Don't let your holiday card become Mail that Fails

During my first job out of college, I was fortunate enough to attend the seminar "Winning Direct Mail" led by Joan Throckmorton. One of my key takeaways from her seminar was that successful direct mail should be personal and engaging. This advice should be considered even if the purpose of a communication is simply to recognize a holiday. 

Falling envelopes can make for a happy, snowy holiday.
Much of the holiday mail we receive at work includes a small note or hand-signed signature. It suggests that the sender cares enough about the recipient and their business relationship to personally wish him or her a happy holiday. Sometimes the sender uses the holiday card to show off the company's capabilities, such as this piece from last year, or the following more recent holiday card sent by a major print supplier. 
Inside: Personalization & real signature
This card from Data-Mail intelligently leverages personalization.  Not only is my name personalized on the card, but it appears to be signed by hand. 

In the example below, the print vendor shows off its ability to personalize by including my name in the same typeface and color in the surrounding copy. The back includes a calendar that also demonstrates the ability to personalize content. 

Personalized card, printed signature

Personalized calendar

I consider this card a Fail – in this case for poor list management. The personalized content is for "Marc B." My first name is indeed Marc, and my middle initial is indeed B, but I never refer to myself as "Marc B."  Other people in my office received the same card without a middle initial. I suppose when someone entered my name in the company's database, that person included my middle initial in the first name field. 
The card below is a potential Fail for Creative because it is a greeting card that is neither personal nor engaging.

Was the OE printed on a home PC?
The addresses on the outer envelope were slanted, suggesting it was poorly produced. 
Front cover: hoe, hoe, hoe - funny
Inside: dull & generic
No one signed the card. Was the card from a salesperson, someone I had met at a professional function, someone with whom I used to work, or perhaps an ex-girlfriend? I have a guess, but I'll never know for sure without doing some research. If I don't know the sender, why should I expect the sender to know me or care if I have a happy holiday?
The cover is interesting – with the hoe, hoe, and hoe – but it lacks a humorous payoff inside the card. It simply mentions "Happy Holidays" with a company name.  
A donation will be made in my name to a charity. Nice gesture. But why not choose a charity aligned with the card's theme, such as the Sustainable EarthFoundation?
Lesson: Even business holiday cards should be personal and engaging. If you want to strengthen your business relationships, take a few extra seconds to verify your recipient and sign each card.


Happy Holidays with a Fail from DMA

Even the Direct Marketing Association can have a direct marketing Fail. This one is for Creative. When read in a gmail-style Web browsing interface, the apostrophes and ampersands do not properly appear in body copy. Instead, the reader sees HTML codes such as ‘&#8217’ or ‘&#8212’. I wonder how it would appear if read via America Online.

Lesson: Review and test your email with use on all major email interfaces.


PayPal: Great for payments, Fail for mail

Blind envelopes sometimes offset lack of known brand to improve open rate
I recently received a letter in a blind outer envelope. The only hint of the mailer is the postage indicia from "LFS, Inc." The inside of the letter describes my opportunity to pay for some purchases over time with Bill Me Later® because I am a "Continental" customer. 

This letter has several Fails for Creative:
  • Copy is full-justified, making it difficult to read.
  • All copy is the same font size, including the 9-line disclosure. The only use of boldface is for required legal copy. This makes the letter impossible for a customer to scan.
  • The entire letter is one color, with a logo that appears to be produced on a dot matrix printer.
  • The call to action is difficult to comprehend. Is it to request an account as mentioned in the first paragraph, place an order with a merchant as mentioned in the third paragraph, or go to their website?
  • The word "on-line" is hyphenated. While this is grammatically acceptable, it isn’t a stylistically common usage in consumer communications, potentially distracting readers.
  • The offer is good through "December 05, 202011." A date before the 10th of a month should not have a zero in it, and "202011" is not a real year. Proofread your materials!
  • Every mention of Bill Me Later® includes a registered trademark in superscript. Legally, the registered trademark is required only in a company's first mention in body copy. Also, superscripted text interrupts eye flow and should generally be avoided.
  • Some of the copy is pedestrian. For example, in the third paragraph the customer is asked to place an order for "an amount not exceeding your pre-approved amount." Huh?
  • The letter has a signatory but no signature. This further suggests that it is an impersonal form letter and the company is not caring of the customer.
Hard to scan + Hard to read + Hard to understand = Hard to believe
On the whole, a letter like this will fail to inspire consumer confidence or interest in Bill Me Later. It is a challenge to believe that something is "convenient and safe!" when the sales letter is poorly written and has errors.  Even letters from the federal government look better than this.

