The constant change in marketing technology has demanded an “always in beta” approach. With e-commerce and digital marketing growing so rapidly, I’ve had to rethink the intersection of data and print. My conclusion is that the richest opportunities are realized when we bring together the best of the benefits of CRM with personalized variable print and workflow automation. It’s a mouthful but it means a rethink of the spray and pray practices that are associated with direct mail (DM). A mailing can now consist of one piece, perfectly personalized, segmented, timed and automated to deliver the most effective message.

The name “direct mail” carries many negative connotations now and our conclusion is that the newest ways to use the personalized printed mail channel are so different from what we called DM that maybe the name is holding it back as a strategy. Business leaders have dictated that ad budgets swing from print to digital but I think what they are really looking for is a personalized and highly targeted channel, which digital delivers, but so does print when it is served up as a dynamic digital print media. Maybe others like P&G’s brand manager Marc Pritchard, who recently criticized his company’s digital spending in the New York Times, will be coming around to see the value it can bring when it is used similarly to digital for a timely and personalized messages with a high ROI. I’m a tech guy with a penchant and history in printed mail ( I actually studied painting and photography and then some computer animation which naturally lead to direct marketing, right?), and my goal is to help my clients develop the best strategies to drive sales to their companies or donations to their non-profits. The outcome is eye-opening and the solution, ResponsivePrint​​ brings together the best of the immediacy and personalization of the digital platforms with the super-power communication of physical mail.

Let’s not forget that despite extreme growth in digital communication, roughly nine billion pieces of mail circulate through Canada Post in a year. That’s a lot of parcels, cards and letters. There are fewer items mailed these days and more parcels shipped thanks to e-commerce, but as far as the power of a printed mail piece to drive successful communication, printed mail still has a unrivaled punch that drives action. It’s physicality is cumbersome but it turns out it is also worth the effort, because that is what brings its value. Read on, we’ll get to some interesting neuroscience that backs this up.

When digital ad returns track downward where do you spend your next dollar?

Take the recent 2016 U.S. Federal Election, for example, where candidates spent over $60 million on direct mail to help their fundraising drives. It ​reportedly cost between 20-37 cents of the dollar raised to use DM for fundraising and the reason they spend that is that you just cannot send enough email to people or buy enough digital ads to get the income you require. At a certain point there is a diminishing value in spending more in the digital channels and that is where you come back to print. It is where you can spend your next advertising dollar when digital returns start to track down.

So back to my challenge. Could I make printed mail part of a digital marketing strategy? I looked to the fastest growing segment of the digital economy and it seemed natural to study how e-commerce was dealing with engaging their clients. If you are a marketer at an e-commerce company, you may know this painful story. Here was a business that by its very nature was a pure digital play. Customers search online, find what they need, add to a cart, pay and boom, it’s delivered to their home. The growth in e-commerce for the past few years has been staggering compared to other parts of the economy so they need to feed that monster with engaged and delighted customers and speak to them about what they were offering. But, like the election fundraisers mentioned previously, there was diminishing returns in the digital strategies that they gravitated to as digital natives—search, programmatic ads and email.

A decade or so after e-commerce became mainstream, spam filters, indifference to email and Adblockers came to roost. As an e-commerce marketer, how do you engage your customers if your channels are Adblocked or your email hits the spam filter or is just ignored. There may be whole segments of the customer base that just cannot be engaged this way. It’s frustrating for a digital marketer to see the diminishing returns. You just can’t throw another million dollars in email and programmatic and get the results that your initial investment in digital returned.

Some of these companies responded by getting physical. Yes, they opened stores where people could see, touch the things they were going to buy. Online only was not getting the growth they needed. It turns out that having a bricks-and-mortar physical store is a growing trend. Even Amazon announced a store location. Conversely, we have watched retailers open online at record rates to soak up some of that market too. It seemed that suddenly the pure digital world of e-commerce was recognizing that having a foot in the physical world was important to success.

And the physical world is where printed mail is naturally grounded. Perhaps there is an opportunity here? Didn’t Canadian Tire return to their catalogues? I’ve also heard rumors that IKEA is probably mailing about 10 million catalogues to Canadians about now. They seem to understand the value of this brings them.

Canada Post wanted to understand the value and better share it with their customers, for obvious reasons. They’ve done some great research that uses neuroscience to study how printed mail leaves a greater impact on the recipient when compared with digital. The researchers wrapped wires around the heads of hundreds of participants and found, not surprisingly, that printed mail “​captures and sustains consumer attention, triggers the emotions that drive action and optimizes recall.”

So this is the ecosystem into which we developed ResponsivePrint. E-commerce companies had several main challenges, abandoned shopping cart rates were hovering around 70% and win-back programs and loyalty programs could have low response due to Adblockers and unopened email and maximized results for programmatic ads. Strategies that used triggers to send emails or introduce ads on a customer’s screen are wonderfully personal and immediate but they also are negatively affected by the same things.

Personalization is the key to good engagement by digital marketers and it’s driven by excellent CRM resources, the backbone of all e-commerce systems. So this is perfect ground for a variable print workflow automation that outputs fully dynamic printed mail within hours of online triggers.

E-commerce customer engagement So we have the perfect candidate for triggered workflow that creates personalized communications.

A personalized postcard is mailed within hours of an abandoned shopping cart

Abandoned shopping carts are a perfect place to use this strategy. With so many carts abandoned by customers who are logged into a site, this is a great place to start to add value. We’ve roughly calculated that based upon an average shopping cart value of X and a cart abandonment rate of Y there are $ Z in missed sales opportunities that could be saved. So we developed workflow that securely transfer data to us and allows us to print dynamic postcards and letters within hours. This results in quite impressive response rates and allows for segmenting, multi-variate testing on the fly so that the strategies mimic the kind of strategies used by digital campaigns. This is not direct mail as it is commonly understood, it is highly targeted, highly personalized and very immediate. Low volume mail can have high yields when these conditions exist.

But the same rules apply to many online situations, not just online retail. CRM tools are the basis for most customer relationships online so similar strategies can be used. A financial institution has home address and can track activity on a website and send out a high value mail piece triggered by that activity. Recency, frequency and value factors can be included in the queries that select who will receive the mail piece and purges will eliminate repetitive mailing to the same customer.

In a way, we’ve come full circle in our development. What was old is new again and we find that introducing some highly personalized printed mail to the digital strategy is perfectly in line with the thinking that built stores to support e-commerce. Using a physical approach to a digital strategy is worth considering as part of the mix now that it can be automated and short runs of high value communications flow as easily as automated email and programmatic triggers.

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Direct Marketing.

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stevef@dmn.ca'

Steve Falk

As president and owner of Prime Data, Steve Falk leads a tremendously talented and engaged team. He's earned all of his adult income with businesses that put things in the mail and continually searches for opportunities where mail can add the most value to customer and donor communications.

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