The comeback of direct mail

Unfashionable and unloved, direct mail is experiencing a revival as a channel to reach high-value prospects with highly-personalised messages. Paul Snell finds out what’s behind the resurgence, and how to take advantage

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

What Mark Twain was reported to have said on the mistaken publication of his obituary could equally apply to direct mail.

Gyro founder Graham Dodridge says his agency was sending out more than one million pieces of direct mail a month by the late 1990s. But spend ultimately dwindled to zero, squeezed by the development of the internet and DM’s unfashionable status.

As marketers try to find an alternative to the digital spam clogging inboxes, DM is back in vogue. And in 2018, a DM project beat all the competition to scoop top prize at the B2B Marketing Awards. This isn’t the DM of 20 years ago. Like a popstar who faded into obscurity, it’s reinvented itself and is now on the comeback trail. 

A ‘desk-thumping’ opportunity

There are a variety of reasons why marketers are returning to direct mail. “With the general fatigue of digital marketing, the restrictions of GDPR, and lack of customer engagement through those channels, there’s a real opportunity for direct mail,” says Kate Gorringe, creative director at agency Mr B and Friends.

With inboxes stuffed, a piece of direct mail has the chance to make an impact because of its novelty factor. The rarity of receiving something through the post combined with the ‘desk-thumping’ effect of the DM itself.

There’s also an element of nostalgia at play, according to Graham Dodridge, now chairman and founder of agency Silver. In an all-consuming digital world, there is greater appreciation for a tactile, authentic, and even artisanal experience.

The other big factor in DM’s resurgence in popularity is the rise of account-based marketing. ABM requires a highly targeted, highly personalised approach – something that DM delivers in spades. ABM campaigns at agency Really B2B always contain a DM element, says marketing director Gemma Roalf. “With people being so focused on ABM, they want to do that really creative piece,” she adds.

Moving with the times

Today’s DM bears little resemblance to the ‘junk mail’ approach that has in part contributed to the channel’s unfashionable legacy. It’s crucial, says Kate, not to think of it as a piece of direct mail and instead about who you’re trying to reach, how to reach them and how to engage them to dictate the creative approach.

“We’re looking for opportunities where we can be highly-targeted, where we’re trying to target high-value customers we know by name, and send them something of value. Something that’s highly-personalised that can be directly followed up by a sales person. That’s where we see the real value in direct marketing.”

It’s the same story at Really B2B, where there are three types of DM: A more traditional, high-volume DM; what it calls ‘dream DM’ which is a more creative and conceptual piece; And the third type takes the ‘dream’ piece one step further by making it even more personalised.

The devil’s in the data

This new approach means DM is rarely, if ever, used as a standalone campaign. It is incorporated as one part of the nurture journey. 

“There’s enormous value when it’s integrated,” says Kate. “We tease people before they get anything through digital channels. We’ve found if you send them something of value they’ll tweet it, and then you can leverage that.

“It’s treating the DM as an event that we can showcase to a wider audience. It’s not just about the one package, but about all the activity around that you can use to amplify your campaign.”

The overarching element that underpins this new approach to DM is its focus on data. It’s important for two reasons – you need insight into your prospects to inform your approach to the creative, and you need the data to be in top shape to ensure your high-value piece reaches its target.

Compared to email marketing, you have less visibility on deliverability when you are physically sending something out. Gemma advises making sure you cleanse your data a stage further before you send it out. For her, this means calling head offices to make sure the prospects are still there. They would never, she says, send DM as part of a cold list – always to those who had engaged with the brand previously.

DM has always been perceived as expensive when compared with digital channels. While the days of £100,000 budgets for DM may be in the past, the expense is now something that distinguishes it from other channels. Whereas the cost per piece would have been around £1-£2 two decades ago, now you’d be looking to spend closer to £50-£75 a piece. Remember, the trade-off is that high-value customers are now the target and runs are far smaller.

“You’re talking to customers who might be placing orders upwards of half a million pounds,“ says Kate. “Sending them an envelope that costs £2 is a waste of money. The cost is one-step down from taking people out to lunch.”

Case study: DM working with ABM

IT business NIIT was looking for a way it could change perceptions within air transport communications business SITA. Really B2B designed an ABM campaign that would transform NIIT’s positioning from a delivery supplier to an innovation partner.

DM was introduced at the halfway point of the campaign, following an office ‘takeover’ event that had already engaged the decision-making unit. Targets were sent a bespoke flight ticket in which NFC technology was embedded. This connection drove them to a microsite online which served bespoke content around their unique challenges – and how NIIT could overcome them.

