Direct Mail Trends of 2001
A Round-up of What's Working in the Mail Right Now
By Hallie Mummert
This year has been no bed of roses for many direct marketers. A stagnant economy paired with increases in postage and other fixed operations costs have dealt marketers a double whammy in budgeting for direct mail programs.
A mature market offers another challenge to direct marketers looking for a creative approach that's going to get the job done in the mail. The result is a good deal of uncertainty about what might work best. In years past, you could identify clear trends in format and offer strategy—such as when the double postcard made its debut.
While the current trends might not be as definitive as they were in the 1980s or 1990s, there are a few major patterns, both ongoing and emerging, that will guide direct marketers to successful campaigns.
Here is a round-up of those trends, and what's driving them.
This trend started to develop in 2000, and hit full stride in 2001. The prevalent theory seems to be that if you are going to put something extra inside the package, display it with an extra window or even just a bigger address window.
What's on display? The usual sticker tokens, plastic cards (membership and gift)and pennies. But there were also freemiums, such as a dashboard emblem from Sacred Heart Auto League and a lapel pin from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
An interesting freemium from Forbes magazine is a First-Class postage stamp that accompanies last-ditch renewal efforts to encourage response. Postage-paid business reply envelopes are the norm in the publishing industry, but the stamp is a more tangible reminder that Forbes is paying the tab for responses.
Beyond showing off these tchotchkes, marketers use windows to emphasize important messages, such as response deadlines, free gifts, personalization of offers and fake registration numbers that give the mailing an official appearance.
A corollary to the multiple window envelope trend is the heavier usage of translucent envelopes in 2001. Instead of brainstorming what copy and graphics to use to get prospects to open the envelope, companies chose to reduce the outer envelope's role to being a carrier.
To make this strategy work, you need contents that get the point across immediately; for example, Ask Jeeves created a folder that prominently featured its free umbrella offer on both sides of its 6˝x 9˝ translucent envelope package.
Ghosts of Controls Past
When a company finds the perfect blend of copy, offer and creative, it has attained control nirvana. Several companies are still mailing the same control packages developed five, 10 and more than 20 years ago.
In the past year, it seems as if a few long-term controls got knocked off, only to return with a vengeance. In particular, the 9˝x12˝ envelope mailing created by the late Bill Jayme and his design partner, Heikke Ratalahti, for Health magazine was beaten by a polybag mailing from copywriter Heidi Hoyt Wells and designer Rebecca DePriest. A few tests later, and the 9˝x12˝ package was back on top.
Because direct mail results in the 21st century have been a little unpredictable so far, marketers can't be too sure of what's going to keep working in the mail. Also, tighter marketing budgets probably have resulted in the stalled development of new creative. The upshot is that marketers are dipping into their file cabinets to unearth previous control packages.
Who knows? What appealed to an audience in 1988 just might work in this economic climate, too.
Creating more personal packages
From business magazines to professional seminars, Web sites to mainstream broadcast channels, the focus is on marketing databases. Suddenly, the masses have caught on to what power lies with having a robust file of customer information.
The downside of this business tool is the potential for privacy invasion. The upside is being able to target offers and messages more precisely to customers. Usually, the result is direct mail that features personalized messages to different customer segments.
A recent development in printing technology now allows companies to print their personalized messages in several colors in one pass. Plus, the creation of a new digital press makes customized direct mail pieces affordable for more than customer retention efforts.
The focus on customer relationship marketing, a more advanced form of database marketing, also has a profound effect on direct mail. More companies are creating "welcome back" packages to revive lapsed customers.
The use of greeting cards for a personal touch also has increased of late. One of the benefits of using greeting cards for direct mail campaigns is their ability to get past the advertising radar of savvy consumers and business people. That's precisely why the Wildlife Conservation Society's control for the holiday mailing season is a greeting card, even though it struggles to fit an entire sales pitch into a format that offers limited room for copy.
Safety in Numbers
For years, direct marketers have been wondering when the postal rate hikes were going to force them into channels other than the mail. In a year of back-to-back rate hikes, there has been more interest in partnerships with retail operations for distribution of marketing material.
Co-ops, package insert programs and other alternate media programs also have witnessed more tire-kickers. Those who still prefer direct mail for most of their marketing campaigns have found that they can offset the cost of a solo direct mail campaign by taking on partners.
For example, the Express retail chain and Vogue magazine teamed up to offer store credit card holders a one-year subscription that would be charged to their cards. Another partner direct mail campaign came from Infiniti, which covered the expense of its glitzy promotion for its new Q model automobile with a CD-ROM that contained a music sampler from The Verve Music Group and an offer for Internet service from FreeLane.
Size vs. Cost
It's a battle between budget and projected response. Companies that don't feel they can pull in a large enough response to cover the cost of a more expensive direct mail package have been cutting, cutting, cutting. They've been reducing the size of their formats, the number of components within an envelope and the number of new packages they test.
For example, the publishing industry was hard-hit by sweepstakes legislation, declining response rates and postal rate hikes. In response, many publishers went the inexpensive route with a professional discount offer.
The low expense of an outer envelope, order form, business reply envelope and, perhaps, an insert, results in an affordable acquisition cost, but it's also a cost structure that makes it seem risky to test any other format and expect to make money. But several publishers are testing new ideas in the anticipation of this trend losing steam sometime soon.
At the other end of the spectrum are more extravagant mailings, such as the 9˝x12˝envelope efforts that are in heavy rotation and the cardboard boxes popping up in the fund-raising arena.
While it seems strange that fund-raisers, of all direct marketers, would have the money to spend on box mailings, the strategy pays off in higher response and higher average donation amounts. For example, the Humane Society of the United States is in its third year of sending out holiday cards and a donation request in a 6˝x71⁄2˝ cardboard box with a holiday theme. To raise money for the cause, cover the cost of the mailing and acquire a new donor, the fund-raiser increases the average gift request by 20 percent. Most of all, the unique look of a cardboard box mailing gets more attention than the typical envelope mailing consumers have come to recognize.
Hallie Mummert is editor of Inside Direct Mail, a monthly newsletter covering the trends and successful techniques of U.S. direct mail. She can be reached at (215) 238-5437, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.