Will your mail Fail in 2010? Warning signs that it could

When you hear any of these phrases while planning direct mail, there should be a voice in your head yelling “Danger”:

  • “We don’t need an incentive or specific call to action because the product sells itself.”
  • “It doesn’t matter when we mail because the offer is compelling.”
  • List segmentation is for the birds.”
  • “The people who didn’t respond to our solicitation the (3rd, 6th, 22nd) time didn’t read the mail. Let’s hit them a (4th, 7th, 23rd) time with a different envelope and they’ll respond.”
  • “Our customer base will buy anything we sell.”
  • "The brand is more important than the sales proposition."
  • “If everyone opted in to e-mail, why should we segment the list?”
  • “No reason why we can’t send even more offers to our opt-in list. After all, they did opt for it.”
  • “All customers are the same.”
  • "We can easily improve response rates by doubling our customer incentives."
  • "Self mailers are never effective."
  • Loyalty and retention are the same thing.”
  • "Ignore customers who complain – they are cranks and just want a freebie.”
  • "We don't need a proofreader."
  • "The more flash, the greater the response."
  • “Carpet bombing is economical because the cost per piece is low.”
  • “No one reads paper mail any more.”
  • “All e-mail is spam and no one will read it.”
  • “We used a moving applicance in our television ad. So we must include the same moving applicance on our outer envelopes.”
  • “Our direct mail should have nothing to do with our television advertising.”
  • “Let’s treat everyone like our most valuable customer because eventually they will be.” 
  • “A respond-by date is too pushy.”
  • "Our web site is unique, so there is no benefit in aligning our online benefits messaging with our mail."
  • “If the husband and wife are both on our customer list, let’s just mail to the male.”
  • “We deduped the list 6 months ago. That’s recent enough.”
  • “The Control package worked well last year, so there’s no point in testing this year.”
 Think things though ... and have a happy and successful new year.


Platinum shouldn’t smear or tear

Fail: Creative 

This 4-page closed face match mailing is similar to long-form direct mail solo packages used by American Express before the credit boom & bust. More recently, it was an offer to upgrade to the Platinum Card.

Conceptually, the creative style matches the American Express brand positioning – high end but not pretentious. This might have a basis on Control packages from the 1980’s for the basic Green Card. Each paragraph of the letter has a bold one sentence lead-in summarizing the paragraph below, with summary in the left column that is more tightly worded. This makes the letter scanable for easy understanding of product features and benefits. A prospective customer can learn details of the relevant benefits by reading the full length paragraphs. But make no mistake – this is a sales letter, complete with a signature and classic promotional Postscript.

So what is the ‘Fail’ here? The mini-brochure in the address area of the letter arrived torn, and the first page of the letter had vertical ink stains. This makes the presentation less compelling, especially when asking a consumer to forego $450 a year on your product.

From a production standpoint, closed face match mailings are more expensive to produce and require a high level of quality assurance compared to a direct mail package with a window envelope. After all, you wouldn’t want to open an envelope addressed to “Marc Davis” with salutation of “Dear Margerie Smith:” But quality assurance should not stop with matching the letter to the envelope – it includes all aspects of production at the lettershop.

Learning: Be sure the quality of production is as good as the rest of the effort put into your direct mail.

In addition, consider the hours you would have inbound telemarketing agents available relative to the product sales proposition. The response form mentions that salespeople are not available at off-peak times. Ironically, it appears just above a call-out for 24/7 Concierge Service. It may be cost-efficient in a vacuum, but does not having any salespeople available for customers on Sunday properly reflect the product or brand?


Does your old mailer have to look old?

Fail: Creative  

This self-mailer arrived in the mailbox of a 69 year old man in Nevada. We’ll call him Bob. Bob and his wife enjoy bowling, traveling, and hiking in the mountains. He works out at the gym every day. But he does not go ballroom dancing – no, dancing is for old people.  It was something Bob’s father did at Century Village in Florida. In fact, he doesn’t know of a place to go ballroom dancing anywhere in his city, nor does he have any friends who dress up to go dancing. (However, he does know of a few people his age that like to hit the disco or go to a Rolling Stones concert.)

