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Commentary & Analysis

Rarity: Another Reason (Good) Personalization Works

Despite all the talk about personalized mailings, how often do any of us really receive relevant data-driven direct mail? Is the rarity of truly personalized mail part of what makes it effective?

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: April 13, 2018

You know another reason that personalized mail works so well? Rarity. Sure, relevance is key, but personalization in print is still rare in the mailbox. When it arrives, it gets attention simply because consumers don’t see it a lot.

I’m trying to think of the last time I actually received a personalized mailer at home. I get “personalized” email all the time. “Heidi” this, and “Heidi” that. But in my postbox? The last time I remember receiving a personalized mailing was when the utility company cranked out its bi-annual mailer comparing our family to our “more [energy] efficient” neighbors.

Once in a while, I receive a triggered piece from the auto dealership telling me that my Honda is due for service, but since I use the garage up the street, that one usually falls flat. On occasion, I also get a “Your new membership card enclosed!” mailing from organizations I’ve never belonged to, nor do I have any desire to do so.

I am receiving “personalized” mailers in the sense that companies are using data about me, and even things I own. But not that reflect knowledge of who I am, what I enjoy, or how I spend my time.

The last time I remember a truly relevant data-driven mailer wasn’t mailed to me. It was mailed to my parents years ago. They love Mexican food, and it was for the opening of a new Mexican place in town. It contained a map from their house to the new location, along with a coupon for a free burrito if they stopped in. Of course, the restaurant had no idea my parents liked Mexican food. They just bought a list by ZIP code and used a mapping program. Still, my parents were so enamored that they taped it to the doorframe in their kitchen until they were able to redeem the offer.

Personalization remains about the person, not the data. Despite the volume of data-driven mailings being cranked out by marketers, I’m still waiting to be wowed with something relevant to me.

For example, I’m an avid trail runner, and my husband and I run races all over the state. Not only should my preferred shoe brand know what I’ve purchased on my credit card, but they should have access to the lists of all the races we’ve run. Trail running shoes lose integrity over time. Why am I not receiving mailings from my preferred shoe brand around the date they estimate that I will need to replace them? Why am I not receiving mailings for new flavors of energy gels, the latest advances in compression socks, or lightweight hydration packs or longer races? My husband and I also enjoy upcycling furniture on the side, and we buy large volumes of chalk paint and matte finishes. Why isn’t my favorite chalk paint brand staying in touch with me on design ideas and finishing techniques? Why have they not noticed that I don’t use their specialty brushes, too? Why are they not promoting the benefits of using their brushes designed specifically for chalk paint over standard ones?

I do receive “personalized” mailings, but rarely on anything I’m actually interested in or that reflects how I live. Isn’t that what personalized mailings are supposed to be about?

When was the last time you received a personalized mailer in your own mailbox? What was it? What made it effective or not? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Etienne Durey on Apr 13, 2018

Dear Heidi
Many Cies have huge quantity of data (billing, CRM, web, etc.) but how many are able to exploit this? Often here is the big pblm! also can I suggest you to look at Nuukik - using IA they can generate fantastic target files easilly through deep & machine learning.
my best regards


By Mike Porter on Apr 13, 2018

Maybe part of the reason we don't see the degree of targeting and personalization Heidi is describing is operational incompetence. The risk factor for mistakes goes way up when mail pieces get specific. If the organizations producing the pieces don't have the necessary controls or experience, mailings can be a disaster.

I wrote an article last summer that included examples from some of my own mail that illustrate this point. http://mailingsystemstechnology.com/article-4210-Mistakes-That-Should-Never-Have-Happened.html


By Maeghan Nicholson on Apr 13, 2018

Agreed! We're hosting a free webinar on the possibilities with personalization on May 1, with the guy who did the Share A Coke campaign in Europe with custom labels. Personalization is part of the future of print! https://www.suttle-straus.com/personal


By Gerhard Maertterer on Apr 14, 2018

Whoever will be in drupa-town Duesseldorf on April, 24th 2018 is invited to join my workshop "The new role of PRINT in a world of Data Driven Marketing": https://tdm.f-mp.de/programm/tag1#SLOT4

Whoever has no ticket to Duesseldorf may download our brochure: https://we.tl/LqQCVYXhjI

Whether in Duesseldorf or in the brochure: You will learn, how we obtain conversion rates of more than 11% by highly personalized web-reaction postcards included in the routine communication of modern predictive analytics.


By Tony Hodgson on Apr 16, 2018

Lack of relevant data is one big reason why print and marketing service providers don't use personalization and rely on bland generic mailings. But even if you only have limited data, you can still create a powerful personalized campaign. For example, using just the customer’s address you can create the highly personalized map Heidi mentions in her article.


By Stan Tan on Apr 16, 2018

A lot of marketers are actually lazy to put in the additional effort to personalised their marketing campaigns.

Look at it this way, you can manually write a very personalised hand-written letter with their browsing history, purchase history, their address and their name. The hardest part is actually automating this and connecting the technology to achieving this.


By Gina Danner on Apr 18, 2018

The problem with big data is there is LOTS of data. Data analysis is both a science and an art. Those scientific artists are expensive and it takes time to show the return on investment. Plus there just aren't that many of them. Add to that, you need creatives who understand how to efficiently build the creative that meets the strategy.

Oh yea, you have to have strategy that can create exponential opportunity.

I've worked with some phenomenal teams over the years that want to go to the promised land, but it isn't unusual to see the weakness in just one area collapse the entire project.

In this age of instant gratification, rapidly changing direction, and continuous cost cutting measures we need cost effective tools that allow for easy data analysis and implementation. All while trying to put ink on paper and keep a busy manufacturing plant full. It takes committed ownership and strategic marketers with an eye towards R&D.


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