Commentary & Analysis
The Changing Landscape of Direct Mail
by Noel Ward,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: July 28, 2003
by Noel Ward, Executive Editor July 28, 2003 -- I've lived at the same address for eight years. I cut my own lawn, build my own stone walls, and my wife is a an avid gardener. You'd think that by now the 103 landscaping outfits and chemo-grass companies who call me and send me their offers would have noticed I don't respond. And I keep hoping the newspaper that calls like clockwork every three weeks on each of our household phone lines will come to understand the word "No." This past week they failed to understand it twice in one day. They all persist in offering things I don't care about and will never buy. I happen to like Saabs, and while Saab (and Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo) send me personalized offers, so do all the other car companies and dealer groups, apparently hoping I'll switch to a bottom-feeder like a Hyundai or Kia. OK, OK, having worked for an auto manufacturer, ad agencies, and a mar-com company, I know how all this works, but I still wonder at the marketing folks who justify their job based on volume of mail sent instead the effectiveness of their mailings. But I'm actually looking forward, in the next year or so, to getting direct mail that may actually be relevant. This week at ODJ we coincidentally have two columnists talking about similar topics. Homi Shamir of Scitex Digital Printing and Chuck Gehman from Print Café both talk about the looming potential for a sea change in direct mail. Thanks to initiatives such as the national Do Not Call list and increasing efforts to stem the rising tide of the spam in our email, direct mail will almost certainly grow in importance as a marketing tool. Contributing factors include print advertising being in the tank (have you noticed the continuing paucity of ads in your favorite magazines?) while TV advertising suffers from channel surfing, mute switches and technologies like TiVo. This all leaves marketers without many options except direct mail. But the direct mail that will begin arriving in our mail boxes before long will not be not the junk mail of yesterday or even today. And expect some of it to be tied to email as marketers use both mediums to reach prospects more effectively. In this space last week I noted how SourceLink substantially enhanced response and sales for one of their customers by using both paper mail and email. This is going to become a lot more common and will likely extend, as Scitex's Shamir predicts, into marketing messages on statements. "It's a cultural shift," says the president of one mid-western direct mail service bureau that already combines a web interfaces and direct mail for some of its commercial customers. "What I think we'll see is mail and electronic communications working together. And companies will expect service bureaus to offer both mail and electronic delivery options." He says this practice will result in service bureaus charging for sending both paper and electronic versions of a document. But those extra "clicks" at the service provider can actually help enhance the customer experience with added points of contact, better relationships and more targeted services. The Comfort Factor A key strength of paper mail is its comfort factor. "You have a more secure sense of where a mail piece is coming from," notes Bill Dale, General Manager of Pitney Bowes Document Messaging Technologies, "With an electronic messages you can 't always tell who is really sending it, or where the links are going to take you." Additionally, he says, mail is still a more traditional medium for all age groups, the touch and feel process is more familiar than on the Internet, there are fewer visual distractions (no flashing GIFs!), and transactional documents in particular can be better targeted. As Barb Pellow describes this week, that targeting and associated customization is no longer the challenge it once was. A broad range of vendors and service providers are offering software and services that make extensive personalization faster and easier. Having and maintaining well-constructed databases is still essential, but as Pellow notes, the process for putting the variable content on the page can be outsourced if you don't have the resources to do it internally. Over the past year or so, a goodly number of print providers have begun adding mailing services, looking for ways to add value for their customers and draw in more revenue. Some of them, equipped with digital printing systems, see combining variable print and mail as a way to increase their share of their customers' wallets. Meanwhile, service bureaus have ratcheted up the level of intelligence and data-to-mail integrity in their mailrooms often while adding full-color digital printing capabilities. They plan to maximize the range of documents they provide customers, leveraging their expertise in variable data printing. These are strategic moves that prepare companies to compete in an evolving marketplace where print, mail and the Internet are all connected and drive messages that customers will open, read and be more likely to act on. Let me know how you see it.