Personal is a word capable of two meanings, positive and negative. A personal message can be one that shows a real knowledge of the individual, making them feel understood and engaged. Go too far, however, and the individual might feel the information is too personal.
For direct marketers, this presents a difficult balancing act. The depth of data is there to allow them to show just how much they know about their customers and prospects. So, too, is the technology, from digital print through to contextual advertising online.
The problem is where to draw the line between sensitive and sensible. There is a big difference in the reaction which a segmented message addressed to "dear wine lover" would get compared to one that said, "dear drinker of five bottles of wine a week." Yet both use the same data and technology.
"Everybody makes the mistake of just using technology, which ends up being pretty dreadful," says TDA managing director Heather Westgate. "Direct marketing should be data-driven. If all you are doing is using personalisation technology that is not well thought through, it all fails."
Examples of half-hearted personalisation are all too common. Many insurance mailings now use the target’s postcode on the envelope as part of a message saying they are eligible for significantly lower premiums. The problem is when this knowledge-based messaging is not followed through properly.
Westgate argues that many companies have become too reliant on formats and formulaic solutions. "Tesco Clubcard sends out personalised direct mail packs and coupons. But it also sends weekly e-mails that don’t co-ordinate with those mailings. There’s a lack of any sense of the person," she says.
Tailored messages can produce effective, individualised campaigns. What direct marketers need to be aware of is the risk of doing this only in one channel, leaving a customer or prospect feeling like a stranger when other channels do not provide such personalised contact. They also need to resist the urge to over-do it.
"Done wrong, you come across like one of those pushy sales people who use your name too much – ‘So, Dan, when you think about it, Dan, the benefits of our widget are there for you to see, Dan’," says Dan Thwaites, planning director at Hicklin Slade.
All this does is alert the consumer to the marketing mechanics – the spaces into which their details are dropped. In print, you may spot this if the registration is slightly out of line. In other channels, it is about timing and over-use.
"You may have done correlation analysis and be certain that my favourite colour is pink and my phone is a Nokia, but don’t bet on it. Make sure the consumer can tell you if you’ve got it wrong and that you’re not just prepared to listen, but are keen to learn about them and to react accordingly," says Thwaites.
This is probably the most over-looked aspect of personalisation. Move marketing from one-to-many towards one-to-one, it becomes personal. Anything personal involves commitment on both sides. For consumers, that means an expectation their details are being used appropriately, securely and sensitively. For marketers, that translates into a need to be more flexible and responsive.
"Our target markets aren’t waiting for our communications to arrive. So if we want their time, we have to attract their attention," says RMG Connect executive creative director Guy Bradbury.
Get this right and the consumer feels they are getting a return on their involvement, leading to an increase in brand loyalty. This is more difficult to achieve where the consumer has to be made to feel they want to read the message.
Bradbury argues that consumers still want to become engaged through witty, complex or intriguing creative work, rather than the "brand veneer" often applied. "We need to move from shouting product benefits to enticing product stories that will turn our personalised communications from mass media to ‘my media’," he says.
Digital channels have taken the lead in delivering this kind of individual-level experience, with some brands – especially car makers – using content, such as sound and film, which is fully personalised. This is having the unintended consequence of making personalised direct mail seem ignorant – "Dear David" does not give the impression of knowing much about the prospect.
Graham Pugh, creative director at WDMP, says that to get personal, DM has to change. "The point is not to get too excited about proving to customers we know their names and addresses. It’s the other things we’ve paid attention to that will really impress," he says. In his view, what consumers call junk mail is not just an item poorly targeted or irrelevant, but is also an uninspiring creative idea. "Digital print gives us the tools to make mailing relevant. The creativity is up to us," says Pugh.
He cites a holiday calendar produced by his agency for Thomson which reminds the target of where and when they went last year, and offering appropriate ideas for next year’s holiday. "It’s original, clever and works, with bookings up 135% on last year," he says.
Direct marketing is not short of data on customers and prospects or the technology that allows that data to be put to work. What it needs is strong ideas bringing them together.
If the DM industry can learn to combine image, text and data within a focused concept, all prizes are up for grabs.