Mail Early, Mail Often, and Don't Fail

The 2010 election is behind us, so it's time to share some lessons about failed political mail.

As with direct mail used for marketing purposes, political mail can Fail for List, Creative, and Timing.  An example of a Creative Fail is when the wrong message is conveyed to a constituency, as with Al Edwards in Texas earlier this year.

On election day, I received this self-mailer supporting a proposition on the Houston, Texas ballot:

The message is clear, friendly, and persuasive.  So why the Fail?  For List.  It was mailed to me in Arlington, VA, presumably because I used to live in and was registered to vote in Houston.  However, my voter registration moved to Virginia more than six months ago.  Given that they were mailing close to the election date, the people behind the mailing should have dropped anyone that might have voted via absentee ballot as well as those who cannot legally vote in Houston.

Here is an easy Fail for Timing

This oversized postcard from the Chris Zimmerman campaign arrived on November 3, the day after the election.  The use of black copy over dark backgrounds such as in the "Supporting our environment" box makes some text unreadable.  This is sadly typical of quickly produced political direct mail, not exceptionally bad enough to call it an outright Fail.

  1. Send your political mail only to people who can vote for your election when they still have the opportunity to choose how to vote.  
  2. Use adequate color contrast to ensure people can read your message.


Amtrak's fulfillment mailing: Delayed

Outer envelope front
This fulfillment card carrier for the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program arrived via standard mail on October 27.  I joined the program online during the first week in July and made my first points-earning trip on July 11.  It took Amtrak 3 1/2 months to welcome me to the program and mail me a card.  This long delay makes an easy Fail for Timing.  One might claim the mail was slow, but the postmark on the outer envelope shows it was mailed in October.   

A delayed welcome mailing or new customer greeting will make an initial positive perception sour. 

Outer envelope back

Lesson: When you have a new customer, greet that customer right away while the introduction to your product or service is fresh in your customer's memory. 
rewards card carrier & info
card carrier flap


Save the Date, or Save the Fail?

This self-mailer from BJ's Warehouse promotes the opening of a new warehouse store.  This is actually the third in a series sent to the area.  The first was a postcard with an offer to sign up for the club in advance of store opening.  The second was a similar postcard. The third: this self-mailer.

The 3-panel roll-out effectively communicates that BJ's Warehouse Club is going to have a grand opening celebration.  It gives the reader a reason to visit during the opening weekend, reasons to become BJ's customer, and leverages a co-promotion with MasterCard.  It conveys a sense of excitement and savings.

So, why a Fail for Creative?  The self-mailer does not mention the specific date.  It mentions that the opening is "This Weekend", but who knows if that was the weekend of October 9th, the weekend of the 16th, or perhaps the weekend of the 25th?

The self-mailer arrived in my neighborhood on October 12, the day after Columbus Day and a Tuesday.  Was it possible that the mail arrived late and the opening was missed?  One neighbor thought that was the case, while another neighbor guessed that because the new location was not mentioned on BJ's store locations page, that perhaps it had not yet opened.

Turns out, they were both right.  The store had a soft opening in early October as well as an official opening in mid-October.  Although it was not clear on the mailer which day it occurred, the Grand Opening celebration and MasterCard drawing for Washington Redskins tickets was on Saturday, October 16.

BJ's was fortunate that the mail arrived and timing was properly managed, but made the mistake of assuming that consumers knew that and also read their mail on a timely basis.  They should remember that some people let their mail stack a few days before reading.

Lesson: Even when timing arrival of your mail with precision, clearly communicate effective dates of your promotion.


Should PetSmart's Fail go to the Dead Letter Office?

When I received this self-mailer from PetSmart on September 21, I planned to post it as a quick Fail for Timing.  The coupon redemption period from a consumer standpoint is only 12 days.  The address panel includes a request for in-home delivery 8/30-9/1, which suggests that the Fail might belong to the USPS for slow delivery.  The holiday mailing season has yet to start, so why would mail arrive this slowly?

Addressed to Jazz c/o Marc Davis

Then I noticed that it was addressed not to me, but to Jazz, my dead dog.  Jazz was truly man's best friend.  He thought that every stranger was a friend he hadn't met.  I met more than a few nice people with him along.  Jazz barked only at mylar balloons and enjoyed playing with squeaky toys.  He passed away about 18 months ago at a fair age of 14.
Great festive creative
When I received a similar mailer about a year ago, I called PetPerks to inform them that my dog died.  The customer service person was sympathetic when he said he would remove Jazz from their files.  And yet, I received another birthday card 12 months later.

