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An Opportunity for Mindful Direct Marketing

By Rachel Plasse

Marketers across the world are in the mode of reevaluating their marketing strategies, taking into account the economic and emotional states of our target audiences as well as reduced budgets. As we do so, there’s an opportunity to reexamine both the mindset and the approach we take in our direct marketing — that which is supposed to be relevant information delivered to a specific audience.

For more than a decade, we’ve seen reports that indicate people are exposed to 5,000 ad messages a day across all media. It’s a staggering number, yet believable if we pause to imagine all the emails, sponsored posts, pop-ups, labels, TV, radio, print and out-of-home ads that we typically encounter before mid-morning. Now is high time to take a more sustainable approach to our direct marketing approaches, for the sake of our customers, our businesses and the environment. We can do that by strengthening our conscious resolve and taking better advantage of all the tools and data we have at our disposal.

It’s no secret that direct marketing is too often executed like mass marketing — going for a wide reach with generic messaging, rather than being as targeted as possible in terms of who we reach, how often we contact them and what we say. Digital marketing in all its forms has allowed us to expand our reach at very little incremental cost, so we get lazy. Why work to refine our approach when the cost to reach another 100,000 people can be around $100? Similarly, the incremental costs to print a few thousand extra mailers is half to a quarter of the cost per piece of the initial lot, making these decisions close to negligible from a budget standpoint. These considerations coupled with pressure for short-term growth have led to an orientation to maximize reach and impressions to the extent budget will allow.

While we aim and claim to be customer-centric, and while ROI’s can be positive despite these spray and pray tactics, our pre-COVID direct marketing approaches have contributed to social and environmental challenges we must acknowledge and address.

Emotionally, people expend energy with every mailer tossed, every seemingly irrelevant email received and ignored or deleted, and every ad scrolled past, skipped, or closed. It’s overwhelming. Besides that, cluttering the mailboxes, inboxes, and feeds of audiences who don’t care, being present too often to audiences that do care, and saying things that don’t matter to either of them is an impersonal approach that was irritating before. Now, with people in a heightened state of emotion, it risks causing pain and upset.

Credit: Tom Fishburne, Marketoonist
Credit: Tom Fishburne, Marketoonist

Environmentally, there is enormous waste in the volume of direct mail we generate. The USPS delivered 77.3 billion pieces of marketing mail in 2018, and, on average, 95 percent of it does not generate a response and goes straight into a trash or recycle bin. With 130 million US households, that’s nearly two pieces received per household per day.

When we’re on the receiving end of these efforts, we know how much we value relevance, succinctness, and thoughtfulness. We also know that a positive experience with a brand from the get-go encourages us to buy and buy again.

As marketers, we should know who our brand is for — and who it’s not. We know we must optimize ROI to keep our jobs, and I hope we also appreciate our responsibility to reduce waste — of our customers' time and energy, and of our planet's resources.

What Can We Do?

While we are already reevaluating and replanning, we can implement some simple, mindful approaches to steward our direct marketing for its intended purpose: to reach the right people with a message that matters to them in a channel where they will be open to experiencing it. Here’s how:

Be as targeted as your data will allow.

We are finally on a track where most businesses use a CRM, and cloud-based solutions with mobile versions are improving the volume, timeliness and accuracy of data input necessary for us to have what we need to make informed marketing decisions. We're all expending a lot of effort chasing the holy grail of the 360-degree view of the customer, but let's not let that blind us or stop us from using what we have now to the best of our abilities. Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  1. Analyze the person or household-level data you have on hand already, such as purchase information (recency, frequency or monetary value) and engagement signals such as email opens or website downloads. What can you decide from this alone? Perhaps it’s a recognition that you’re communicating monthly to past customers who haven’t responded or purchased in the last year. Maybe you can decide to shut off communications to those subscribers who have been emailed consistently without any engagement. Acknowledge who is likely to appreciate your message and do something about it, and let go of those who’ve shown no propensity to buy. As much as possible, reach out according to your customers’ key milestones, not the businesses’, such as:
    • Their birthday
    • Anniversary of their last annual donation
    • New or on sale items align with their interests indicated from previous purchases or web browsing history. Your CRM should give you some rules to apply, and smaller businesses using email platforms, such as Mailchimp, can also leverage built-in segmentation.
  2. Identify what internal information will help you better understand who is most likely to want to hear from you, and on what topics. The point of the CRM is to merge siloed data and contact lists existing among business functional areas, so keep pushing to obtain the data that would allow you to make better-informed targeting decisions.
  3. Externally, you can further enrich your audience understanding through a third-party data append to a sample of your database from a supplier like Acxiom or Experian. Appending to a small sample for analysis purposes only will keep costs down. Hundreds of demographic and psychographic data points can be accessed, and analysis can reveal the handful of differentiators that are associated with purchase behavior. Once you learn what these are, you can then append only the meaningful data points to the rest of your database for informed segmentation. Create rules to reach all those in your most likely converter groups as much as possible with relevant content and to deliver minimal or no communication to those less likely.
  4. Where data is not available, learn about your customers and target audiences through inexpensive, easy-to-run qualitative research, such as social listening, customer/subscriber surveys and phone interviews. Surveys and interviews serve the dual purposes of gaining invaluable insight, but also demonstrating that you’re interested in feedback and want to do better. Be careful to only ask what you can deliver on. For example, if you ask your subscriber list to identify their interest areas, you must then follow through to tailor your emails to the interests they indicated. If you’re a retailer, an in-store survey openly or covertly executed can be used to reveal a better sense of the customers that visit and purchase, including where they are from, their age, their reason for visiting and possible correlations to purchase behavior.
  5. Take advantage of the automated audience modeling tools available through digital ad platforms, such as those offered in Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences, Google’s Similar Audiences, and those enabled in broader ad distribution platforms from providers like TransUnion. These capabilities identify the people who look most like your desired customers, and who may be in-market, in seconds.

Reduce direct mail waste.

  1. Employ greener methods — for example, ask your printer about using materials that are recycled or partially recycled, and reduce the volume of paper in your mailers. Even if you’re a non-profit soliciting donations for a greater good, limit freebies such as notepads, return address labels and other various inserts.
  2. Rather than creating a separate mailer, take advantage of opportunities to use existing communication for your marketing message, such as an insert into a delivery box, or on the order confirmation email. You might also combine your outreach with other businesses that have similar target audiences.
  3. On the receiving end, make your preferences known by managing them, unsubscribing and getting your name and address off of mailing lists. Do keep getting what’s meaningful to you, but cut off that which is not by contacting the company directly. Likely, you’ll find there are only a dozen or so who make up most of your marketing mail volume.

We are in a crisis and have to seriously realign our marketing plans to the economic state of our businesses and the consumers who we think have an interest in our products and services. While new pressures, pain and concerns are present today, we are also breathing cleaner air and enjoying many benefits of a lesser focus on consumerism — and that highlights the environmental and social impacts of human economic activity. As we adjust to our new reality, marketers can do better than our pre-COVID normal. Let’s better employ the skills, information, data and tools that are right there, ready to use. Most importantly, let’s approach marketing with more empathy for people and for the environment.

Rachel Plasse

About Rachel Plasse

Rachel is a marketing strategist and executional team leader with 20 years of experience across industries, C to B and B to B. Her skills elevate brand engagement and maximize ROI with targeted cross-channel marketing solutions flagged by smart analytics and compelling messaging. Prior to consulting, Rachel worked for Harte-Hanks, GlaxoSmithKline, and Verizon.

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