Friday, December 14, 2007

Direct Mail: Dinosaur in the Digital Age

by Michael Crozier

Direct Mail has long been a major advertising media for businesses of all sizes. Here I examine how technology and lifestyle changes could spell disaster for junk mail.

Direct mail is a dinosaur in today's digital world. Whether or not it's ready for a place in the New York Museum of Natural History next to T Rex depends on its ability to evolve. We live in the “Age of Digital Darwinism." Businesses, advertising agencies and advertising media need to adapt and evolve in order to survive.

It's going to be an uphill battle to survive. Direct mail has a lot working against it.

First and foremost is cost. Of all the media available to advertisers, direct mail has the highest cost per thousand customers reached. When the “CPM” or “cost per thousand of direct mail is compared with television, radio, print, outdoor or online media, it is clearly the highest, and has been for many years. Even with advances made in digital printing and attempts the postal service has made at automating their operations, direct mail remains an inefficient way to get an advertising message across.

Creating and producing a direct mail campaign is also a very time consuming and cumbersome venture involving many people and processes. This only adds to its inefficiency.

There's a lot involved in executing a direct mail campaign. A “short list” of production steps includes mailing list selection and cleaning … printing … inserting letters, brochures and other contents into the envelope … addressing … getting post office approval for 3rd class bulk mailings and complying with other requirements for rate discounts … transporting … mailing … processing undeliverable mail and fulfillment.

Unless you're a small retailer doing a small preprinted post card mailing, it can take weeks or even months to get a direct mail message into the hands of the target audience. In today's electronic world, time is a precious commodity and speed is essential to many marketers..

Another thing direct mail has going against its survival is it's “junk mail” image. Direct mail is “mother spam”. Unsolicited 3rd class bulk mailings have been plaguing America for generations. Even with “do not mail lists” and other attempts to regulate direct mail advertisers, it seems almost impossible to keep “junk mail” from clogging up people's mail boxes.

The majority of direct mail is poorly designed and produced. Some of it is created that way intentionally. In their quest to be “hard-hitting” and “offer-driven, direct marketers have come up with formats resembling telegrams, invoices, bank checks with envelopes announcing “Free Money”, “Your Check Is Enclosed” or “Important News About Your Mortgage”. They do this for one reason - it appeals to the basic human greed factor, and experience shows it works.

Finally, direct mail is not very “environmentally friendly”. Even with advances in recycling technology and other conservation efforts by the paper industry direct mail, so its green opponents claim. “kills a lot of trees”. To make matters worse, most residential direct mail goes directly into the trash, unopened and un-recycled.

If most people agree direct mail is expensive, time consuming, annoying, low class and wasteful, how come it's still being used? There are several good reasons.

Direct mail has traditionally been the best way to finely target your audience both geographically and demographically. The “Zip+4” code at the end of your mailing address tells not only where you live, it also gives a good indication of how much you earn. Your name also appears on commercial mailing lists compiled on the basis of your magazine subscriptions, stores you shop at, vacations and other personal criteria. When merged and analyzed together they provide a more finely defined target audience that radio or television ever could.

Supporters of direct mail have long claimed it was the only way to deliver such a finely targeted audience. For many years, they were correct. Technology today, however, is changing all that. With cable and satellite TV that pass through boxes in almost every home, cellular phone technology and, of course, the internet, advertisers can now use TV, print and internet ads to target their messages even more finely than with direct mail. Strike One.

Another reason direct mail has survived is because of its ability to personalize the message directly to the recipient. Laser printing and addressing technologies developed in the 1960s and 1970s made it possible to address you by name not only on the envelope, but inside the mailing in the letter and brochure as well. Once again direct mail supporters claimed it was the only media that could deliver this degree of personalization. Once again for a while, it was true. Now the same technology that makes other media more finely targeted, makes them more personalized too. Strike Two.

Historically, direct mail has always been an important means of communication between people. But today with email and cell phones, direct mail is becoming less and less of a “preferred” means of personal and business communications worldwide. Email is instantaneous and it's free!

A growing number of people choose to receive invoices, bank and credit card statements, advance notice of preferred customer sales, pay bills and receive payments, all electronically by email. People are sending fewer and fewer greeting cards by mail, and sending free “e cards” instead, so much so that the major greeting card companies are being forced to get into the e card business. Strike Three?

It's purely a case of what I call “Digital Age Darwinism”. Today any business, or advertising and communication medium like direct mail, needs to evolve and adapt in order to survive.

Source: Associated For more articles by Michael Crozier - click here.

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