I adopted a different dog several months ago through a PetSmart adoption program.  Buddy is a perky, friendly dog and enjoys coming to the office with me.  I updated my PetPerks file in July so they know about Buddy, including his birth date and how I discovered him at a PetSmart.  We'll see if I get a birthday card in May for my living dog to go along with this one for my dead dog.

In addition to ensuring that records are properly updated, perhaps PetSmart should consider setting an age when the pet should not receive direct communications, or perhaps send an occasional e-mail to cusotmers requesting that information about their pets be updated on their PetPerks profile.

  1. Be sure your customer list is up to date.  
  2. Consider when it is time to purge old data and focus on current data.


Don't trade with this Fail

A lack of personalization suggests a lack of interest in your customer.  In a face-to-face sales environment, a good salesperson knows the customer's name before trying to sell a product.  The same premise applies to direct marketing.  Effective direct mail almost always starts with "Dear Marc Davis." or at least "Dear" followed by the first name of the customer.

In snail mail, the right personalization can mean the difference between effective mail and junk mail.  With e-mail, the same premise applies except that the common term is spam.

This e-mail from Online Trading Academy easily merits a Creative Fail for bad personalization.  Leading an e-mail with "Dear [INSERT FIRST NAME]" is worse than no personalization at all.  Would you trust these people with your investment dollars if they cannot figure out how to call you by name?


Sudhoff Properties: A real estate agent should know the address

This real estate agent from Sudhoff Properties sent an e-mail with a header of “Address Change”.  However, there is no message text – not even an explanation of what changed.  Was it the e-mail address or new address?  Would you trust this person to sell your home?  Not with a Fail for Creative.

Lesson: When sending an e-mail to your customers, be sure to have not only a relevant header but also a relevant message.


Late Furniture

This self-mailer from Bassett Furniture arrived  Tuesday, September 7.  Easy Fail for Timing.  The sale ended the day prior to the mail's arrival.

The mailer includes a request for arrival between 8/30 & 9/1, so either the mail was sent late or the USPS was delivering slowly. 

On the other hand, it was targeted well, as it was sent to a prior customer.


Don't bet on this Fail

My neighbor received a self-mailer from Resorts.  It appears they are giving away a laptop complete with a Windows 7 “Operation” System.  Fail for Creative.

Lesson: Using spell-check software is not enough.  Proofread your documents for grammar, jargon, and context.


HSBC & AAA: If it's that Important, be clear about it

These days, it appears like every piece of mail is "IMPORTANT".  The operative question is 'Important to Whom?'  For example, this letter from HSBC bank claims to have important account information ...
... however all it contained were Privacy and Accessibility notices, in small print, without an explanatory cover letter.  

I suppose this was important to HSBC's Compliance group and perhaps a handful of consumers.

AAA recently sent this letter with an envelope teaser noting 'IMPORTANT INFORMATION' about my membership.

The back of the envelope had two return addresses, one in Texas and one in California.

The content of the letter was about an address change, and the need to verify information.
The letter's tone was formal and explanatory.  It included three addresses: Texas, California, and now Delaware -- being sent to someone in Virgina.  At this point, one may wonder 'To where do I return the form?'  The letter mentions returning the form, but not who should receive it.

There is a return-reply envelope.  The return address is similar but not the same as the one in California -- the PO Box number is different.

This is a Fail for CreativeEven with the reply envelope, some people will still send the form to one of the three addresses on the letter. 

The letter should have only one return address and it should be consumer-relevant.  It should be the sole correspondence address and match the one that appears on the return envelope.  Otherwise, the consumer will be confused and the various offices will have to figure out what to do with mail that went to the wrong place.  That results in a waste of consumer time and AAA organization's time.

Lessons: Label your package "Important" only if it is important to the recipient.  Be sure you clearly communicate your call to action and only one location for response and correspondence.


2 weeks to redeem a prize is a Fail

This contest fulfillment package was recently mailed by Young America on behalf of Hershey's.  It was mailed in a nondescript, plain white envelope.

The recipient won a minor prize in a contest - a free Reese's product.  This was communicated on a plain, white piece of paper.  The package does not need to be fancy because, hey, it's a prize.

The coupon appears to be good for a candy bar.
This prize fulfillment package merits a Fail for Timing because it was received on August 18.  That gave the recipient only 2 weeks to claim the prize.  That is not an adequate response window.  If a prize winner is slow to read the mail, that person may be upset if he/she misses the window to use the coupon.  The coupon could have easily been marked to expire 9/30/10 or, even better, 12/31/10.

Lesson: Even for a totally free item, there should be adequate time for the consumer to take action in response to your mail.


Geico: Only a 15 minute list update could save Geico from a Fail

This direct mail package from Geico might be creatively complete.  From a promotional standpoint, it goes all out.  