PayPal could improve a one-page solicitation letter in many ways, including:
  • Adding color to the package.
  • Positively branding the envelope as from PayPal, a trusted brand, with the PayPal logo.
  • Using balanced and varied typeface sizes.
  • Adding a Johnson Box.
  • Including subheads before paragraphs.
  • Italicizing relevant URLs.
  • Not going into detail about why I was preselected, or at least being correct about the company name.
  • Using full dollar amounts and avoid decimals, e.g. "$5,000" rather than "$5,000.00".
  • Including a signature with the signatory.
  • Proofreading lettershop samples and verifying data field formats.

Lesson: There is so much wrong with this solo letter package that the lesson here is simple. Don't waste a valuable brand to send poor mail like PayPal did.


Experian: No protection or credit for late mail

The letter was designed well, just late.
This letter from Experian was dated October 7 with an expiration date of October 14 and arrived at the recipient's mailbox on October 17.  Classic Fail for Timing.

A reasonable response window for consumer direct mail is 2-4 weeks.  A renewal communication with this level of urgency might get away with a 1-week response window, but only if the customer actually has a week to respond.
Smart outer envelope

Lesson: Mail early and give your customers adequate time to read and respond to your mail.


DMH Marketing Partners & Mail America: Fails for poor DMA prospecting

The annual Direct Marketing Association (DMA) Conference & Exhibition is this week.   If you have ever attended a DMA conference you know that your registration information is shared with prospective vendors that have a booth.  And what does a good direct marketer do with a prospect mailing list?  Mail, of course!  (Maybe there is a joke here: What is the best way to keep the postal service from going bankrupt.  Have a DMA conference every month!)

Looking through the pre-conference mailbag, this looks like the year for QR codes and iPad2 giveaways.  Some of the mail has both – a QR code where you could win an iPad2 for visiting a booth or purchasing a service.  

This piece utilizes a contest concept to motivate people to visit their booth.  Everyone is a “winner” of something of value up to $25,000.  The disclosure that appears in white-on-blue mouseprint states that the odds of winning the grand prize are 1 in 10 million.  Given that there will be not nearly that many people attending the conference, it should be safe to assume that everyone visiting the booth will "win" free direct mail advertising.  This legally proper but misleading contest merits a Fail for Offer.
Creatively, it is not clear from the postcard who is the sender is -- “360° Marketing” or “Mail America”?  The left side of the postcard includes some explanation of services, but much of the copy is too small to read.

Is the company run by an ant,
or will there be an ant farm in the booth?

This postcard from DMH Marketing Partners is one of the most significant Fails for poor Creative design:
  • One side of the postcard is horizontal-intensive while the other side is vertical-intensive.
  • The postcard is the smallest size possible with primarily a white background, making it difficult to find in the clutter of the dozens of other pre-conference mailers.
  • There is not a clear explanation of what the company does or what services it provides.
  • The only Web address on the page is for the DMA conference.  The Web address for the company does not appear.  (Does this suggest DMH does not want to be found?)
  • The messaging does not appear to have any alignment with the company Website.
  • There is not a compelling reason to visit the booth – no gift, contest, person to meet, or topic to discuss other than the vague opportunity to increase responses.
  • As a woman in my office put it, “That bug is just creepy.” 

The marching bugs in the background did not scan well.
  1. Clearly communicate your offer and value proposition.
  2. Offer a compelling, honest reason for a prospective customer to reach out to you.
  3. Know your competition to develop creative that will be noticed.
  4. If you are going to include an animal, use a cute mammal rather than a creepy bug.


ACME Supermarkets: Better Never than Late

In August, 2010, a woman provided her email address at an ACME supermarket in Delaware when signing up for an ACME SuperCard®. Six months later, she moved to another state. Five months after that, she received the email below. It took nearly a year for ACME to welcome her to their email program, by which time she lived in a location over a thousand miles from the nearest store.  This is a Fail for poor list management.

