means much greater cut-through than yet another email in a crowded inbox. Research by Wilmington Millennium earlier this year also shows that public perception of direct mail is improving fast. Almost half of consumers (48 per cent) now think that direct mail is a good way for businesses to connect with them, up by seven per cent since 2015.

A surprising 44 per cent ranked direct mail and door drops as their preferred form of direct marketing, just beating email (42 per cent). This popularity extends to post-Millennial or Gen Z consumers. Digitally deluged, they are too young to remember when junk mail was vilified.

“Many consumers now welcome direct mail because in comparison to digital marketing they don’t get much of it,” says Pritchard. “Plus, in contrast to twenty years ago, the quality has increased significantly.”

Adam Oldfield, Managing Director at Force 24, has noticed that his clients are well aware of direct mail’s benefits.

“Though there’s a decline in volume production, we’re actually seeing increasing interest in mail,” he says. “But where they used to send 50,000, now they’ll send a fraction of that, maybe 5000.”

Direct mail’s physicality is central to its attraction. A printed catalogue provides something tangible and potentially permanent that digital simply can’t replicate. Once the customer’s attention switches to another website, they may never return.

“A catalogue sitting on the table is something that is more likely to be flicked through many times and build up an incremental sale in the browser’s mind, with interesting products easily referred to and, if required, additionally researched online,” says Jon Kelly, Director of Analysis at Wood for Trees.

Holiday brochures are another case in point. Lower costs and supposedly greater convenience for customers might persuade travel companies to move to a digital format but that risks losing the family’s valued printed reference point for holiday planning.

Extensive research by Kantar TNS for Royal Mail MarketReach backs this up. It found that one piece of advertising mail generated an average of seven interactions, as consumers keep, revisit and reuse their mail. 36 per cent of mail reached two or more people in a household, rising to 50 per cent for mail order and online retail.

“Over half of respondents said that the best advertising helps to keep a sender’s brand top of mind,” says Emma Springham, Head of Marketing & Channels, Royal Mail MarketReach.

She also reveals that physical mail is seen as important, considered and believable while, in contrast, email is perceived as being quick, informal and interesting. These diverging attributes may make mail a better way to communicate more serious messages, such as those sent by many charities.

“There is still a feeling in many camps that the disposability of an email doesn’t convey a cause with the same gravity or conviction,” comments Kelly, “although email certainly has a place for things like activist and campaigner communications as well as emergency appeals where time is of the essence.”

Its real-world presence also makes mail a great vehicle for premium communication. Net-a-Porter is a good example, with the brand’s direct mail and its print magazine Porter part of the same luxury experience.

“Porter is about indulgence, which is why we thought a physical copy was so important,” says the company’s VP of publishing and media Tess Macleod Smith. “We’re an extremely high-end online retailer, so for us it’s important to give people something that is tangible and tactile.”

The Tribal Rapport Field Guide promoting the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is another great piece of mail for status-conscious consumers, winning at the 2016 D&AD Awards. Only 50 copies of this 115-page leather-bound book went out to customers.

Employing mail in conjunction with other, usually lower cost media maximises the impact of this kind of investment. Here, mail can act as a “force multiplier” with the most successful campaigns synergising the strengths of each channel.

“DM used with other channels as a physical manifestation of the brand rather than a call to action can be a powerful way to prompt conversion through other channels,” says Oldfield. “Usually the email or SMS following the mail piece sends conversions through the roof. It’s like dropping a bomb into your contact base.”

So where someone hasn’t opened your abandoned basket emails yet, DM could be the best thing to send next, followed by further texts or email. This impact also makes it relevant for reactivation campaigns; where email fails, try escalating to direct mail.

“A lot of our clients are very email-centric but if you see an email every day, you start to become blind to it,” comments Oldfield. “A direct mail piece can pull you back to re-engaging with email, acting as a ‘defibrillator’ to certain sections of the base.”

Currently looser privacy regulations around outbound mail contact also make it a great option to use where permissioning may be unknown or lacking in digital channels. But what about cold acquisition, that mailing application that once worked so very very well?

Oldfield reckons that it does still bring in response, but again only as part of a sequenced communication journey – or it’s money down the drain. “Where a client is expecting direct response from DM alone, they will largely be disappointed,” he notes.

