Don’t count the mail out in a digital multichannel universe

Neil O’Keefe, vice president multichannel, Direct Marketing Association, United States, explains all to Post&Parcel. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” – Samuel Clemens

When people began to talk about Mark Twain in the past tense, he had to speak out to let everyone know he was still alive and kicking.

More and more lately, the same kind of thing has been happening to the mail. But jumping to the conclusion that mail is finished is just as premature as Sam Clemens’ obituary.

As little as ten years ago marketing could mostly control how customers heard from us. We picked the time and the channel, we decided what was appropriate, and we put the communications out there.  If that approach still worked, we would find it a simple matter to migrate consumers to less expensive online engagement, away from expensive printing and postage charges.

There is just one thing wrong: marketing does not control much of anything anymore. Now the consumer decides how, when and where to engage in two way dialogue.  While there is no longer a dominant method of communicating with consumers, it is also clear that lots of people still want mail to play a prominent role in the conversation.  Just take a look at the facts.

Direct Marketing in the US is a $1.7trillion business

Use of direct mail and/or catalogues to market directly to consumers drives more than $556bn in US sales annually. That is a lot of business, about one third of the total $1.7 trillion in annual US sales generated by all direct advertising channels.

By contrast, direct response advertising on the internet, including search, combined with email and mobile marketing, still makes up less than 30% of total direct channel sales.  However, the digital channels are growing rapidly, with marketing to mobile devices leading the way at an expected 45% growth rate.

Direct marketing has grown exponentially with the growth of the internet, a trend that will certainly continue as mobile networks carry on with the current evolution of smartphone and e-reader apps that we see taking hold in almost every walk of life.

With all this technical progress has come greater competition, especially as traditional retailers have become more proficient in the technical precepts of direct marketing. This trend will intensify over the next five years and with it will come greater and more adept use of email and short messaging to keep communication personal, timely and relevant.

Where do we go from here?

What is next?  That is always the question. Mobile apps and social media will most definitely continue to play an ascending role in marketing over the near future.

Take social media, which some consider to be the ultimate word of mouth advertising. If you knew that many of your customers would tell 500 or more of their friends about your brand, would you pay attention? Actually, 25% of consumers who participate in social media have 500 or more friends.  Every time they engage with a brand, their friends find out all about it, good and bad.

Or look at mobile marketing, with approximately 76% of the US population carrying at least one mobile device.  Advancements in technology and affordability have equipped 88% of mobile users to receive text messages, and today 64% of them can access the internet with their handhelds.  That number is currently expanding very quickly.

There is no surprise that mobile marketing has its strength among younger customers for now, but what is significant is that short messaging service (SMS) or texting is by far the most prevalent across all demographics.  Europe and Asia lead in this area, and their success is a call to action for those U.S. marketers who are not yet engaged in mobile marketing.  Why wait for the perfect app when you can engage your customer right now with a simple SMS message?

Meanwhile, simple text messaging can be an excellent supplement to personalised catalogues and targeted mail devoted to existing customer relationship management, loyalty, and retention programmes. Messaging is also a good way to facilitate communication with lapsed customers who may no longer justify a catalogue.

As the balance of channels shifts and expands, print media will continue to complement not just mobile marketing but all the direct channels for one to one customer communication. Other marketing channels may be more efficient and require less lead time, but nothing short of face to face in person selling conveys the lifestyle appeal of a brand better than print.

Posts are developing technology in support

Today the postal service is deploying networking technology using Intelligent Bar Codes on mail pieces that allow marketers access to accurate and highly timely delivery information, and provide them with the ability to plan with precision exactly what day and date they want their messages to enter a household.

This valuable new management tool adds an important dimension to a traditional and proven effective marketing channel.  In an integrated marketing campaign, attention getting, relevant mail can be used to time the deployment of a website, an email or even a mobile coupon campaign.  GPS data that can show the proximity of specific locations will increasingly tie into mobile marketing efforts, particularly among retailers, adding even more capability to the one to one direct marketing mix.

Clearly, ‘the sky’s the limit’ for full integration of all the online and offline marketing communications channels, based on the ability to collect and analyse data.  The balancing act of channels (stores, mail/catalogues and online/phone) will drive retailing success as traditional retailers become more direct, and as online success stories expand into other channels such as catalogues and stores to compete with larger rivals and grow strong brands.

This article was published in March 2010’s Mail & Express Review.  To subscribe to the industry’s leading quarterly publication, please click here.

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