Not Your Father’s Direct Marketing

Direct marketing – ‘dem rules were made to be broken
Believe it or not, half of all consumers file their direct mail in the circular file. Instead of blaming the medium itself, though, we should be blaming outdated tactics.

Today’s consumers have a more sophisticated perception of direct mail than they used to. Tried-and-true approaches like sweepstakes, “priority,” and phony checks no longer fool consumers. Such cookie-cutter tactics now only indicate that the direct marketer has not spent the time to develop a relevant package. At best, this is disrespectful. At worst, such approaches will cripple your marketing program.

Traditional direct marketing wisdom consists of a series of rules, which most DM professionals will tell you have been proven over years of testing to lift response:

1. Send mail with a return address and an appropriate benefit-oriented offer on the address side of a white envelope

2. Include a long, businesslike letter double-spaced and full of underlining

3. When possible include an order card with a yes/no option —as in “Yes, I want to get by buying your product for $99…” or “No, I don’t care to buy. I understand that by passing on your wonderful offer, I’ll .”

The old rules have been verified by armies of DM veterans who always have “20 years’ experience beating the control package.” The idea behind the control is that you find your best-performing DM package, change an element, and find out how that single element affects response in the test versus the control package. But astute marketers now know this approach is outdated for a number of reasons:

Mistake #1: Not having the courage to be different.
In today’s cluttered marketplace, successful brands have the courage to distinguish themselves through cutting-edge product design and communications. Apply these criteria to your direct mail.

Mistake #2: Marginal thinking versus strategic thinking.
For many direct marketers, operating without the benefit of results from the control mailing can seem like walking a tight rope without a net. However, the extra risk can bring an enormous return. Consider the market for relational database management systems (RDBMS). Companies like Oracle, Sybase, Informix, and IBM sold those big, complicated database engines for approximately $50,000 to $100,000 through their direct sales force. They created the market for RDBMS and expected to continue to control the market. You can be sure that the direct marketers there had a few energetic discussions over lunch about how they beat control and what changes to their mailings led to nominally higher response rates. Unfortunately, while they were gloating, Microsoft was eating their lunch. Microsoft opened an entirely new market for RDBMS servers based on the NT platform. Priced at $999, they sold through cataloguers such as Computer Discount Warehouse and PCs Connection.

True innovations in our market are the result of sweeping paradigm shifts, not incremental changes. Direct marketers need to reinvent themselves, from marginal players to strategic thinkers by opening new channels of distribution and new business models.

Mistake #3: Not testing tradition mail.
Many marketing types seem to believe that they compete in categories that don’t have the price points or margins to support direct mail, especially as both the cost of paper and postage has risen dramatically. Ironically enough the very fact that the volume of snail mail is down may mean that your mailing has a better than average chance of standing out from the crowd and getting noticed.

Consumers prefer brands and marketers that get it. Many of the old rules for DM are dinosaurs. And the new rules for direct marketing aren’t rules at all. Instead, current conditions require marketers to use all the powers at their disposal to persuade, entertain and inform the consumer about their products and relevant offers.

The new thinking includes the following:

Cut through the clutter
with an envelope that creatively entices the consumer to read your mailing and take action.

Explore the unusual
in terms of sizes, formats, and paper stock.

Recognize that your consumer is a person first and a title second
by making it clear that what’s inside is directly of interest to them.

Understand that the consumer has limited time.
Lengthy letter copy is no longer king. People will not read self-important drivel. Icons and other graphics will help make your point with minimum words.

Don’t use veiled threats or otherwise signal to the consumer that they must buy, or else.
Savvy customers resent being treated this way and know full well that they can buy the equivalent product from a more likable, less intrusive vendor.

Channel information the way the prospect wants it.
The purpose of DM is to interest prospects in learning more. Then you’ll need to refer them to one or more “channels” of additional information, including an 800 number, fax or website.

Implementing these new rules allows you to target consumers with relevant messages and steer them to additional information channels. Direct mail is far from dead. Done right, it can differentiate your product, give you a strategic leg up, and be an important part of your marketing mix. Done wrong, it’s junk, and the consumer will treat it accordingly.

First published in Marketing Computers magazine in September 1996 and updated July 2001; reprinted here with permission