Altered Images: Transforming Perceptions Of Direct Mail

Direct Mail

Reports of the death of Direct Mail (DM) are greatly exaggerated. In fact, after a few years of being frustrated by a gloomy economy and persistent digital hype, the methodology is making a resurgence. Last year, in the UK alone, companies spent more than £1.5 billion on paper-based DM, while some of the world’s biggest brands continue to invest in it as a key promotional activity.

Why? Perhaps we should do as the TV ads suggest and Ask Google – after all, there must be compelling reasons why a company that controls almost 70% of all Internet traffic still sends out Direct Mail. There are; but they’re commonly drowned out by claims that it’s difficult to prove ROI and impossible to build the kind of customer relationships that are achievable through digital media. For a time, there was a grain of truth in the allegations. But in the emerging era of cross-media communication, the argument no longer holds water.

So it’s time, quite appropriately, to be direct: DM remains one of the most powerful weapons in a marketer’s armoury. What’s more, when integrated with other channels and used as an engine for multi-touch campaigns, it has the potential to transform customer engagement and build long-term brand loyalty.

The resurgence of DM is being driven by a confluence of factors; consumers’ continued affinity with paper-based DM, and the ever-increasing penetration of smartphones and tablet devices. At first glance these two drivers may appear to be something of a dichotomy. The reality is quite the opposite. Used effectively, print and mobile can combine to drive high-value communications that make the marketing budget work harder and the customer relationship last longer.

Direct Drivers

But first off, let’s look at the drivers in more detail. Despite the ease, practicality and omnipresence of digital media, consumers still hold a torch for direct mail. In the world of the burgeoning inbox, 83% of people still believe that direct mail is easier to consume than email. What’s more, research from Royal Mail shows that 92% of all direct mail is opened and almost half of UK adults (48%) take action after receiving it – 79% of whom respond immediately. Significantly, DM is responsible for driving 44% of traffic to brands’ websites.

The trend towards mobile is equally compelling. In the UK, smartphone penetration has increased by 106% since 2001. Globally, more than 1.2 billion people access the web using a mobile device, whilst in the UK, 91% of users access the mobile web every day. The majority of mobile time (80%) is spent using Apps, while as Internet shopping continues to grow, adults’ purchases online has increased to 77%.

With 90% of people claiming they couldn’t live without their letterbox and 86% saying they couldn’t cope without their mobile it’s clear that both channels offer brands a powerful reach into consumers’ lives. So what’s the problem? Why has it proved so difficult to integrate the offering and leverage the rich potential of cross-media communication?

Too often, print and mobile – and indeed many other components of the marketing mix – are deployed in isolation. The implications are severe; the customer experience is inconsistent and confusing, messaging is inefficient and the marketing budget gets lost in the melee of activity – making it difficult to discern which initiatives are best influencing customer engagement.

With digital methodologies known for their measurability, the common kneejerk is to reduce costs by eliminating apparently ‘expensive, static and un-measurable’ print activity and lurching instead towards new media. But there is a better way – and traditional direct mail remains at the heart of the approach.

Interactive Direct Mail

The emergence of innovative image recognition technologies is facilitating a powerful convergence of DM and mobile, and giving marketers the opportunity to create brand communications that combine the familiarity of print with the measurability, interactivity and agility of digital media. Scanning technology, powered by mobile engagement, is enabling consumers to marry their mail with their mobile to create a rich and rewarding multichannel experience that helps them connect with brands and incentivises them to buy.

Marketers are increasingly recognising the opportunity to deepen customer relationships by using mobile technology in combination with traditional direct mail. But how does it work? DM invites customers to download an App that enables them to use their smartphone to scan products from the print materials they just received – for example, a mail order catalogue.

Their primary motivation is the opportunity to access promotions that are relevant to them. But the value exchange is mutual. Upon downloading the App, customers share their contact details at registration – giving marketers their first glimpse of traceability from their direct mail activity. The opportunity, however, goes beyond mere profile data.

Each product scan unlocks a specific DM-exclusive offer – but rather than hoping the customer folds down the corners of the pages or circles the products they like – ready for them to complete the purchase in store at a later point – the technology drives the customer online and brings an immediacy that puts those products within one click of the virtual shopping basket. The DM becomes the ultimate eye candy that puts tempting offers in the shop window of the customer’s mind – and allows them to purchase immediately.

The approach also, crucially, triggers data capture that enables marketers to build a greater understanding of individual customers’ preferences and deliver personalised offers and incentives to drive further sales. The engagement can be further supported by targeted communications using other traditional channels such as email or SMS, inviting customers to scan more pages to benefit from more personalised offers. This not only creates a perpetual closed loop, it facilitates a truly integrated cross-media experience.

With image recognition at the heart of the solution, interactions commonly lead customers back to the DM materials, extending their lifecycle and making much-maligned print work harder. Moreover, the visibility of scanning activity generates quantitative data that highlights which customers are engaging with direct mail, allowing marketers to plan future print volumes accurately and efficiently.

The net result is the delivery of integrated communications that give consumers information in the formats they prefer – and brands the data, insight and platform to deliver timely, personalised and efficient communications. The application of image recognition technologies is not limited to mail order catalogues. Progressive organisations are also using it to generate measurable customer engagement with brochures, flyers and even product packaging. The approach goes beyond the use of standard QR Codes, which struggle to provide the capacity for true personalisation.

A New Image

Image recognition technology remains a nascent market – but it is growing fast. Early adopters are recognising its ability to leverage print, optimise DM and capture ROI data that has previously proved elusive. They’re also unlocking the rich potential of cross-media communications that combine traditional print with the full range of digital and mobile media.

And perhaps most importantly of all, they’re discovering that interactive direct mail can help them build deeper customer relationships and deliver personalised engagement that drives sustainable brand loyalty. Rumours of the death of Direct Mail are indeed greatly exaggerated. In fact, with the fitting help of image recognition technology, the medium could finally get the image and the recognition that consumers think it richly deserves.

Malcolm Lane-Ley

Malcolm Lane-Ley is the ‎Executive Chairman at Anton Group.