Strategy Session: Making Mail More Relevant
Back in 1992, I received a phone call from the late Walter Schmidt, who was interested in having me present at the Montreux Symposium in Switzerland. Montreux was not only one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland, nestling on Lake Geneva and dwarfed by the magnificent Swiss Alps—it was also home to the world's leading direct marketing conference.
Schmidt challenged me to "present something provocative—something that will really make people sit up and think." So I created my first international presentation, called "The Death of Direct Mail."
I compared direct mail to a dinosaur, doomed to extinction, and the comparison seemed apt. The dinosaurs may have gotten too big to survive; direct mail already had grown to a point where the average American received more than 40 pounds of it a year. If you bought from a catalog, you received much, much more ...
The dinosaurs couldn't adapt to a changing environment, and direct mail was in the same conundrum. It was an environmental catastrophe, as this was well before we started using recycled paper and thinking "green." The dinosaurs' brains were too small, and they couldn't adapt. I pointed out that almost every media had changed and evolved as time wore on—except for
As I wrote the first part of the speech, I became more and more depressed. Was direct mail really doomed? Was it time to explore another line of work?
I was determined to make the second part of the speech all about the ways we could ensure that direct mail remained relevant and rewarding.
The speech was well-received, and, of course, direct mail continued to thrive and even grow. Some people felt I had overdramatized the problems, and there was little need for us to worry. But because this was in 1992, I left out something very important.
The Asteroid Effect
Today, we know that dinosaurs may have been destroyed by an outside force that had nothing to do with evolution or their ability to adapt. According to a 2004 research study, a giant asteroid hit the coast of Mexico 65 million years ago. Scientists believe it incinerated all of the large dinosaurs that were alive at the time in just a few hours.
For direct mail, of course, that asteroid has been the Internet. And while it hasn't destroyed us, yet, we do need to adjust and adapt to its impact.
Two years ago, the Direct Marketing Association predicted that online marketing would rise to the level of direct mail by the year 2011. The current economic crisis may have accelerated that timeline.
The challenge we have is to make direct mail work much harder for us. The only way to do that is by taking advantage of the unique strengths of the medium and using them to their best advantages.
So, what are the unique strengths of direct mail?
1. Most importantly, direct mail is the only medium that involves three dimensions. Rather than just viewing on a screen, or listening to it, we actually hold it in our hands.
That is an enormous advantage over other mediums. Back when I worked in an advertising agency, we presented to a major technology company. First, the general agency presented its campaigns, which the client seemed to like. Then came my turn.
I covered the conference room table with dimensional packages, comps of direct mail packages and brochures with unusual folds. The client was enchanted-and asked to keep all the work.
After the meeting, the creative director of the general agency groused to me: "You guys have an unfair advantage—you got stuff."
You don't have to use a dimensional package to take advantage of direct mail's tactile nature. You can choose unusual paper stocks, put different things in the envelope and get people to "play" with the work.
For example, we did a sweepstakes mailing for a small leasing company. The prize was nothing exceptional—a 32-inch color TV.
Because the prize wasn't very exciting, I had to make the presentation more exciting. On the outside of the large brochure, I wrote, "How big is the prize in our new leasing sweepstakes?"
When you opened the brochure once, it doubled in size, and the copy read: "Big ..."
When you opened it again, it then read: "Bigger ..."
You needed both hands to open the last fold, but when you did, you held in your hands a huge facsimile of the screen of a 32Ë TV set, and the headline read, "Actual size."
Try doing that in any other medium.
If you're not using all three dimensions, you're wasting one of the great strengths of direct mail.
2. Next, and just as important, direct mail is a personal medium.
Now, you may think e-mail is personal (or even too personal, if you don't have a good spam blocker), but direct mail gives you even more of an opportunity.
Direct mail allows you to talk to each individual-based on what individuals have done in the past; how, when and what they purchased; and when they last did business with you.
We did a highly successful letter for an insurance company that started like this:
When you first took out your policy back in ... a new house cost an average of $89,000. Today, the average cost is $234,150. A gallon of gas cost 89 cents. Today, the average cost is $1.99. A loaf of bread cost $1.04. Today, the average cost is $2.50.
The fact is that inflation has taken bigger and bigger bites out of your retirement income. And the insurance you purchased back then might not be enough.
The interesting thing about this personalization is that it was driven by only two data points: the year that the person took out his insurance policy and the cost of living indices.
Plus direct mail just feels more personal-it comes to your home or office; it has your name on it; and it is the only form of advertising you will ever read or ever write that begins with one word: "Dear."
3. The last unique advantage of direct mail is one that we have to protect as much as possible. Does anybody really trust TV commercials? We've all grown up with football-playing Clydesdales (Budweiser), talking babies (E*TRADE), friendly polar bears (Coca-Cola) and knowing that just about anything is possible through computer-generation.
Meanwhile, does anyone believe e-mail? Dozens of sites have popped up (Snopes.com is my favorite) whose sole purpose is to give you the facts behind that convincing e-mail you received. And I'm not even talking about Nigerian bank scams and lottery e-mails. I'm talking about the ones that are circulated by well-meaning friends and business associates who forward it before checking it out.
But direct mail is different. Direct mail gives you an opportunity to tell an authentic and convincing story, create credibility with specific facts and claims, and present relevant information to you.
In a world of spin and hype, a sincere letter can have much more of an impact on you than virtually any other medium. That is why we—the companies who practice it—have to jealously guard the credibility of everything we put into the mail.
The E-volution of Direct Mail
Will direct mail fail to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of marketing? Are we doomed to a similar fate as the dinosaurs? I hope so. Because as we all know, the dinosaurs really didn't die out. The best of them did adapt and became the beautiful creatures we now know as birds.
If we continue to leverage the great advantages of direct mail, and we protect its credibility, I believe it will continue to be a huge opportunity for direct marketers who know how to use it.
Alan Rosenspan is president of Alan Rosenspan & Associates, a direct marketing consulting and creative firm. For additional articles and a free newsletter, please visit www.alanrosenspan.com.