Behind the scenes

It’s all very well putting together a flashy DM campaign and waiting for the responses to roll in, but if those replies are handled poorly, the entire campaign can backfire, says Paul Gander

During the past 12 years, the Direct Mail Information Service (DMIS) estimates that the volume of UK consumer and business mailings has risen by 130 per cent and expenditure by 155 per cent. In 2002, production and postage costs for these services totalled &£2.4bn.

The direct marketing (DM) industry, including the fast-expanding field of electronic media, is showing consistent growth. The DMIS estimates that for every &£1 invested in direct mail, &£14 is generated.

So far so good. But there is another, less sparkling side to the coin: failure or delay in response-handling and fulfilment. According to Mail Marketing Scotland managing director Jan Morris, recent evidence shows consumers reporting unacceptable delays in response-handling, while many requested responses did not materialise at all.

As a member of the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Response Council, Morris is particularly perturbed by these reports. Fulfilment and response are far from being the most glamorous side of DM, but they do span at least two vital stages in any campaign: getting the communication to the target market and handling the feedback.

Morris is not alone in believing that evidence of consumer dissatisfaction has been skewed by “cowboy” outfits, many with no real expertise, setting up low-cost operations and often attracting business for the wrong reasons. Along with colleagues at the DMA and the Institute of Sales Promotion (ISP), she has initiated moves to establish an accreditation scheme for fulfilment and response businesses.

Morris says: “It’s always a problem in this industry. Anyone can start up a response-handling business. You don’t need to have qualified people. But by developing an accreditation scheme, you can let clients know that they are going to encounter best practice.”

The other trend which can undermine best practice in the industry, she says, is the tendency for businesses involved in other marketing disciplines to extend into this area of fulfilment and response-handling. As she puts it: “For them, it is a matter of bolting this on. For us, this is our core business. It’s what we do.”

The DMA is already offering its members a commitment scheme. Signatories agree to adhere to certain standards, including staff training. During the next six months, a DMA/ISP working party aims to come up with a fully fledged accreditation scheme.

Targeting for tomorrow

Like Morris, Granby Marketing Services chief executive Stephen Bentley evokes the image of shady, fly-by-night businesses set up “underneath the arches” or in “dark, damp cellars”, to use his phrases. But for him, as much as being a picture of the current cut-price competition, this sums up the way any mailing, fulfilment and response-handling business – including his own – might have been seen in the past. “We have moved on in a number of ways,” he says. “One of these is through expertise in data management. Fulfilment in itself is not always the whole story.”

Granby puts much of its success down to its management of data from consumers, and the way it is presented to clients. As Bentley says, data captured today is an opportunity to improve targeting in the future. Importantly, improved services of this sort encourage long-term relationships with clients. This flies in the face of traditional views of the sector, Bentley explains, where suppliers’ services are seen as being a commodity, involved in a project at the last minute and used only on an ad hoc basis.

Client-friendly features offered by Granby include websites, where live system data can be directly accessed, with secure, real-time interactive reporting on the progress of campaigns. Where fulfilment is complex, careful monitoring of consumer response can be invaluable in managing the supply chain, says Bentley.

Play by the rules

Intelligent use of data management software is one way in which mailing and response-handling businesses can raise their game. Integrated DM production company DPS Direct Mail uses software to set “business rules” or parameters for response.

One Scottish utilities company has been operating 2,400 such rules, and the supplier is establishing a similar system for a telecoms client. Technical director David Laybourne says: “We can take some quite complex processes out of the internal IT department. It’s about making the right offer to the consumer, at the right time, through the right medium.” He adds, more graphically: “We are moving away from the shotgun approach and towards the infra-red sniper rifle.”

For Laybourne, the way in which fulfilment and response-handling houses are establishing their credentials as “agencies” is connected to their status as consultants and experienced experts. He cites the example of the professional body which, having had serious problems with membership registration the previous year, came to DPS for advice and support. Getting out the registration material and handling the response was as critical for the client as it was for the 125,000 members, says Laybourne.

Response specialists, like most marketing services providers, claim that their early involvement in any project is essential. As Morris emphasises, being treated as something to be tagged on at the end merely reinforces the sector’s “commodity” image, undervalues the experience that these experts have to offer, and can lead to serious and costly mistakes which could have been avoided early in the creative process.

While the benefits are not easily quantifiable, the years of experience offered by these businesses is seen by many as being their greatest asset. Morris says: “With more than 20 years in different parts of the industry, I’ve seen a wide range of campaigns. Every one is slightly different, but they do all tend to run along similar lines. It’s to do with depth of knowledge, including knowledge about the ways in which consumers respond to campaigns. An agency or client which has been working on something for weeks may well simply be too close to it.”

Morris quotes the example of clients sending material which requires a signature on receipt, or T-shirts sent out in pizza-style packs which will not fit through letterboxes. In general, mailing packs should be transit tested to ensure they will arrive in an acceptable state. Opportunities to save on postage or use off-the-peg packaging also tend to be missed by clients and agencies, she says.

Most specialists in the field have stories of agency- or client-inspired blunders. Bentley knows of clients who have opted to save money by purchasing an envelope direct from the printer, but then provided the wrong information. He believes that it comes down to radically differing client and supplier perspectives. “Our account managers are all geared towards dealing with fine detail and carrying out repeated quality checks,” he says.

Cut to the client

For some companies, such as Granby, direct work with clients, bypassing agencies, accounts for about two-thirds of business. But for others, the majority of work still comes via agencies.

According to Multi Resource Management (MRM), this additional link in the chain does not necessarily make projects more complex or problematic. Former sales and marketing director Mark Storrar explains: “The better agencies we work with all know how the process operates. They involve companies like ours early on, and ask us what we think.” MRM is often able to offer early advice on feasibility, pitfalls and data-gathering, he says.

Of course, traditional mailshots are only one of the channels which the industry has to feed and respond to. When it comes to electronic media, MRM frequently finds itself advising on the legalities of opt-in/opt-out for SMS and internet-based communications. Similarly, says Storrar, clients need to balance the large cost differential between traditional mailings and e-mails against the perceived intrusiveness of unsolicited e-mail.

For some, it seems, practical expertise in fulfilment and response-handling is what sets the true professionals apart from the less reputable side of the business. For others, such skills are increasingly taken for granted, with clients looking for enhanced capabilities such as data management and multi-media expertise. What is clear is that best practice in this specialist field involves both fine attention to detail and an experience-based view of the “big picture”.

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