The outer envelope includes an inviting benefit teaser on the front as well as a promotional teaser on the back. It leverages the fact that the recipient moved to a new location, and implies a financial benefit to the new zip code as well as a peak at a hundred dollar bill.

The front of the letter leverages Geico branding.  It includes not one but two Johnson Boxes as well as a side bar that clearly communicates savings benefits and call to action.
In the package, there are no fewer than seven calls to action to get an insurance quote.  Most of them talk to ease of the transaction, with copy points such as "a few minutes to do"; "trained professionals are there for you 24/7"; and "All you have to do is answer some simple questions ...".  Forget 15 minutes?  This is fast & easy!

The letter communicates savings benefits as well as a positive customer experience.  It includes a testimonial on the back, a sincere, signed close, and the all-important P.S. that reinforces benefits messaging and call to action.

Finally, the bottom of the letter included an immediate benefit for opening the envelope -- return address stickers with the Geico geeko. (I'm showing only one row because the stickers are so cool that I plan to use them.)
This package utilizes many direct mail best practices: envelope teaser, promotional copy, Johnson Box, side box, a feeling of sincerity, a signature, multiple calls to action, immediate benefits, strong benefit messages, focused P.S., and alignment with messaging from other communication channels.

So why the Fail?  For Timing.  Typically, consumers have 30 days to choose a new auto insurer after they move, however, I received the letter 3½ months after moving to a new zip code.  Geico could improve its success by updating the hot movers list it uses and mailing more frequently.

Although not worthy of a Fail, the testimonial on the back is a bit off the mark.  It represents a customer who chose Geico before she moved, while the package is addressed and messaged to potential customers who are in their new home.

Lesson: When you are targeting recent movers, be sure to reach them when they recently moved. 


Triple Fails from Moving Companies

A follow-up from some prior posts.  In late June, I wrote how Thomas Transfer and Storage mailed a moving offer to my post-move address.  Since then, they not only sent a remail of the exact same creative package, they sent a 2nd remail of that package to my new address. Each of the three packages arrived about 10 days apart.

That means Thomas Transfer earns a Fail for Creative as well as List and Timing.  I covered in prior posts that when remailing the same offer, the creative should be modified for additional effectiveness.  If the customer does not open the first envelope, why would he open a second envelope that looks exactly the same?

In the meantime, Texas Home Movers continues its Fail with lack of communication and inappropriate communication.  After making 10 attempts to reach the company to inquire about my damaged a missing goods, filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, filing a dispute through Visa, and sending a certified letter to the owner, I received an e-mail reading:
This is not exactly a Customer Service letter, but at least it is personal.  On Friday, I received a call from Anita threatening to take legal action against me for filing a dispute with Visa and the BBB.  Today, the web site appears to be down.  Not a good sign.  Perhaps the entire company is a Fail.


Remember to recall your collateral

Here is an example of a Fail from Safeway for Creative and Timing.  A chronology:
  • 4/16/10: Safeway reopens its store in Waterfront Station, Washington DC. Many senior executives show up for the store opening.
  • 4/18/10: I visit the Safeway and apply for their Safeway Club Card.  The brochure mentions benefits such as reduced prices on items and the ability to earn United Airlines frequent flyer miles.
  • 6/18/10: I receive the letter below dated June 11 and postmarked June 14.

It took Safeway two months to get around to informing me that I would not earn United Airlines miles for my purchases because the program was discontinued in February.  This means that despite the high level of publicity for the new store opening, Safeway did not bother to update their club enrollment brochures - even though the program had ended six weeks before I applied for their club card. 

The letter does not express any remorse or regret that a program was offered to me that had already expired.  (Are they suggesting that it's my fault I included my United Airlines frequent flyer number?)  Furthermore, the letter closes by stating that Safeway will process my application.  This means that after two months, the company had yet to take action.

The letter copy itself could be improved:
  • Cut the passive verbs, i.e. open with "We received ." rather than "We have received ."
  • Don't mention "information included" if there was no information included. The only thing in the envelope was the letter.
  • Personalize the experience.  Have a real person in customer service sign the letter, even if only a first name.
It's not just brochures that can become out of date -- direct mail and e-mail offers can also expire.   I recently received a packing slip that included a coupon for my next purchase that expired four months before the package shipped. 
Learnings: Do not use out of date brochures or other collateral.  If you make a mistake, apologize for it.  The tone of a customer service letter should be active and personal.  If you mention something is included with a letter, include it.

UPDATE 9/21/10
My Subway Club Card still has not been processed.  For the past two months, whenever I shopped at the store I would use their generic card rather than input my phone number.  I called their customer service department and was told that they their processing is backlogged.  Did my application not get processed because they sent me this letter?


