As I sit here reading through Sailthru’s “4th Annual Retail Personalization Index,” I’m having a familiar reaction. This is great information. I love reading it and seeing how retailers pivot, adapt, and innovate over the years. But in reports like these, why is direct mail hardly ever mentioned? When it comes to consumer trends in retail, it’s as if direct mail doesn’t exist. If direct mail remains such a powerful force in marketing, why isn’t anyone tracking it?

It turns out, someone is. I’d heard about Who’s Mailing What! some time ago, but I’ve had the opportunity to really get in and dig around in its database, and the wealth of information it offers is quite astounding. The database is growing by leaps and bounds, currently containing more than 130,000 mail pieces and with 13,000 mail pieces added every 30 days. Because these mail pieces are searchable, you can slice and dice the database any way you want—by industry, by sub-category, by search term, by color, by mailing format, and the list goes on.

Want to know the most popular call to action for banks in the past 30 days? You can find it. Going after a prospect and want to know what it’s been mailing before you make that call? Look it up! Want to search that prospect’s competitors to see what they’ve been doing? Look that up, too. The opportunities for competitive recon are tremendous.

This isn’t intended as an advertisement for WMW!’s subscription service (it does offer free trials). It’s just something that not many people seem to know about, and it really useful for an industry that is often without studies and surveys showing what really works (and doesn’t) when it comes to direct mail.  How does this tool show what works? Through the controls.

In the WMW! world, there are three types of controls:

  1. Regular “controls,” or campaigns that are run multiple times. When the same campaign is run over and over, the assumption is that it’s working well. This doesn’t mean that the campaign can’t be improved upon (hence the competitive recon), but it does mean that the company is happy enough with it to keep sending it out.  
  2. “Grand controls,” or campaigns that get run year after year. You’d think certain campaigns would get stale, and maybe they do. But these campaigns have an evergreen quality that keeps them relevant over longer periods of time. Consumers never get tired of “buy one, get one free,” for example, and 0% interest always resonates with banking customers looking to add credit cards.

(As an aside, if you filter the database by mailer, you’ll often see what appear to be identical calls to action listed as separate campaigns. Then you look closer and find that they aren’t identical—just similar. In the first four months of 2021, for example, one bank sent six different offers, across 15 different mailings, in five states, frequently using the CTA, “You're entitled to enjoy the prestige of card membership.” But in Florida, it used “You're invited to enjoy the prestige of card membership.” “Invited” rather than “entitled.” It kind of makes you wonder why.)

  1. “Performa controls,” or mail pieces that are not identical and may not be from the same company, but performas are similar enough that they act as controls. In many cases, they may be from the same marketing agency using similar templates tweaked for different clients.

By looking at controls, you can look for trends in colors, formats (catalog, envelope, postcard, self-mailer), calls to action, messaging, images, and many other elements of the creative that are part of the successful package.

For email and online experiences, much of the analysis of success revolves around personalized recommendations, dynamic personalization on the fly, and the types of machine learning that are enabled, in real time, in a digital environment. For print, much of the success results from what is not possible in a digital environment—the tangible impact of mailing formats, physical contents, and the user experience that comes with handling a physical product. That’s why having access to a historical database with controls, grand controls, and performa controls can be so helpful. It tells you what’s working.

There’s one other piece of valuable insight that WMW! offers. It’s the “performance score.” WMW! calculates a performance score for each version of direct mail creative as a prediction of how effective that creative is likely to be. The Performance Score takes into account variables such as:

  • how much money is being invested in direct mail by an advertiser (WMW! finds that bigger spenders spend more on testing to find best performers),
  • how closely the copy and offer correlate with WMW!’s controls, performa controls, and grand controls, and
  • whether the format tends to show the best responses in that vertical.

In an industry in which results are everything, it’s great to know that it’s not all up to you to figure it out. A/B tests are critical, but you can’t possibly test for every variable and iteration of a direct mail piece. Having a historical database on which you can draw for supplemental information is a great tool. It’s great for improving your own campaigns (or those of your clients) and for competitive recon, too. Check it out!