The Heart of Direct Mail's Success
What's been at the heart of direct mail's success over the years? Measurability and testability. The primary reason direct mail is, and has been, one of the most successful forms of marketing is our ability to test and measure everything from envelopes, postcards and messages.
Some marketers began looking into alternatives to direct mail when the postal increases took place in 2007, and more lately with budgets that gave short shrift to direct mail in favor of email and other emerging channels. But while email marketing has some definite advantages, it cannot compete with the targeting ability of direct mail. Nor can any other single tactical marketing communications vehicle. And email easily can be identified as "spam" by many recipients' filters, even if it actually isn't.
Remember that most people who don't mind getting direct mail can become easily agitated when prospect email lands on their computer screen. Use email first with current customers, and test it against direct mail to gauge lift.
Many companies seemingly practice "automatic pilot" advertising. Whatever they did before is what they will do again. Rather than plunging headfirst into their next campaign, they would be wise to take a moment and reconsider the advantages of direct mail and testing creatively. Advertisers often call direct mail "targeted mailing" and for good reason — direct mail usually is sent out following analysis of a database.
How can you tell if your advertising is effective? If your business improves shortly after a campaign begins, you might be tempted to assume that the advertising was responsible. If traffic seems to increase after these ads are put into place, then you might conclude that the advertising worked. But this is an assumption, and often a mistaken one.
Meanwhile, direct mail is measurable. When customers walk through the door with a mailer in their hand, your response rate easily can be concluded. And, if you rack and analyze this data, you'll be able to illustrate exactly the ROI of your direct mail pieces.
A small direct mail promotion can be prepared and distributed within weeks, which makes it perfect for testing prices, titles, offers and potential audiences. More elaborate and carefully targeted promotions still take less time to prepare than most other media. And response time to direct mail usually is quicker as well, allowing you to project the final results of a mailing more quickly and accurately than you can with most other advertising, except Web, SEO and email.
You must choose lists carefully since even the most dazzling creative message will get you nothing if it isn't directed to the proper audience. With direct mail, you can target your mailings more selectively than you can with most other media. You can build an advertising campaign with more confidence by testing small lists, then building to larger lists and then rolling out to a full list or lists — and you can use it as the primary driver to response. Spend twice the amount of time you currently allocate to mailing list research and watch what happens!
By testing and measuring, you can change most messages right away to take advantage of the information you have gleaned. You have complete control over the media, the audience and your offer.
As for trends, I strongly suggest a back-to-basics approach be adopted for your test plans next year. The late copywriter and consultant Ed McLean summed it up like this: "There are really two kinds of tests: 1) tactical tests; 2) approach tests."
Tactical tests are very thorough. They include the testing of lists, timing, non-duplication, application of geographical and "buyer" data to existing lists, as well as plotting response patterns by local area and region. Tactical tests are those aimed at zeroing in on your sales target more economically and efficiently. Tactical tests are tests your prospect or customer does not see.
Approach tests include the testing of offer and copy. They are aimed at gaining a direct increase in response. Approach tests are the tests your prospects and customers see.
While many, many direct mail test rules still apply today, please understand that times are changing. To succeed, you need to do more tests - and that means failing more often. However, remember that failure is only bad when you don't learn from it, so don't be shy about testing out-of-the-box ideas here and there to see what they may do for results. Safe tests usually yield little lifts; radical tests often can lead to huge gains. Due to information overload today, I have seen many "unthinkable" tests work amazingly well recently.
If you are told self-mailers never work for your industry, test self-mailers. Test different lists that seem odd but match your current customer profile. I have had success with a humane society by mailing Victoria's Secret catalog buyers, for instance. Test lists, then offers/messaging, before new creative.
You also should pay close attention to your marketing segments. For example, what works for baby boomers is different than what works for Gen X-ers, and both definitely are different than Gen Y-ers.
Keep in mind that you test to gain insight and information that can be applied to future efforts. While that may seem obvious, I still see a lot of premature creative tests done long before lists and offer/messaging options are exhausted.