Springham calls on IPA statistics again here, relating that acquisition campaigns featuring mail were 40 per cent more likely to have delivered top ranking results. Response to vouchers is another high point for DM.

“Vouchers sent through the mail continue to be among those that are redeemed the most,” Springham says. “70 per cent of adults redeem at least some vouchers received in the mail compared to 30 per cent for vouchers received on their phone.”

Within the charity world, cold acquisition through direct mail still works well and is widely used. According to Kelly, the traditional charity activities of appeals, raffles and Christmas catalogues are still majority managed by direct mail, even where the charity also has a digital presence.

“It can take a number of years to obtain payback, although it is still considerably cheaper than many other methods of recruitment,” he says.

Here mail’s ability to reach an older charitable audience that digital may not even touch is particularly vital. These are often older, high value core givers who have the potential to leave a legacy in the coming years.

“Nurturing them in a way that is most relevant to and appreciated by them is vital to retain engagement,” says Kelly.

The aura around a good piece of DM means that the ROI case can be even more compelling with b2b lower volumes. Recruitment agency Beringer Tame’s candidates and client companies have very high actual or potential value which more than justifies sending small amounts of highly personalised – often handwritten – mail.

“If all your competitors are obsessed with digital advertising, well-done DM works and it’s a gift for smaller businesses,” comments MD Patrick Tame. “Sending a card rather than a LinkedIn message is far more special. Your message might be on the screen for five seconds but the mail piece can be on the desk for most of the week.”

The content might be a good news story or sharing best practice but the subtext is, “we care about you”. One well-received example is the cardboard tube containing sweets and a scroll of paper with a handwritten note Beringer Tame sent to a thousand contacts.

As her favourite B2B campaign, Springham picks Nandos. To make its Peri-Peri spice part of every store and every employee’s life, it created the “Peri-thread” – a cotton yarn infused with the spice – and used it as a symbol of what binds the company together.

Used in uniforms and merchandise, it also featured in a ‘Peri-thread” piece of creative. “This direct mail piece had the spice-infused cotton running throughout its pages, delivering the brand story and announcing the company’s latest innovations to management, shareholders and franchisees,” says Springham.

Mail is also integral to b2b cold contact. Beringer Tame might start with a cold call, then email, then direct mail which provides a convenient reason for a follow-up call.

“It paves the way for phone contact,” say Tame. “Mail is a very physical way of keeping yourself top of mind. I’m constantly astounded at how few people mail me and follow up with a call.”

His agency also mails business gatekeepers like secretaries that can bar the way to valuable clients and candidates. Here, direct mailed gifts of expensive chocolates can prise open previously locked doors.

Widespread adoption of database-driven analytics has been a big enabler of mail’s shift to very tight targeting. Closing the loop with accurate attribution is also vitally important to show mail’s effectiveness, especially where the mailing may not pull direct response itself within multichannel campaigns.

However, Sightsaver’s last Christmas campaign did excel in driving response through highly-targeted direct mail. Improved segmentation, a new response model, prompt and robust testing, and generally upgraded campaign planning, scheduling and analysis all played their part in raising over £1 million.

“This was double the previous year and most of the income was generated through the cash/cash appeal reminder,” Kelly says. “They managed to reverse the long term decline in active cash segments mainly through reactivation of lapsed donors.”

If you are already sending transactional mail, weaving in a marketing message should be a no-brainer. Force24 does this for one client, piggybacking cross-sell and other offers that are consistent with other outbound channel messaging.

“Mail is still an essential part of the comms journey for heavily regulated industries like financial services,” says Oldfield. “If done sensitively, there’s a massive opportunity to use it for marketing purposes.”

Springham points to the IPA’s TouchPoints2016 findings which showed that 24 per cent of British adults renewed an existing service or subscription after receiving a bill or statement in the mail, and 14 per cent ordered something new.

“For millennials, the power of bills or statements can be even more significant,” she says. “Almost half said that it made them feel better informed.”

So the days of high volume mail may be long gone. DM is often as much about branding as it is about response. But when well targeted and used judiciously, it can still deliver sparkling ROI.

Concludes Pritchard, “Direct mail, which many wrote off as irrelevant in the digital era, has taken one foot back out of the grave and is dancing a jig on its burial plot.”

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