So when the self-mailer arrived in his mailbox, Bob didn’t bother opening it. The picture on the outside did not resemble his lifestyle, so why bother reading the words? Had Bob opened the mailer, he would have seen a picture of someone old enough to be his mother.
The mailer appears to be directed at anyone in the Medicare age group, e.g. 65 or older. From a mailer’s point of view, it is easier to have one creative than several. But why use a visual that would deter a sizeable portion of the target market? Instead, the Health Plan of Nevada should have used a better picture, no picture at all, or consider segmenting the list by age.

Learning: Define and understand your target market when choosing pictures and visuals. Choose a visual that relates to the customer, or avoid one altogether.


Is the US Postal Service an eagle or turtle? Regardless, mail early.

Fail: Timing  

CostCo sends coupon self-mailers every 3 to 5 weeks. In my personal experiences, they consistently arrive in my mailbox about a week before the coupons are effective.  In fact, I occasionally see customers trying to use coupons at the store before they are valid.

So when the coupon mailer with coupons valid December 3-20 arrives in my mailbox on December 7, something is clearly wrong.  It means that CostCo missed a weekend of high-volume Christmas shopping by either mailing late or allowing the USPS to deliver slower than usual.  The address panel even has a request “Postmaster, please deliver between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1, 2009.”

I can only guess what happened, and my guess is that the US Postal Service is delivering standard rate mail slower than usual because of the holiday volume of packages, priority mail, and first class mail.  Regardless of why the mail is late, late delivery is a Fail.

Learning: Prepare for the holiday season and compensate for prolonged delivery times by mailing early.


Can’t save money that isn’t there

Fails: List, Timing   

The person receiving this letter had a 401-k account through his employer administered by Fidelity. A few weeks after he left the job, he moved the 401-k balance to a Rollover IRA with a discount broker. That took place a full month before this letter arrived from Fidelity.

Creatively, the message is on target. The outer envelope teaser cites information in the letter.  Interior lettercopy takes the tone of a consultative and informative soft-sell with a call to action to speak to a Fidelity Representative to help the customer.

However, the “Vested Balance” remaining when the letter was produced was zero, which is why the balance listed on the upper-left corner is “Unavailable”. So there was no point to Fidelity sending the letter – the customer made his decision. In this case, never is better than late.

If Fidelity is ensuring customers keep their money there after employment ends, a letter like this should mail when still relevant to the customer, e.g. 2 weeks after the key event – not 2 months. When preparing production, customers with no balance left in their 401-k should be dropped from the mailing.

Learnings: When sending an event-based letter, time the mail to arrive when relevant to the customer. Before sending a mailing, include a step to drop from the mailing list customers where the message is no longer applicable.

Is Late Better than Never?

Fail: Timing  

You’re a Marketing Manager working on the next campaign when you get that call from Production. “There’s a problem,” the production manager says, trying to sound as neutral as possible. The paper for your mass mailing didn’t arrive at the printer. The printer’s press went down. There was a freak snowstorm at the lettershop. Or something else totally random that will set your mail drop back a few days. There is no slack time left in your execution schedule because the creative agency didn’t listen to your instructions – for three rounds. You know your production specialists and vendors are doing everything they can, but that still leaves you with a choice: mail late, or abort.

Perhaps these two mailers were in this situation and chose to go ahead with the mailing. After all, much of the preparation costs are already sunk so the incremental cost is not much more than postage. Some response is better than none, right? It’s also possible that everything mailed on time but the US Postal Service delivered your mail even slower than anticipated. Still, these two mailings get a fail for arriving after Thanksgiving.

The Nutcracker plays 11/27 through 12/27, so arriving in home on 12/3 isn’t so bad. There are still 3 weeks of shows remaining.

A Thanksgiving donation message that arrives after Thanksgiving is late. This solicitation from Three Square arrived in the recipient’s mailbox on 11/29. By that time, it should have had a Christmas theme.

The letter even has a date of ‘October 2009’.

Learnings: Plan ahead for production delays. Mail on time, even a bit early. If you cannot mail on time, consider when it’s appropriate to cut your losses and not mail.


