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The Harte Hanks Blog

Mail is BACK: Direct Mail Trends and Marketing Innovations

Woman getting direct mail out of mailbox

By: Charley Howard

With over thirty years in the direct mail and postal industries, I’ve had the privilege of watching trends rise and fall, marketing innovations come and go. One of the most interesting turns of the tide has been that of direct mail.

For years now, digital communication channels—email, social media, mobile apps, etc.—have earned far more marketing attention than traditional channels. With the rise of fast, catchy and inexpensive digital communications, paper mail– with its comparatively long lead times and high costs– seemed to fall out of fashion almost overnight. This rise in digital communications also contributed to the creation of an entire generation of young people that has never used direct mail and has little interest in receiving it. Finally, a rise in postal rates coincided with a drop in the economy, which could have been the final nail in the direct mail coffin.

Digital Consumer Burnout

But the tide has turned again. All of the excitement around email marketing has created an overload of emails and consumer burnout. You would never send a prospect three direct mail pieces every day or drop a postcard in her lap while she’s having lunch, but such overly zealous attempts at email marketing have pushed many consumers over the saturation point, leading them to tune out and unsubscribe.

Case in point: a friend of mine described to me how one national retail chain used GPS to track subscribers’ smart phones and ping customers with an email offer when they walked into a store. While this may have seemed like clever plan that promotes engagement, many loyal customers got fed up, saying they received far too many communications while they were trying to shop.

Direct Mail 2.0

Considering that direct mail still offers nearly 20 to 40 times the response rates of email marketing, savvy marketers have started looking more seriously at direct mail again, searching for ways to make it more compelling and effective. Through a fresh outlook and new ideas, I believe these marketers are bringing direct mail back. This new version of “direct mail 2.0” will be smaller than the heyday of mass mailings and saturation mail, but it will be more powerful—taking lessons learned from the hard times and becoming smarter, more focused and more targeted.

This resurgence in direct mail will also be built to drive conversions both offline and online. The most innovative and effective programs will combine print mail with digital marketing in new and novel ways that play to the strengths of each, grabbing attention and creating high-touch campaigns.

Creating Offline/Online Synergy

How do you combine direct mail with high-engagement digital marketing? Let’s start by taking a look at the typical direct mail offer. You send out a coupon, you get a good response. But if you start sending coupons regularly, you eventually start seeing that customers only come in when they get a coupon. By adding technology into the mix, you can raise the interest level for your consumers and keep them coming back, independent of your mail cycle. Instead of barraging prospects with emails or encouraging bargain-seeking with a standalone mail piece, you can use a strategic combination of the two to create an interactive, technology-driven experience for your prospects.

For example, you can send a mailer with a peel-off QR code that links to a personalized URL. When your prospect scans the QR code, he is brought to a page customized just for him. He sticks the peel-off on his fridge for future use, and every time he interacts with the QR code, you can offer him new messaging based on his previous interactions. That’s true dynamic, relevant messaging! If your now-loyal customer feels like coming in to the store, he can scan the peel-off for a discount rather than waiting for a coupon. The peel-off is a physical reminder of your offer, and the QR code adds a high-tech, high-touch element to the program that enhances the experience and drives traffic to your website—and your retail store, if you have one.

You can even bring in a social element by adding perks for sharing on social media or sending the offer to a friend. As you interact with the same consumer over time, you can get to know his habits and preferences to further fine-tune offers for even higher engagement.

CoverGirl’s Example

CoverGirl demonstrated an innovative approach to mail at the Postal Vision 20/20 4.0 conference. The company sent out a mailing encouraging prospects to use their smart phones to match make-up to their individual skin tones. This mailing was a fabulous use of augmented reality. The user would scan the mailing to be brought to the website. She would then take a photo of her face and the app would bring up an entire list of products that matched her skin tone. That’s no technology gimmick; that’s using the combination of mail and technology as an effective tool to drive sales.

Use it Wisely

Direct mail has come a long way. The examples above are just a few of the ways that adding digital marketing tools to paper mail can enhance your marketing efforts. But just like email marketing, you still have to use it wisely. For example:

  • It has to be a good experience. If you use direct mail to drive your customers to your website, make sure your sites are user friendly, engaging and offer real value. If not, it’s a wasted effort.
  • Be relevant, focused and use it sparingly. Just like email, you can send too much direct mail. If prospects feel they’re getting too much, they start thinking about all the trees you killed.
  • Use targeting and segmentation. The more refined you get in your targeting, the more relevant the mail will be for the recipient. Consider dynamic digital printing; it allows you to be fully variable from one piece to the next, while still taking advantage of postal discounts, delivery performance, etc.
  • Plan ahead. Giving yourself more lead time allows you take advantage of more advanced direct mail techniques that deliver better response rates.
  • Make small changes. If you’re not ready for a complete overhaul, tweak your current direct mail efforts by simply adding a QR code that goes to a dedicated landing page. Then expand your efforts from there.
  • Track your results. Be sure to capture who did respond along with who didn’t to help you further refine your efforts.

Smaller but Better

I don’t see mail booming like the old days—after all, it is a digital world. But mail still works. It has always worked, and it has one of the best returns on investment out there. Direct mail ROI is only going to improve as more marketers learn to mix tried and true direct mail techniques with the best of digital marketing, creating a combination that is more sophisticated and attuned to the needs and desires of our customers.

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