According to the latest annual Advertising Association/WARC Expenditure Report published in April 2019, UK advertising spending on direct mail in 2018 topped £1.5bn.

Impressive though that figure is, it represents an 8.5% fall on 2017, broadly in line with the decline in ad spend on newspapers and magazines as traditional media continue losing ground to digital alternatives such as search marketing and online display.

But before you get too gloomy, there are reasons to be optimistic for direct mail. Recent customer engagement research from the Direct Marketing Association found that while only 30% of marketers use post to communicate with customers, 41% of consumers put it among their favourite ways to be contacted by brands.

Clearly, direct mail continues to offer great marketing and engagement opportunities. So what steps can you take to get direct mail right? And on the flipside, where do people most often go wrong?

Direct marketing luminary Judith Donovan, chair of the Strategic Mailing Partnership (SMP), the professional body representing the interests of mailing houses across the UK, says a common mistake is to think of direct mail as just an ad in an envelope rather than a piece of one-to-one communication. Often, she says, creators of direct mail pieces, “get so bogged down in copy detail because of extra space they lose all clarity of proposition and can’t see the wood for the trees”.

She says: “I used to say to my copywriters, ‘if you can’t summarize the whole of the offer in one sentence on the envelope you haven’t cracked it’.”

Conversely, she adds, there is also the risk of getting overly hung up on “pretty pictures”. And by so doing, losing sight of the fact that this is first and foremost a copy medium.

Matt Galloway, director of print and media specialists Galloways, says too many companies still consider ‘Dear whoever’ to be the high-water mark of personalisation. But in his experience, the best ROI for customers is achieved by completely targeted and personalized mailings through the whole print project. This could involve imagery/text amends, focused areas of interest, gender or age specific adaptation and other personalization arising from insight into the audience.

“Rather than doing 5,000 brochures, using targeted campaigns with a more strategic approach – say with 1,000 mailings – often gives better results,” says Galloway. “However, the skill then is analyzing the market and doing follow-up pieces.”

Data rules

Signal managing director Barney Hosey argues the most common error is a failure to build campaigns around the data. Too often, he says, data is run at a point where it’s too late to drive individual level personalisation: a hangover from the days when the creative process happened way before the data selections were made, and was then followed up with fairly generic personalisation by the direct mail supplier.

“With sophisticated decision-making, CRM capability and affordable digital printing, most brands now have the opportunity to genuinely tailor messages at a customer level,” adds Hosey. “But this requires the data planning and design to run as a holistic process. Ensuring this is about planning and getting your direct mail supplier involved at the outset, so they can consult on, connect and guide the requirements of both the data and design teams.”

Undoubtedly, there are many options and techniques for creating standout campaigns. Innovative formatting, creative styling or effective personalisation will all grab attention. All the more so if executed in a manner which emphasises the tactile and emotive qualities of mail in a way that resonates with the end consumer.

But it’s important to recognise the danger of simply repeating their own, or their competitors’, regularly tried and tested approaches. This lack of imagination may well mean missing a trick.
The best direct marketing printers will be delighted to work with a client to push the boundaries of print and test new tactics, producing mail in the most commercially effective way and also adding value to achieve the best possible ROI.

However, many users of direct mail fall short because they neglect to properly track campaign response and fail to be rigorous when it comes to ROI measurement.

“Too often,” laments Pureprint Group business development director Owen Purkis, “we see mailings to promote a product or service with no clear way of measuring the success of the campaign. It really doesn’t matter if we advise them and produce the best responding mail pack of all time, if they are not able to attribute sales back to it and be able to calculate the ROI that the direct mail has attributed.”

Pureprint advises its clients to mail more frequently to bigger volumes. While this may seem like obvious and self-serving advice coming from a direct mail producer, Purkis explains that too often he sees brands produce a ‘let’s try the direct mail channel’ mailer. This entails producing the cheapest piece of direct mail possible and sending it to a relatively small number of people with a view to building a business case for direct marketing.

“These are often poorly produced with no real measurement and sent to such a small database that it is always going to be difficult to drive a significant response,” says Purkis.

“We understand only too well the importance of keeping the pack costs down but there are ways of doing that without sacrificing the pack creative. And a secondary follow up/reminder postcard often adds a second spike of response to get the most out of the campaign and keeps the brand at the forefront of the recipient’s mind.”

Yet at the other end of the scale, some brands are reaping benefits by pushing the boundaries with respect to what it’s now possible to produce, so as to derive maximum impact from their direct mail budget. Pureprint has recently produced pop-up mailings, scented mailings and even mailings that contain augmented reality interaction. Purkis expects growth in innovation of this kind to continue. For the best results, he also recommends clients follow the 80:20 rule under which 20% of the direct mail budget goes into testing.

“With the tools available like JIC Mail and the many tools and incentives that MarketReach are offering, there is plenty of help and support to make this channel work,” says Purkis.
“We are working closely with our clients at concept stage to ensure they make the most of this highly effective channel.”

Clients also have a role to play in improving outcomes, argues Paragon customer communications client development director Nick Barbeary. In his view, a widespread reluctance to share information on responses (in terms of what does or doesn’t work, doubtless due to commercial sensitivities) makes it harder to develop effective future campaigns. Moreover, he feels that “engaging earlier” with suppliers would be beneficial for planning, formatting and achieving budgets.

New fans

Some might presume that mail could seem like an old hat to the younger consumers steeped in the online world, so-called digital natives. On the contrary, says Paul Spiers, managing director of Amplifier and Amplifier Academy. In fact, he asserts that for some of the younger demographic groups who have had no significant historical relationship with print, direct mail’s impact is increasing.

Although Spiers believes creative and intelligent direct mail remains a highly effective means of customer engagement, too many campaigns are still hampered by insufficient clarity as to what’s wanted from the audience.

“I still see direct mail pieces that are missing a defined ‘call to action’ or pieces with too many confusing messages, or where the brand clearly expects the recipient to join the dots for themselves and understand what they need to do next,” says Spiers. “You can’t make any assumptions – you need a coherent, relevant message based on audience needs and a clear call to action.”

Other errors that leave Spiers exasperated are, seeing the distribution of a direct mail piece as the end of the campaign – when it’s really the start; and wastefully sending out a fantastic piece of direct mail to a largely redundant database.

The SMP’s Donovan makes another important point about targeting; namely, that it’s a great “suppression tool”. Or as she likes to explain it in a pleasingly straightforward way: there’s no point offering greenhouses to people in flats.

In her opinion, a good mailing house adds value by helping clients with shape, size, paper and personalization, and by ensuring they don’t pay a fortune in postage by maximizing all the incentives and discounts. On top of that, direct mail suppliers can help ‘fill’ the pack. “If it’s two-thirds postage cost, why would you not go up to the weight limit?” Donovan observes.
“Looking at what comes through my letterbox, in general existing direct mail users haven’t a clue.

“But list and data companies can provide high-level input on the best list to mail and the right agencies can make it look beautiful and read powerfully.”