Direct Mail and the Internet

So it’s no great mystery why mail volume, including direct mail (advertising) volume is down and the USPS is in a bind. In the last post Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Dead Economy, we went over some of the dismal numbers that the USPS has “posted” in recent months. The financial strain of the recession has accelerated the move of content online, where the costs are less. Printers and the USPS are suffering.

So, is there still a place for printed direct mail in the mix? Let’s turn to the USPS again.  In a surprisingly insightful brief entitled Mail and the Internet, the postal service presents a convincing case for a combination of print mail and online advertising. Here’s the thrust of the argument:

In fact, recent studies by the U.S. Postal Service and a number of independent research groups found that consumers — even heavy Internet users — continue to view mail as a highly relevant and significant part of their lives. It provides a physical and tangible quality consumers find lacking in their electronic communications. But that’s not all. The studies also showed that mail, working side by side with digital media, can have a substantial impact on the use of commercial Web sites.

Much of the specific content of the brief deals with the integration of email, online storefronts and conventional catalogues, but the USPS makes a couple of key points regarding the combination of conventional mail and email in the marketing mix:

  1. While email has outpaced mail as the primary form of (written) personal communications, readers are much more likely to “trash” marketing emails than conventional mail pieces. People still enjoy opening the mail.  Junk email is a nuisance.
  2. Conventional mail is a very effective way to get permission to send an email.  In other words, direct mail is a great way to get potential customers to subscribe to emailed news briefs or promotions.

From here, it’s tempting take on the ROI argument and search out some spurious data to try and prove that the return on investment for conventional direct mail is actually higher than the ROI for an email campaign.  Poor Richard thinks that’s a worthless effort, but can state uncategorically that the ROI for a  well-conceived direct mail or email campaign will always be higher than the return for a poorly implemented campaign of either type.

Nor is it useful to argue that direct mail and email are apples and oranges. They’re more like white grapes and peach . . . the juice goes together really well. And there is great potential to combine conventional mail, email and other online communications to improve the total ROI for the combined efforts. Conventional direct mail combined with personalized URLs (PURLs) provide a great method of sorting through an inexpensive direct mail list for those who are really interested in a product or service.  Respondents sign on to a landing page, where they can ask for direct contact or for more information. They might also be asked if they’d like to subscribe to an e-newsletter or for periodic special offers.

The net result is that more money and attention are focused on those who are most interested (and most likely to buy something) and less on those who aren’t interested. Even more better, you get to measure. While it is possible to partially measure response from conventional mail campaigns with BRMs, coupons or a tracked phone number, the integrated print and email campaign generates better measurable data from the landing page . . . including names and addresses of those who respond. And if they subscribe to an e-news brief or some other such offering, they’re actually asking you to stay in touch.

Back to the USPS and the printing business. Regardless of the trends, there will remain a very real need for the postal service in the foreseeable future. While it’s easy to communicate online, you need a Star Trek transporter to actually send stuff through cyberspace. Similarly, the tangibility and portability (and disposability) of print gives it an advantage over electronic media in many situations. I haven’t seen them passing out Kindle’s at the theatre, yet.

Poor Richard can’t speak for the future of the postal service, but the the technology to produce and manage integrated electronic and print communications is very available. We’re even playing with it at Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the innocence of the franchise). Not to say that the change isn’t painful.  It was certainly easier for printers when print was king. But change is inevitable . . . and Poor Richard isn’t really ready to become a dinosaur yet.

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