An Insecure Mailing

Fails: List, Offer, Creative, Timing  

This ADT new customer solicitation fails on several levels:

List: The recipient currently has ADT Home Security at his home for over 5 years.

Offer: The letter touts a Wireless Remote Control at a $99 value that is ABSOLUTELY FREE*. The asterisk on the back references a $99 installation charge. It also does not match the insert.

Creative: No personalization. The opening reads ATTENTION: HOMEOWNERS in both underline and bold blue, an overkill. It refers to homeowners in the plural but is mailed to the owner of only one home at a time.

The sub-head says “You have been selected to receive …” If there was a selection, the letter would have been personalized. The text is passive and in the past tense. A better creative would read, “You are selected to receive.” Or, better yet, ditch the format and use a letter approach that feels personal and believable.

The letter copy wastes space with phrases such as “… as an added benefit …”.  Just describe the benefit.

The use of numbers is inconsistent and there are typos. Sometimes the value or fee is $99.00, sometimes $99. There is generally little value in using cents on something of whole dollar value. There is no value doing it differently on one page.  An example of a typo is "post mark", which should be one word.  (Let's not forget that the envelope uses a postal permit so it doesn't even have a postmark.)

There is a call-out box about smoke dedectors next to the vital box with the call to action.  The monitored smoke dedector is an up-sell and should be left to the inbound telemarketing agent after the customer expresses an interest in the primary service being sold.  As a mention on the letter, the call-out box is a visual distraction from closing the sale and therefore a waste of space.

The insert looks like something out of ValPak, because it was in a recent ValPak mailer.

Timing: This is a low-interest category arriving the in the mail box between the Harry & David and Land’s End Holiday catalogs. At this time of year, people will toss the solo mail and open the catalogs.

It really is a shame when mail like this arrives in home. It means that an independent dealer is wasting precious money. When it comes to timing of direct mail for home security, the best time to reach out is when someone is moving into a new home. One of the most successful ADT salespeople in the local area checks for home closings at the county clerk office daily. He sends a simple postcard to the recently purchased house in that day’s mail. He knows that new home owners have cash flow issues, so he offers no payments for 60 days. This salesman admits the creative is lousy, yet he is successful because of optimal use of List, Offer, and Timing.

Learnings: Dedupe a prospect list against current customers.  Do not mail a non-personalized solo mail package. Communicate with personalization and in an active, persuasive tone. Be consistent with use of numbers. Do not sell multiple items on one letter. Do not mail an offer for a low-interest category during the holiday shopping season.


Hallmark: When you care enough to send the very best offer, but a bit late

Fail: Timing 

This holiday mailer arrived from Hallmark in the mail on Saturday, November 7. It offers some special deals and discounts, but only Nov 7 & 8. That means that by the time it arrived in-house, half of the sale period had passed.

A similar timing error often takes place with e-mail. Many merchants believe that e-mail should arrive on the first morning of a 1 or 2-day special to encourage impulse buying, but that fails to discount the brick & mortar aspect of retail. A customer still needs to drive to a store and therefore must plan time to drive to the store.

Learning: If you are going to communicate a short-term offer or sale at a store, time it so it arrives in home at least a full day before the sale starts. With e-mail, you can be precise with timing but it is not as easy with snail mail.

Also, Hallmark doesn’t get a fail but a C- for offering an opt-out option using black ink over a red background on an inside page.  The text cannot get any more difficult to notice or read


With mail, there are many second chances but only one Last Chance

Fail: Creative & Timing 

A follow-up mailing that arrives in home two weeks after the initial mailing will lift overall response.  The amount of the lift varies depending on the product or service. In mailings I managed, the lift varied from 20% - 100%.  An effective remail assumes the customer saw the first mailing, so it should reinforce the same benefits with a modified message. 

An effective remail approach is shown in this DIRECTV interest follow-up letter.  The same features of the Choice package are highlighted, however the Johnson Box, opening, and some body copy changed from the original. There is also a different phone number, allowing DIRECTV to measure raw inbound response from the mailing.  (They could also consider a speicific URL on the remail, allowing them to measure online response.)