Last year, I wrote about a Safeway loyalty program where there was a long delay processing loyalty program enrollment. It’s as if the retailers don’t see enough value in customer data to use it on a timely basis. That is quite a contrast to higher-cost, lower purchase frequency programs like Alamo that recognize a new customer within days.

Lesson: If customers are willing to share personal information with you, don’t let it get stale. Recognize the customer within two weeks if communicating by mail, or within a few days if communicating online.


Why is AT&T faking it?

This post in The Consumerist describes AT&T using a "Receipt Enclosed" solo mail package. While this type of approach can be successful in getting short-term response rates, the fake nature of the package can also have a backlash impact on those who don't respond.  Many consumers such as the contributor to Consumerist.com will look at this type of mail as j--k and be less likely to choose AT&T in the future.  That's a Fail for Creative.

Lesson: If you want to jeopardize long-term brand equity for short-term results, send a fake important-seeming package.


Chase Credit Cards: When a fee is not a fee

Outer Envelope

Earlier this year, I wrote how a Presidential Plus credit card offer from Chase was a Fail for Creative and Offer. The letter was confusing and defensive and sent at a time when it was not clear to the consumer — and perhaps to Chase — which cardmember benefits would be available with the card.

Stronger Cover Letter

A more recent version of the solicitation arrived in my mailbox. Rather than cite the merger, the letter ignores it.  Smart move. Instead it leads with a competitive rebuttal to the AmericanExpress Platinum Card, leveraging the fact that people with Chase’s Presidential Plus Card can visit the Presidents Club, while those with a Platinum Card have to wait for their flight with the little people. The letter is smartly signed by someone from Continental Airlines rather than someone from United Airlines. In this respect, the letter is a dramatic improvement.

The package merits a Fail for Creative and Offer for Chase’s communication of the benefit of no foreign transaction fees. Over the past decade, nearly all the major banks have increased their foreign transaction fee from 1% to 3%. In fact, until a few months ago, only Capital One did not charge the fee. For a $5,000 business trip — including lodging, dining, transportation and other expenses — 3% in transaction fees means $150 in costs for engaging in normal purchasing behavior. A savings of 3% in and of itself is more attractive to international business travelers than frequent flyer miles with an implied benefit of ½% to 2% of the purchase amount.

Colorful insert
Back of colorful insert with benefit description
The benefit is cited in a colorful insert but not the cover letter. That is a bit of a miss. The insert references checking the back of the cover letter, which does mention (though in small type) that there are no foreign transaction fees. But the Fail is that the official legal communication of pricing information, the Schumer Box, lists in clear 12-point typeface in the Fees section “Foreign Transactions: 3% of each transaction in U.S. dollars.”
The back of the letter mentions "Foreign Transaction Fee: None" however ...

... the Schumer Box, the legal documentation of account terms, mentions 3% Foreign Transaction fee
The package included a color benefits brochure
Also, why is the response URL continentalpresplus.com? The card being sold is the Presidential Plus Card that reads on the card “Presidential Plus”. So why not use presidentialplus.com, chasepresplus.com, presidentialpluscard.com or even chaseprespluscard.com?

  1. Communication of offers and benefits should be consistent throughout your package, especially when legal documents are involved.
  2. If your product has a strong benefit, communicate it in your cover letter.
  3. When a response method is online, use a URL that properly describes the product or is easy for a consumer to remember.


AT&T's new Terms of Service for those without service

The email from AT&T gets an easy Fail for List.  I know of several people who received it who have not had AT&T Internet for over a year.  Sending an update of your Terms of Service for current customers is one thing, sending it to people that are not current customers is something else.  It will make some people less likely to be AT&T customers again.

Lesson: Don’t force changes to your Terms of Service on non-customers.


Silk Salon Spa: Bad Hair Day

Is this for a salon or Happy Ending spa?

This postcard arrived in my mailbox on February 2. When I received it, I assumed there were no services available for me.  There was not a mention of services for men and, even though it was addressed to Resident, both pictures are of women. A deep review of their Website suggests otherwise, but you have to dig deeply to find this page.  So maybe I could get a $40 haircut there.

