An increasing number of companies, faced with selling complex products or communicating less than exciting messages, are finding videos are a dramatic – and successful – alternative to the mailer for catching the public’s attention and gleanin

You’re in the mood to spend some time slumped in front of the TV, but there’s nothing on. After looking through your video collection, you decide you want to watch a video that came through the post about financial investments. It may not really sound like your idea of a good time, but research shows people do watch direct mail videos, even ones about financial products.

Maybe it is because it seems easier to throw paper into the bin than a video. Four out of five homes own a video recorder and this provides a large potential audience.

Technicolor Video Services has been duplicating videos for direct mail since 1993, using lightweight video shells that can be produced and mailed for as little as 1 a time. Matt Cannon, sales and marketing manager, has seen a steady growth in demand, with clients ranging from banks to software companies: “It suits products that are high value and difficult to explain.”

He advises on keeping the tape short and says: “The smaller the length, the cheaper it is to duplicate and post, and the more likely it is to keep people’s attention. They aren’t going to want to watch a video about pensions that lasts for 90 minutes. The average length is from five to ten minutes.”

Cannon believes people consider videos to have a value, and this makes them more likely to respond. “When you receive a video, you think, ‘someone has actually sent me something of worth’. These videos can then sit in video collections – how many other pieces of direct mail are kept in the home for so long?”

The technology of the lightweight videos used by Technicolor originated in the US. The cassettes, which are robust enough to be watched at least 20 times, have fewer parts than traditional VHS videos, and contain no metal. This makes them easier to produce and also recyclable – if you happen to have a plastic recycling service nearby. Production and duplication costs may be lower, but there are filming costs on top of this. Response rates must be high to make the expense worthwhile.

NOP conducted telephone research to monitor the success of a video mail campaign run by Alliance & Leicester last July and August, starring Martin Clunes of Men Behaving Badly. In two waves of research, 107 people were interviewed and, after prompting, 100 of the interviewees acknowledged they had received a video. Two-thirds of the people felt that video mail had raised their interest in the product more than a traditional mail pack would have done, and 43 per cent correctly recalled the main message of the video.

Lisa Hill-Whyte, direct marketing campaign manager at Alliance & Leicester, says: “We’re happy with the overall campaign, of which video mail was just a part. We are still in the process of evaluating the role videos play.” The mailing, an introduction to mortgage services, went out to a group of 50,000 existing Alliance & Leicester customers who didn’t have a mortgage with the society. Hill-Whyte believes the audience was likely to be receptive because, “although we didn’t tell them we would be sending them a video, they are used to receiving mailings from us”.

She explains that the expense of the mailing could be justified as it was promoting mortgages, which have a profitable return. To make sure the money was well spent, each stage of the video’s production was researched. “We commissioned a new video, which means initial expense was considerable. Once up-front production costs are met, the reproduction itself is less expensive.” Has the investment paid off? Despite encouraging research findings, Hill-Whyte says: “I have yet to reach final conclusions.”

TSB also used videos to sell financial products, sending them out to people who requested them. David Fletcher, a director at CIA Media-network, believes video is useful for explaining complex products that people want to think about for some time, such as mortgages. “Buying a first home is one of the most significant decisions you make,” he says.

The TSB presented a selection of videos to use as part of a response programme, about pensions, mortgages, and savings and investments. A phone number appeared on TV ads shown at peak viewing times. “The response was phenomenal,” says Fletcher, “However, it is important to remember that the ads were part of an integrated campaign that included activity in high-street branches.”

Financial products aren’t famous for being exciting, or renowned for their good looks. Perhaps a more obvious choice for using video is to promote products that people actually enjoy looking at, such as new cars and exotic holidays.

Air New Zealand decided to use video mail to increase its awareness among specialist travel agents. Tracey Baker, client services director at Datamail Direct Advertising, says production costs were kept down because the video was made using existing footage. Even so, the expense was still far greater than doing a traditional mailing. Despite this, Baker feels the impact of the video made up for the cost.

However, she warns: “I would not recommend this medium for a mass mailing. We sent our video to a select audience, who had an interest in the subject already – this is the time where it can work very well. It is not a substitute for traditional direct mail, it is more suited to a fulfilment-type role.”

Air New Zealand sent out a total of 5,000 videos, and was pleased with the response – about 12 per cent of recipients entered a competition based around the video. A secret shopper test conducted by Datamail Direct showed that unprompted awareness of Air New Zealand increased by 50 per cent. Baker adds: “If your product is visual, like travel, video is a good way to communicate.”

Direct mail is heavily used by financial services, car and holiday companies, so it seems a logical step to explore the possibilities of video mail. What about charities, another big user of direct mail? People who donate to charities do not like to see their money wasted on such things as glossy brochures, so may not be too impressed by a video landing on their doormats. There is also the problem that charities simply cannot afford to make and mail out videos.

Some charities, such as the RSPCA and the National Deaf Children’s Society, have carried out video mailings, but only after careful consideration. The NDCS decided to use videos to encourage people to leave legacies. Its first step was to approach the Law Society to find out if there was existing video about making wills that could be used to cut production costs. Unfortunately, no such video existed.

Mark Astarita, director of public affairs at the NDCS, explains: “NatWest has a will-executor service and was thinking of producing a written guide. We wrote to the bank with a proposal about a video guide, and it arrived at just the right time.” Having NatWest as joint producer of the video lowered the charity’s costs and also reduced the danger of putting off supporters by appearing to be wasting money.

The NDCS and NatWest worked together closely, from choosing production companies to agreeing scripts. To make sure it was accessible to deaf people, it was subtitled, and Tessa Padden, a deaf presenter from Channel 4, provided the sign interpretation. The finished product was launched in May 1995, and was promoted in the national and local press. This quickly elicited 5,000 requests for the video.

Astarita says it is too early to say whether the campaign will pay off by producing legacies. He is convinced video was a good way to communicate about a difficult subject: “Video is a dramatic way of explaining our cause. The written page can be rather stark, but on a video we could add some humour.”

Watching a video about wills might not be your idea of fun, even if it does star Dennis Healey, Wendy Craig and the charity’s vice president Esther Rantzen. But it has to beat reading about the subject.

Video mail is one way to sell complex products that people are not too eager to read about. People also seem happy to sit down and watch videos about glamorous products, such as holidays. But the problem with video mail doesn’t lie with finding an audience to watch it – it’s the price of producing and sending videos out.

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