The local radio station also followed-up it's self-mailer with a postcard offering free shoes on Tuesdays – still showing only shoes for women –  but using different pictures.

The Fail goes to Money Magazine for these mailings I received that arrived within days of each other:

Both use the exact same outer envelope, layout and copy, word for word.   Both of them tout “LAST CHANCE” even though one is really the second-to-last chance. The only difference is the respond-by date.  And they actually arrived the same week.

A better use of the Money's money would be for the both letters to use a similar creative template but the first mailer have a core message of “Time is Running out” and the follow-up mailer include the “Last Chance” message. Or better yet, use a low-cost e-mail to communicate the same message timed to arrive around the same time as the mail.

Learnings: If you use a 2-drop mail tactic:
• Time your maildrops so that maildrops arrive two weeks apart, not on top of each other.
• Don’t insult the customer by claiming a final opportunity for your product when it really isn’t.
• Differentiate the creative but maintain the same core messages so that the second letter reinforces the first one.
• If your have an opt-in e-mail list, coordinate the timing of communications so that one channel reinforces the message of the other channel. 


Timing is Important

I modified my original post to add a fourth element of basic best practices for successful mail & e-mail.  Timing is a key element of any marketing communication.  It should arrive at a time that is relevant to the customer. 

With the holiday season approaching, now is the right time for marketers to focus on things relevant to the giving gifts, whether it is a holiday gift for family or friends, or giving the gift of charity for those less fortunate.  Mid-November through late December is not a time to spend limited marketing dollars soliciting customers for low-interest categories such as phone service.  To quote Bob Stone, direct marketing guru and writer of  Successful Direct Marketing Methods, to the best of my recollection, "Once JCPenny has it's first Christmas sale, little else matters."  That sale is typically the second weekend in November.  This year, it could even be this coming weekend.

Likewise, a good time to actively market health products and financial services is January and February.  Consumers are past the holidays, looking at their waistline and their credit card and bank statements.  Many enter a period of self-reflection.  This will be a good time to offer savings tools, higher interest rates on savings and lower interest rates on credit cards.  In recent years, many banks used the first quarter to roll out acquisitions offers with teaser rates and low promotional balance transfer APRs.  (However, the rules changed with Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, so this may not be the case next year.) 

If you have a great tool for managing budgets or a dietary supplement to offer, it would be a Fail to mail or e-mail an offer now.  Likewise, if you sell gift baskets, it would be a Fail to mail a catalog in January.


Buy This! No, get that! Maybe this and that -- if you can find them.

Fail: Creative

As a longtime customer of AT&T, it’s good to know that the company does not take my business for granted. This simple communication is respectful of that. It arrived in a plain window envelope, which is sure to get a high open rate among existing customers. After all, the recipient does not know if it is a bill, Change in Terms Notice, cross-sell, or perhaps a refund check. The body of the communication is simple and straightforward and avoids footnote overkill, saving the required fine print for disclosures. Nevertheless, the creative merits a Fail because:

• The call to action and response methods are buried in the body of the letter, making them hard to find.
• There is a description of features, but minimal focus on benefits of the bundled services.
• The close does not incite action or reinforce the call to action. Granted, this concept is designed as a soft up-sell, but the last paragraph or the P.S. could be used to remind the customer of the specific phone number or to visit the specific URL before the offer expiration date or at least “soon”.
• The P.S. does not tie to the body of the letter and has no call to action. Consumers who open mail typically read the P.S. first, before the body of the letter. But the P.S. does not mention the $67.99 telecom bundle – it mentions DIRECTV. A basic direct mail rule of thumb is that you cannot sell two things at once. Richard V Benson wrote this on page 2 of “Secrets of Direct Mail” more than 20 years ago, and he likely was not the first. But this letter tries to sell both a telecom bundle and a non-bundled TV service.

• The response channel is not aligned with the solicitation. The letter communicates a $67.99 per month package, but that is not the first thing found at the letter-specific URL. Also, there is no mention at all of DIRECTV on the landing page. (The phone number for DIRECTV service is in very small print on the back of the letter.)