Capital One: What's in my wallet? Information I did not request.

I recently received a new credit card from Capital One.  The card carrier is smartly designed to have a feel of a personalized experience.  The layout and copy are consistent with Capital One's No Hassles branding.  Benefits are clearly explained.  Impressive use of space -- in the block of under where the new card was placed there is a phone number to call with questions regarding my account.

Then why consider a Fail for Creative?  The outer envelope teaser: "The information you requested is enclosed."  I did not request information from Capital One.  The replacement card was not requested.  It was automatically sent to replace an expiring card.

On the other hand, Capital One can't paste on the outer envelope "Your new credit card is enclosed."  That would invite postal theft.  Would a better message be "Important information about your account", or perhaps no message at all?

During my tenure at Citi Cards, we proved through testing that a customer would open just about any mail that was labeled with the Citibank return address.  In offers targeting existing customers, a lack of envelope teaser often had the same or better list yield compared to those with a promotional teaser. 

Perhaps Capital One believes that for existing card customers branding alone is not enough to ensure an optimal open rate.

Learning: Consider the message on your outer envelope carefully.  If you have an active existing customer relationship, you may not need any message.  Focus on the message's appropriateness given the contents and recipient.


When a Hot List cools off and moves out of town

I wrote several days ago how several moving-related companies mailed to me after I already left town, but I did not expect this to arrive from Thomas United Transfer and Storage.

Their solo mail package deserves Fails for List and Timing. Not only did Thomas Transfer mail the moving offer several weeks late, they mailed it to my new address.
Setting that aside, this is not a bad creative package but could use some tweaks. The outer envelope includes a teaser that is relevant to the consumer – practically everyone who moves needs boxes, so why not get some free. After all, “free” is the most beautiful four-letter word in the English language. The package leads with a friendly cover letter that communicates positive features of the company. Meanwhile, the flyer is more promotional and describes the free box offers.

Some ways creative treatment could be improved in the letter:
  • Be consistent with the grammar. Some of the cover letter is written in the first person plural, while the close states, “Please call me …” even though two people signed the letter.
  • Actually include a hand signature of Dawn and Christina. Represent who those people are – the owners? Salespeople? Moving coordinators?
  • Consider more benefit statements, i.e. low-stress, piece of mind. 

At least Thomas Transfer and Storage only wasted marketing money. I wish they had reached out to me earlier so I would not have ended up with Texas Home Movers damaging and losing my goods.

Learnings: Use a hot list quickly before it cools off.  Don't address-correct a solicitation for moving supplies.  If the person moved, don't mail.


AT&T tweaks it’s upsell letter

I commented on AT&T’s customer service style upgrade letter three times. Below is another letter I received. There are not any new fails, but it is interesting to see how a solo mail package used often can be tweaked and improved. Perhaps this is an evolved Control pakage.  

The upsell this time is for only one bundle, although there is a soft reminder that AT&T would like to meet my needs if this is not the best match. There is no irrelevant mention of DirecTV. ‘Kelly’ personally signs the letter. Overall, the letter is warm, inviting, clear, and supporting. It is promotional but does not feel promotional.  Is this package the right choice for a Control?


A Hot List is hot for a reason

I recently moved across country. Twenty moving companies reached out to me with direct mail offers. Of these, 7 arrived before I made a decision which company to use, 8 arrived after I made a decision, and 5 arrived after I left Houston. Below are examples of postcards that arrived too late.

There could be a few sources these companies used to learn I was preparing to leave town. Based on my actions, I believe they included a listing on the Houston Area Realtor web site and inquiry at movers.com. I also completed a change of address form at the post office, however I do not recall the USPS sharing lists as such.

This one, although late, is interesting.  It offers the prospect an immediate benefit -- a discount at Lowe's.  This $10 off $50 coupon is the same offer that is made available through the US Postal Service's Movers Kit.  Perhaps the cost to Allied is zero, but it is an effective way to break through mailbox clutter.

Of course, the speed in which a company reaches out to you to sell is not necessarily correlated with the quality of it’s service. My furniture was shipped by Texas Home Movers, AKA Texas Home Storage. The shipment was late, and several items were damaged.

The company subbed out work to an independent trucker after telling me they wouldn't.  The trucker claimed he completely offloaded the truck at delivery, but still missed a box that was brought by a week later by his brother in-law with major damage.  6 weeks later, items are still missing and I can’t even get a claim form from the company. Needless to say, I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and took other action.

Learnings: As a business, if you purchase a hot list, use it fast. As a consumer, avoid Texas Home Movers.