The Logistics of Mailing Samples
In direct mail, most soft offers are the equivalent of a two-step sampling program. Getting prospects to try the product or service is the initial goal of the direct mail offer.
But what if you have a product that lends itself to sampling through the mail? Could you send a representative sample, and how?
On a basic level, just about everything can be sent through the mail, other than items like hazardous materials, animals and live ammo, for example. It gets more complicated when you consider factors like insertion, turnaround, storage and, of course, cost.
The following information on how items get inserted into carriers pertains to more than samples. Any marketer that wants to add a dimensional freemium to a direct mail campaign has to weigh the advantage of a potentially response-boosting lumpy mailing against the extra coordination and costs.
Despite these challenges, says Bill Mattran, vice president, sales of Banta Direct Marketing Group in Elk Grove, IL, sampling via direct mail does seem to be growing.
From Seed Packets to Bags of Dog Food
The reigning factors in handling samples and freemiums are size, uniformity, packaging, quantity and the type of carriers that will help deliver the item.
While just about anything can be inserted into or affixed onto a carrier, the aforementioned factors determine whether insertion of the item is by machine or hand.
Kevin Nielsen, director of operations-mailing at The Instant Web Companies, based in Chanhassen, MN, explains that the less bulky and more lightweight the item is, i.e., a perfume sample packet, the easier it is to handle than, say, a bag of dog food.
He rattles off a list of items, from cooking utensils and golf tees to fish hooks and slide rules, that The Instant Web Companies has inserted into direct mail packages for clients.
"Hand insertion is driven by quantity," says Nielsen. "If it's a few hundred up to a thousand mailings, then it's usually done by hand." Once you get into 10,000 to 100,000 pieces, you can affordably build the machine you need to do efficient insertion.
Mattran explains that the automation process is different for each item and carrier, since samples might be delivered in FSIs, marriage mail, poly newspaper bags and other alternate media vehicles.
One of the preferred methods of automated insertion, Mattran explains, is a machine that has the carrier moving along a conveyor belt toward a glue nozzle, that puts a dab of glue on it. A magazine, positioned above the belt, drops the samples down onto the glue-dabbed carriers.
But, each vendor also tweaks its machines. The Instant Web Companies, for example, has an engineering staff that creates special attachments that can handle different types of samples and freemiums, based on their shape and packaging. For example, items might be set up as singles, blister packs or shrink-wrapped, says Nielsen.
On the front end, says Debora Haskel, vice president of marketing at The Instant Web Companies, this engineering staff works with a creative services department to help clients develop their package concepts, including the samples or freemiums, and troubleshoot for any production bugaboos.
For example, Haskel says, as a group, these departments can identify when a stand-alone item needs to be affixed to another piece in the mailingthat knowledge can be built into the package design from the get-go.
Another option in rigging up a specialized machine is to increase processing speed. Mattran explains that Banta developed a machine that works similar to the conveyor-belt style described earlier, but instead of the hopper or magazine, it's got a rotary head that works in A-B sequence with two streams of carriers simultaneously. This type of machine can process 25,000 pieces per hour, as well as fold the carrier in a single pass.
Containing the Sample
Nielsen jokes that marketers have so many carrier options, they can
insert practically everything but the kitchen sink.
In terms of envelope packages, the largest standard size is a 9" x 12", and the U.S. Postal Service
accepts envelope campaigns only up to 3/4" thick.
Beyond these dimensions, you're looking at parcels, including boxes, tubes and card-stock self-mailers.
Because automated insertion is preferred by both marketers and
vendors, it's crucial that samples are created with consideration for the
binding, addressing, etc. that will be used to prepare the entire campaign. If the sample is not able to handle the stress of each process, vendors can encounter leakage, breakage and other damage to the sample, carrier and machinery, says Mattran.
"Carrier vehicles have to have enough substance to allow for non-uniform product characteristics," he adds, "and be durable enough to withstand carrying the sample."
As for your postage costs, says Mattran, rates are based on bulk, weight and automation. It's also best to get
approval to mail your campaign from the point of entry into the mail stream.
Assessing Your Production Cycle
"A sample or freemium direct mail campaign is going to run slower and be more labor intensive," says Nielsen. You have to build time for this into your production schedule.
The standard rule, says Nielsen, is the bulkier your sample or freemium, the slower the insertion process runs; the machinery can only complete so many pieces per day.
Mattran estimates that adding a freemium or sample to a mail campaign tacks on about 3 extra weeks to the typical direct mail production cyclebut it depends on the size of your mail drop.
"Hand insertion increases both your cost and time for a campaign," says Mattran, "but determining what jobs need hand insertion often happens on a case-by-case basis." Basically, any item that is not uniform enough to allow a piece of machinery to grip each piece individually and insert it into a mailing must be processed by hand.
Mattran remembers a project Banta handled for Unilever that involved mailing a bar of soap about the size of a business card. So far, so good; the soap was automatable. But then the client wanted to add a small loofah sponge to the mailing; because this item had an irregular surface, it caused the insertion process to be done by hand instead.
Mattran adds that some insertion machines require suction or friction to insert or attach the sample, which also affects the availability of automation.
Haskel brings up another point
crucial to timing: customs clearance for your freemiums or samples. Since many freemiums are manufactured in China, marketers have to work with their vendors to keep them updated on anticipated arrival dates.
Be Mindful of the Quirks
Dealing with perishables and a plethora of dissimilar items
requires the ability to handle Murphy's Law with flexibility.
One of the downsides of mailing a freemium or sample is liability. If an item has sharp edges, like a lapel pin, you have to design packaging that protects both the mailing and the recipients from harm, says Nielsen.
You also have to comply with FDA regulations on controlled substances, like pharmaceuticals, says Mattran.
Storage and longevity of the samples and freemiums is another area for potential heartache.
Nielsen mentions the dog food sample again. When the company mailing these samples slowed down on its distribution quantities, the remaining samples passed their expiration date. Rather than throw out the inventory, the company found a local animal shelter that was happy to take the samples.
Another learning experience occurred with packets of sunflower seeds, says Nielsen. The packets were being stored at the assembly line, and the fluids that leak from the machinery and other forms of moisture in the printing plant.