Direct Mail : Today's Catalog
9 reasons to reconsider the classic mail pieceFebruary 2012 By Susan J. McIntyre
Many catalogers who had backed away from print—or stopped printing entirely— are now refocusing on their print catalog core. In my consulting business, I'm hearing clients (who would prefer not to be identified) say, "Our catalogs are profitable again," "Catalogs are our main sales driver," and "Catalogs are our first-line prospecting vehicle."
What's driving the reinvestment in print catalogs? Here are nine emerging techniques and technologies that are largely responsible, and how you can apply them to your marketing.
1. Better Co-Mailing
Most catalog printers now offer co-mailing programs, so your catalogs ride along with other companies' catalogs and earn significantly higher volume-based postal discounts. Co-mailing has improved so that varying sizes and weights of mail can be combined. Even small catalog mailings can earn big-company discounts.
Before deciding who to print with, send the printers you're considering an old mail file so they can estimate postage for you. A great co-mailing program can save enough to offset higher printing costs.
2. Affordable Virtual Catalogs
Online catalogs (looks like a print catalog, turns pages like a catalog, customers can order from it like a catalog, but it's viewed on the Web) were nifty from the start, but only the big guys could afford them. Today, costs for virtual catalogs have plunged. Now anyone can afford to put a page-turnable, clickable catalog on a website just by having the printer convert and tag the printable PDF.
Virtual catalogs are great for customers who don't like normal decision-tree navigation, for new prospects who want a quick overview of the product line and brand, and for those who enjoy the beauty of a designed catalog spread. In fact, some online retailers who plan to never mail a print catalog are designing catalogs just to have them on their websites. If you don't have your own virtual catalog yet, ask your printer what it offers.
3. Google Analytics
Think you can't use Google Analytics (GA) to get catalog sales data? Today, the majority of catalog sales come via the Web, and those sales are visible in GA. Sure, GA cannot give you a total sales picture, but it's great as an early warning system without having to wait for completed order curves, full matchbacks, or reports from your backed-up IT department. You can preview sales, make quick decisions about inventory and about the creative direction on your next catalog.
4. Better Matchbacks
Matchbacks (the process of matching orders back to mail tapes to assign source codes) have been necessary, but frustrating, since customers started ordering online. Catalogers have long known that standard matchback methodologies often assign sales by order date to the wrong catalogs, but didn't have a fix. Today, matchbacks have improved, delivering better tracking and allowing better budget allocation.
One big improvement is the ability to plot actual order curves of mail and phone orders (that is, orders for which you already have a positive keycode ID). Then your matchback vendor can program an algorithm to apply those curves to all the other orders to deliver, not perfect, but improved results data. Ask your vendor if it can do that for you (not all can).
5. QR Codes
When a product was too complex to explain in print, or required too much page real estate, catalogers used to say, "Nope, that's a retail product—can't work in a catalog." Now QR Codes can take customers to an installation video, usage options, Q&A—whatever works to best explain that product. QR Codes are also good for special offers, branding stories and more. But I think expanded product information is the best use of QR Codes: You gain sales while saving on paper and postage (no need to explain all the details in the catalog).
Be sure to also print the URL for folks without mobile devices, and don't visually overwhelm your catalog pages with too many QR codes—keep your catalog's focus on products.
6. Online Order Habits
Many catalogers are finding that online buyers will buy the same amount—sometimes even more—when they mail them fewer catalogs. To take advantage, your order management system needs to tell you who's an online buyer and who's not. (Some systems can't; if that's your system, check if it can be reprogrammed.)
Once you can track online buyer data, conduct mail frequency tests to these buyers. If they buy the same or better with fewer catalog mailings, you can cut back on printing without cutting sales at all—sales may even improve.
7. Lessons from Email
Email has imposed disciplines on marketers like "Get to the point quick," "What's the benefit?" and "Get the main message up front." Those email prescriptions are good medicine for catalogs, too. They use what I've always called "layered communication."
For example, in email, what shows in the preview pane must capsulize the offer and benefit, or users won't go further. For catalogs, your preview pane is the product head, subhead and photo caption. Does that mean your catalog can skip body copy? No—just think of your body copy as the "landing page" readers come to once you've captured their interest.
8. Closed-Loop Color
This printing technology has been around for a number of years, but wasn't widely available. Today, due to retrofits of old presses and purchases of new presses, you'll find closed-loop color at many printers. Often called CIP3 or CIP4, it's a software system that syncs up with the prepress department, locking in the file settings parameters and presetting the color keys on the press. It then scans color bars on the press sheet to adjust color as it prints.
The result is shorter makereadies, less ink and faster color approval. It's helped keep printing costs from skyrocketing. Sometimes printing has even gotten cheaper, keeping catalogs affordable. It saves you time on press checks, too.
9. Soft Proofing
Many printers now have online "soft proofing" systems. When you turn in your print files, later that day your soft proofs are online and ready to review and approve. No more waiting for paper proofs to be output and shipped from their location to yours and back.
If your products need critical color matching and you use hard proofs press-side, online soft proofing is still great for double-checking content. But if your products only need "pretty good" color to sell well, then you can save money by skipping contract proofs altogether.
Susan J. McIntyre is founder and chief strategist of McIntyre Direct, a full-service catalog marketing agency and consulting firm in Portland, Ore. Known as "The Catalog Doctor," she writes a column of the same name for Retail Online Integration magazine. Reach her at (503) 286-1400 or email@example.com.