The postcard is difficult to read. It includes small type using colors with poor contrast and registration. For example, black text on a red background, as seen in the top coupon, is believed to be the most difficult for people to read. (Red over blue is not much better – don’t try this at home.) Granted, mailers only have 3" x 5" to play with on one side and maybe 2" x 3" on the address side, but the key messages and offers need to be understood by the customer.   Fail for Creative

The postcard includes offers for February, March, and April – all labeled ‘First Visit only’. While a February offer would be practical for a postcard arriving in February, the store owner cannot expect that someone would hold the card for two months through a first visit in April to let someone completely new have a go at their precious hair. This approach is counter to urging immediacy and having a strong call to action. A better approach would be to have a strong 'First Visit' offer that expires approximately four weeks after the postcard arrives. When the customer is in the salon for her first cut, the hairdresser or store owner can offer a coupon good for a different service on the second visit after receiving a positive response to, “So how do you like your hair?” That would avoid a Fail for Offer.
Address Side

The postcard also includes a typo… it invites “Walks-in”. Additional Fail for Creative.

As passionate as I am about direct mail, I wonder if Silk Salon might have better spent their limited marketing dollars soliciting new business through Groupon or the local-based Living Social.

1. If sending a saturation mailing, include a communication relevant to all recipients.
2. Use colors and fonts that are readable, even with limited space.
3. Your offer should be immediately useful, not deferred to a later date.
4. Proofread your content or have someone else proofread it.


A Boy Named Sue

In late December, a major full-service business-to-business provider of print and related solutions produced and mailed 2011 calendars to many of its customers. The printer used this as an occasion to show off its personalization capabilities.

Beautiful content. Great personalization.  Unfortunately, the recipient’s name is actually Marc -- not “MARK” as it was printed on the calendar -- so the calendar will not be used.

Lesson: Correct personalization is just as important with business-to-business communications as it is with direct-to-consumer communications. Be sure your customers’ names are correct before your personalize your content.


Chase Credit Cards lays an egg with this Fail

Banks are the biggest partners with frequent flyer programs.  Since the introduction of the Citi American Airlines AAdvantage credit card more than 20 years ago, consumers have learned how to accrue enough miles for a free trip just by saying "Charge it."  It is expected today that every frequent flier program is associated with a miles-earning credit card.

Outer envelope
Although United and Continental Airlines recently merged, the airlines and their frequent flier programs continue to operate as separate entities.  This means that someone who enjoys the benefit of avoiding the checked baggage fee with their Chase Continental Debit Card would have to pay up if they flew a United flight into Denver.  (In fact, the benefit may not be available soon anyway.  Although the Chase site does not mention it, product information on the Continental Airlines site notes "*The fee waiver for checked bags in conjunction with the Continental Airlines Debit MasterCard will not be valid for travel on or after April 1." and there is a Tweet suggesting the product is no longer offered.)

In the meantime, Elite-level frequent fliers don't know if their perks on Continental or United will be maintained once the programs merge.

Confusing letter
Which brings me to the interesting challenge for Chase Bank, the issuer of Visa and MasterCards for both the United and Continental loyalty programs.  Today, they offer different sets of benefits on their United credit cards compared to their Continental credit cards.  That might lead a consumer to wonder which set of loyalty program credit card benefits will remain when the integration of their rewards program is complete within a year.  So why would someone sign up for a card with a $395 annual fee expecting certain benefits only to learn that they were merely short-term benefits?

The letter here is defensive and incomplete in its attempt to address these concerns.  It adequately communicates some of the product's benefits, but fails to suggest that these benefits will be available in the long term.  The opening of the letter assures the reader that "in most ways" the OnePass program will continue as it is today; however it does not affirm that the Presidential Plus program will continue as it is offered today.  That means that this letter could get a Fail for Offer if neither Chase nor Continental/United are aware of future benefits or if they are aware of their intentions to change them by 2012.  Even though it is a credit card solicitation, the letter suggests it is an update on the progress of the merger.  It references "OnePass offers that you will be receiving this year," suggesting that this offer is not the most compelling.  Should the recipient take this offer or wait for a better one?