The second part of the DM saw individuals sent a suitcase containing a book, which brought the content on the microsite to life. Reinforcing the level of understanding NIIT had about them, prospects also received a book on a topic of personal interest to them.

The DM was only one element of this integrated ABM campaign, but it resulted in six new project opportunities, £3 million in expected revenue and 80 new contacts on NIIT’s radar.

What does a great piece of DM look like?

Like any great piece of B2B marketing, it should be the customer rather than the channel that governs the approach. Mr B and Friends wouldn’t reach the 75 architects they wanted to target with their campaign for Siniat (see box) through LinkedIn posts or sending out repeated emails. They needed to put something in front of the prospect that they were interested in and would excite them. If you can demonstrate you understand someone and what they’re interested in, they’re more likely to respond as a customer. The proof is in the 36% response rate.

The experts advised running a teaser campaign in advance through digital channels, so prospects knew to expect something and ramp up the anticipation. At Really B2B, if running a six to 12 month campaign, a DM wouldn’t be sent until at least three months had passed. It’s an extra piece to push prospects who are familiar but not quite ready to convert, over the edge says Gemma.

Once the DM has been delivered, the follow-up campaign is crucial. The DM provides the awareness and talking points. With production volumes so much smaller today, these follow ups can be highly personal. Graham says prospects often feel compelled to take a call if what you’ve sent them has value.

Personalisation is a key plank of this value. The options are much greater than in the past, be they personalised video cards, unique URLs that point to customised microsites or individual QR codes. “It’s almost mandatory if you’re going to put the effort in. Really leverage what you can do to create the personalised experience, as it creates really great engagement opportunities,” says Kate. 

When spending such large amounts, driving ROI is vital, and there’s a perception DM doesn’t offer the same level of detailed reporting as its electronic counterparts. Technology again provides more varied and sophisticated mechanisms than in the past. URLs can be personalised, and traffic to specific pages on custom-built microsites can be tracked. 

Case study: It came from outer space

Plasterboard manufacturer Siniat wanted a campaign that would reach highly influential architects and contractors, and prove the company is a pioneer and innovator in the market.

Agency Mr B and Friends decided to launch the company’s new ‘Weather Defence’ plasterboard into space via weather balloon to prove its durability. Targets were sent a teaser campaign urging them to ‘keep up’ ahead of the launch.

Once the capsule had returned to Earth, prospects were sent a DM box featuring a bespoke badge. This contained a personalised video card, which contained footage of the launch and each video had been edited to show the individual prospect’s name being written onto the plasterboard ahead of take-off. The DM was followed by an email which sent them to a bespoke landing page.

The launch video has since been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube, and the DM received a response rate of 36%.

Sharing for the right skills

With the peak of DM more than 20 years ago, there may be a need to relearn some of the skills inhouse that have been supplanted by digital marketing techniques. 

“Creative directors that have been through that era should be sharing their knowledge with the next generation,” says Graham. “It’s a great opportunity for creatives to flex their muscles. If you haven’t grown up in a world of DM, you’re going to have to research, relearn and listen to those that have been there to help you navigate that.”

The printing industry was hit hard by the decline in mail volumes, and knowledge of printing and paper stocks is not what it once was. Kate says there is a role for the marketer to challenge printers on what is possible, and not be over-reliant on what they tell you.

There are further considerations. Manufacturing and shipping need to be factored into production schedules. Fulfillment too needs scrutiny. If you’re sending DM internationally, postage can add a huge cost to the campaign, and you or your client don’t want to be stung with an additional bill that wasn’t accounted for. Early buy-in to the DM concept from brand guardians is also vital, because it’s not as easy to course correct as on a digital campaign.

Ultimately though producing a great piece of DM requires the same components as it did in the past. As Graham says: “To execute fantastic direct mail requires lots of black coffee, hard thinking and late nights.”

Case study: Dell EMC’s lightbulb moment

Dell EMC wanted to get noticed and generate appointments with IT managers and CIOs. Agency Silver decided a DM campaign would provide the best differentiation and leave a lasting impression on the prospects.

The DM itself included a self-activating Edison lightbulb (which represented the need for incremental innovation), a personalised letter, and business card signed by the account manager. The focus was on quality, with special finishes such as anti-scuff lamination and using quality paper stocks. The lightbulb was also made with bespoke components and made-to-order circuitry to ensure it worked.

The DM was supported by emails in advance and after delivery, ahead of a call from the account manager. Each prospect was offered a face-to-face ‘free discovery session’ – a business assessment to boost conversion. 

The campaign generated a pipeline of more than £5 million, and the DM was widely shared on LinkedIn. 

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