Learnings: Make your call to action easy to find. Optimize use of your P.S. Do not sell more than one product or bundle in one letter. If you sell something in direct mail, ensure that your response channels are fully in sync with your solicitation to sell that product first before attempting to up-sell.

The letter also has an odd use of punctuation. For example, there are no periods at the end of the bulleted sentences, but there are periods separating the digits in the phone number 1.800.695.8242. This is the first I have seen this approach used in DM the United States -- and it is not used on any other communication from AT&T or even on the back of the letter. The en-dash is used a couple times to break a thought in a sentence, however there is no space before or after the dash. (However there is space around the dashes when listing call center availability times.)


It's been too long ...

Fail: List and Creative

DIRECTV sent me this letter opening with “Thank you for your interest in DIRECTV.” That ‘interest’ was a phone call to their sales center 7 months ago.

Other than the well intentioned but outdated opening, the creative package is generally appropriate for the product bundle. It is aligned with the messaging, branding, and color palette DIRECTV uses in other channels.  It also demonstrates effective use of a Johnson Box and an easy to find call to action.
Learning: When referencing a customer’s interest, use a fresh list and send the follow-up letter on a timely basis.

In Houston, It’s “Mail Early and Mail Often”

Fail: List
The election for mayor is heating up in Houston. We have 4 major candidates with no explicit party affiliation. To get their political message to voters, candidates often use direct mail. This piece from Peter Brown's campaigh demonstrates using mail as a part of an integrated direct marketing mix including a web site, facebook, YouTube, twitter, and SMS.

So why is this a Fail? Because I received the same piece twice on the same day, both addressed to me. One could joke that someone communicating “Making Government More Efficient” should starting by doing a dedupe of the contact list.

Learning: Dedupe your list so you don’t mail to the same voter twice.


Maybe they should mail to Imelda

Fail: List and Creative

Radio stations have variety of promotions to get people to listen to their station and use direct mail to reach out to existing and prospective listeners.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I received this self-mailer addressed to me.  The target person is male, and the offer is the opportunity to win a pair of shoes.  All the visuals are for women's shoes.

Learning: If your target market is just women, use typical gender identification to mail to females.  If you want men to tune in, include some Bostonians or Nike running shoes in the visuals.


Beauty is in the eye of the list holder

Fail: List

This self-mailer from Sally Beatuy was sent to someone who never used that name, to an address she moved away from a few years ago.

Learnings: Be sure your list is accurate.  Target only people who have recent activity or live at the current address on file.

Nutcracker - a dated show using a dated list

Fail: List
This mailer for a Nutcracker themed charity event was mailed to someone who last saw the show 6 years ago. It was mailed to an address she has not used in 4 years. 

The creative was extravagant and well designed, but it was sent to someone who is not interested and to an out of date address.

Learnings: Refresh the list.  Verify the address, or consider mailing only to people who had recent activity with your organization.


Why Does Mail Fail?

Whether part of a Customer Relationship Management approach or a solo direct mail solicitation, there are many factors that go into a successful direct marketing campaign: product, list, offer, creative, timing, brand, back-end support, fulfillment, and of course testing and more testing.  However all too often, mail fails -- or succeeds despite itself -- because marketers neglect the basic best practices:
  • List: Reach out to someone who would be interested in your product or service, at that person's address, using that person's accurate name. 
  • Offer: The offer includes your product and a potential action motivator. The motivator may be a free item, entry in a contest, discounted shipping, or discount if the customer responds in a short-time frame. Whatever the offer, it should be relevant or the targeted list and complement the product.
  • Creative: The layout, design, and copy should be appropriate for list, product, and offer. The design should get the message across in the least amount of time at the lowest cost within postal standards. 
  • Timing: Mail & e-mail should arrive at home at a time that is relevant to the customer.
These basic principals apply whether you are sending e-mail or physical mail.

Using real examples, I will show examples of mail & e-mail that neglected the basics.

If you have an example of failed mail or e-mail to share, please e-mail a scanned image to mailthatfailstoday@gmail.com. Be sure to remove or block any personal identifiable information.