A lot of people in charge of marketing don’t know what direct mail is. They think they do, but they don’t.
Most of them don’t like it anyway, and a lot either fear it or their wanna-be creative souls are outraged by its straightforward look and tone, and I’m sure they hate the idea that their opinions about what goes into direct mail are more or less irrelevant and nearly always turn out to be wrong.
Run of the mill bean counters are leery of direct mail because it seems expensive. Smart bean counters understand that ROI and the long term matter more than upfront cost. Really bright bean counters understand that knowledge gained from direct mail tests – and mailers must test constantly – is worth a lot of money.
Grasping the most important fact about direct mail is difficult: direct mail is not advertising. It looks like advertising and it feels like advertising, but it’s something else. Generally, advertising aims for impressions and awareness. Direct mail aims for specific responses stat! Advertising drops a message on you now in the hope that you will do something in the future.
Advertising and direct mail are alike in the sense that baseball and football are alike. You shouldn’t even think of letting advertising people run a direct mail program for the same reason you wouldn’t let Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians manage the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
I find it interesting that charities use direct mail a lot. Charities ask you to send them money in return for nothing except good feelings. And they succeed.
We see some marketers occasionally test direct mail with large postcards or envelope mailings with color brochures, but no letters that look like letters, and then say with firm conviction “We tried direct mail and it didn’t work.” Ha. You didn’t try direct mail, you used mail as a medium for advertising.
When it’s done properly, direct mail cannot fail on any scale larger than a tiny blip on an Excel chart. When it succeeds, which it eventually does, it makes scads of money, scandalous scads of money. So why has direct mail become the near-exclusive playing field of charities, political causes and catalogers?
I suspect that the key lies in the sentence way up there in the second paragraph: “Most of them don’t like it and a lot of those people either fear it or their wanna-be creative souls are outraged by its straightforward simplicity.”
Perhaps a big part of the problem is that direct mail isn’t hip, happening, cool. There are no directors’ chairs for clients to sit in. No talent to schmooze with. No commercial, website, billboard, event for clients to show to friends and families. And it’s old-fashioned. It’s snail mail. Yuck. Maybe our crash course should rename it La poste de l’escargot to give it that certain je ne sais quoi the hipsters seem to like.
Another part of the problem is that you know pretty soon how well direct mail works and which elements of a direct mail campaign are most important. A good test could bomb overall but be invaluable because it contains nuggets of information that will lead to success next time out. This scares some people because eventually there’s a detailed report card. Life’s easier when you can just issue orders and ignore their outcomes, like Ron Johnson (disastrous new CEO) at JC Penney. He blithely waved away the notion of testing his radical concepts before rolling them out nationwide. “We didn’t test at Apple” he apparently said. (Like hell they didn’t.)
And that leaves the speed and economy and reach of electronic marketing. Why would anyone use snail mail when you can go mobile and social? Good question. There’s a very good answer but it requires a crash course in direct mail to understand it.