A Lesson in Postal History
By Lois K. Geller
It was a cold and snowy day in our nation's capital. I had just finished speaking at the Travel Learning Conference. My son, Paul, came by to tell me he had a real treat in store for me.
The snow in Washington, D.C., was 4 inches deep and looked as if it would get much worse. I silently hoped that the treat involved a fireplace and maybe chamomile tea, but I knew better. Just as I feared, the treat involved more of a Valley Forge experience. We donned heavy boots, bundled up and trudged through the suddenly cab-less streets.
As we approached Union Station, I thought about bolting for the train and heading back to New York, but Paul steered me across the street and into one of those big, white government-looking buildings. I noted the address in case I had to call for a dogsled: 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE.
"Ta da!" Paul announced. "Welcome to The National Postal Museum."
He's nuts, I thought.
"You'll love it," he said.
I loved it, especially the direct marketing exhibit, which is called "What's in the Mail for You?" The Smithsonian Institution, which runs the museum, really did themselves proud.
Visitors are greeted by a hologram of Aaron Montgomery Ward, the catalog pioneer. He looks real. Old-fashioned in a nice Midwestern way, but real. Mr. Ward is our guide for a terrific exhibit that really makes direct mail come alive for the layperson. And, I must admit, this jaded New Yorker found it kind of exciting.
"What's in the Mail for You?" begins with Montgomery Ward's desk, followed quickly by the story of his company, then the great early direct marketing companies like L.L. Bean, Tiffany and W. Atlas Burpee (the seed people).
You can tinker with all kinds of interactive exhibits, like checking out the demographics of your own zip code. There even is a section that shows you how to build your own direct mail campaign.
At the end of your tour, a printer spits out a thank-you note personally addressed to you with a coupon good for 10-percent off any purchase in the gift shop.
The exhibit's creative is terrific, and the whole thing is a great reminder for all of us to make our efforts interesting, fun and interactive, and to build relationships. Here are some ideas I got from the exhibit:
1. It begins with stories. They're yarn-spinners, and they're true tales of the derring-do of the original catalog geniuses. It makes our whole industry come alive. It's about business, but it's mostly about people. Great direct mail does that. It can tell the story of a company in ways that arrest the reader's attention with relevant segues to "what's in it for you?"
I worry that the story part of our communications is becoming a lost art. Just this morning a letter arrived on my desk. It starts: "It is my privilege to announce the launch of an exciting and innovative solution to the problems faced by my most small and medium-sized agencies …" I almost went to sleep. Who cares? Reach out and grab me with something interesting. Tell me a tale, spin me a yarn. The classic is The Wall Street Journal's "two young men" letter, but there are dozens of other wonderfully successful yarn-spinning letters. If people like you—if you engage them—they'll read about your brilliant solutions. But first, you have to engage them. The National Postal Museum does this brilliantly.
2. An interactive part of the exhibit asks for information about YOU. We don't do that often enough, or if we do, we do it in a boring straightforward way that's about as charming as an IRS audit. The more information you have about customers and prospects, the better your ongoing creative and offers will be. Ask them nicely, tell them why it's good for them to give you the information, thank them and then use the information for their benefit.
3. Give them information they can use. In the exhibit you can look up any zip code and find out the demographic and psychographic information about the people who live there. My son was amazed at the household income levels of the people who live near him in Gaithersburg, MD. Mailings that give me useable or fascinating information keep me reading, get me involved and make me think the marketer actually knows me and cares enough to take the time and trouble to tell me something I didn't already know.
4. Segment your file. Early in the tour, the exhibit asks for database information about you—name, address, age, hobbies, etc.—and takes your photograph. This information is transferred onto a computer card.
Later, you put your card into a machine and your photo comes up on a huge screen, with a few hundred others. The computer then eliminates pictures as it focuses on the interests you selected earlier. It shows you as a unique customer and it shows you alone on the screen as the computer adds the information you've fed it. It's like a snapshot of true one-to-one marketing. So many clients that visit my agency tell us they still don't have the time or resources to segment. What? You don't currently mail to your past buyers and invite them back?
5. Remember to have fun with your customers! One part of the exhibit gives you a six-part trivia game with questions such as "What is list hygiene?" We used to include interactive exercises on order forms: involvement devices, contests, sweepstakes. They're fun. Let's do them again.
6. Thank customers and make them an offer. The crowning glory of the exhibit was the thank-you note with the coupon. The 10-percent discount may be tired, so you may want to come up with some unique offer such as a 15.2-percent discount, or two free postcards.
I had a chance to meet Allen Kane, the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum. He was with the post office for 30 years before his new job.
Allen offered an interesting challenge to all my creative friends who read this column. At the end of the exhibit there is an empty wall where he wants to include the Future of Direct Marketing—what leaders think is coming next. Maybe they will project on the wall. There also is a space for people to buy some real estate to include their company's name as part of the future. Allen may use that as a fundraising opportunity. He challenges you to help him fill this space.
Upstairs in the museum there is a nice room, called the Winton Blount Center, in honor of Nixon's postmaster general. Allen and I decided it might be a good place to run some direct marketing seminars.
Many of you have asked if it's possible to attend my Direct Marketing Boot Camp if you have only a few people in your company. So I thought it would be a great idea to have a seminar at The National Postal Museum, where you could explore the exhibits, come up with some ideas for the Wall of the Future and attend a seminar where some of the revenue will go to the museum to help it pay for a marketing effort of its own.
To do this, we'll need at least 35 people. The director has offered to include a guided tour, which is really fascinating. We'll have lunch together. The seminar will be a tight version of the DM Boot Camp that Michael McCormick, my creative director, and I have run all over the world. It will be a great day. We've penciled the date in for Thursday, November 3, 2003. Let me know if you want to attend by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And feel free to pass your ideas for the museum's blank wall on to me; I'll make sure Allen gets them.
Lois K. Geller is president of Mason & Geller Direct Marketing, a full-service direct-response agency in NYC. She also is the author of "Response: The Complete Guide To Profitable Direct Marketing," and is a speaker at industry events. She can be reached at email@example.com.