Insert front cover
The letter also merits a Fail for Creative for several reasons:
  • The tone of the letter is defensive.
  • It is not easy for a reader to scan the contents or message.
  • The offer touted on the envelope is buried.  It turns out that the complementary Presidents Club membership is available by being a Cardmember during the year that the annual fee is waived.  However, discovering that important fact requires reading the body copy in the fourth paragraph then doing the math. 
  • The body of the letter does not open with specific consumer benefits.  The fact that United/Continental is excited about the merger has no value to a consumer.  In fact, it can suggest negative value, because the letter does not address the company's motivation for excitement.
  • The tone is too formal and dry for a consumer communication.  For example, there is a heavy use of passive verbs such as "...you will be receiving this year" when a dynamic communicator would write "...you will receive this year".  Perhaps Chase attempted to use a business to business communications style because most frequent travelers are business people.  However Chase/United/Continental forgot that business travelers are also consumers.  They read memos at work, not at home.
  • There is a typo in the 2nd paragraph.  The letter states that the programs "...will hen merge into a single program in 2012."  Hens lay eggs.  I believe they meant "...will then merge..."  Of course, a more dynamic letter would read "...and then will merge..." or even "...and then merge into a single program in 2012."
  1. Your customer communications should be clear, concise, and simple.  
  2. Communicate your key benefits simply and reinforce them.  
  3. Avoid passive verbs.  
  4. Use an independent proofreader to catch typos.


Geico: Return of the Failed Gecko

In mid-November, I received a solo mail letter from Geico offering a "Free housewarming gift".  There were a few problems with this.  I had already been in my home for six months.  Creatively, it is exactly the same as the letter I received in August which arrived after three months at my new address.  The only differences between the two solo mail packages were the line breaking in the third paragraph and that the first one included a code above my name in the address field. 

It appeared to be odd to reference the fact that I received moved in a mailing that arrived three months after I settled in at a new address, so it is even more odd for the exact same mailer to arrive another three months later.  If the message is off mark the first time, wouldn't it be even more off the mark the second time?

I was ready to give this a Fail for Timing when I noticed in the mail six-month renewal notice from my current auto insurer.  Auto insurance policies typically have six-month terms.  Could Geico have intentionally timed the mailing to coincide with my policy renewal?  If so, Geico should reference the competitor's bill rather than resend the same out-of-date message.  That would be a Fail for Creative.

Regardless, I love those gecko return address stickers.

Lesson: If you are timing your direct communication based on an event, reference that event.  If you missed the event by months, don't even mention it.


Alamo Insiders is driven

Outer envelope front
Outer envelope back
A couple of months ago, I noted a Fail for Amtrak for a new loyalty program customer fulfillment mailing arriving more than three months after I enrolled in the program.  In contrast, this new customer mailing from Alamo arrived less than two weeks after I enrolled in the Alamo Insider program.  Frankly, I couldn't tell you the exact number of days it took to arrive because it was included in the pile of mail that was waiting for me when I returned from a business trip.

The package is simple and effective.  It is mailed first class and delivered in a simple #10 outer envelope with Alamo branding.  The letter further represents the company's unpretentious attitude.  It included the loyalty club card (not pictured), a light amount of copy, and friendly graphics.  These graphics use the same friendly style as those shown on the Alamo Insiders web page.

The letter opens with a note of appreciation immediately followed by an explanation of two of the program's features -- deals and value.  The benefit of 10% off rates is clearly communicated in the sidebar.  The letter mentions that "it's fast and easy" to get going, which it is because it is fast and easy for a recipient to quickly scan or completely read the letter.  The letter includes a polite close and a reinforced call to action in the P.S.

There is nothing in this mailing to suggest a Fail.  This is Mail that Sails.  It effectively utilizes its new customer List, beneficial Offer, on-brand Creative, and terrific Timing.  It is worth showing here as a contrast to the oversized Amtrak mailing that took months to mail.  If you are responsible for recurring customer revenue, which method would you use to welcome a new customer to your program: A mailing that was simple and arrives quickly or one that is more grandiose and arrives long after the customer had his/her first experience with your company?

  1. Reinforce your brand in your direct communications. 
  2. Integrate your graphics and communications style online and offline.  
  3. Reach your new customers quickly after their first experience with you to reinforce your relationship and encourage more purchases.