Innovations in direct mail help brands shout louder in the digital era

Direct mail is experiencing something of a renaissance, with innovation and more robust measurement giving this traditional medium a new lease of life.

After years of fire-fighting to dispel myths about its effectiveness and measurement, direct marketing – and in particular direct mail – is enjoying something of a revival.

Industry and creative innovation is re-engaging advertisers and media agencies that had perhaps fallen out of love with this traditional medium. While the arrival of the Joint Industry Committee for Mail (JICMail) the audience data standard in January adds another layer of authority to the channel.

The numbers are looking positive too. After a period of decline, direct mail ad spend rose 5.9% year on year during the third quarter of 2017, according to the latest data from the Advertising Association and Warc. It is the third largest media channel in the UK after online and TV, with annual ad spend standing at £1.7bn in 2016, and while spend was down 9.1% between 2015 and 2016, it is predicted to rise 0.9% in 2017.

Separate data from IPA TouchPoints suggest it is well received too, given 38% of people buy or order something after reading mail and 87% of adults keep some mail for longer than one month.

Not surprisingly, the direct marketing industry is full of confidence and determined to get its voice heard in 2018.

New data audience standard

The launch of JICMail has already brought renewed focus to direct mail. A joint venture between the DMA, IPA, ISBA, Royal Mail and postal operator Whistl, it is designed to encourage best practice and provide brands and media agencies with more robust measurement of mail readership, reach and the frequency of exposure to each item.

READ MORE: JICMail launch creates first ever industry-wide audience standard for direct mail

Run in a similar way to BARB’s data on TV audiences, a nationally representative sample 1,000 people operated by Kantar TNS will photograph the mail that comes through their letterbox and record what action they take over a four-week period.

For geographic targeting it provides the most accurate approach and can deliver something tangible which other forms of media cannot.

Patricia Lavender, Thames Water

Despite the positive mood, the DMA’s managing director Rachel Aldighieri is not complacent. She says there is still work to be done, including the need to demonstrate that direct mail campaigns are not hard to implement or measure.

“2018 will be about elevating the craft of direct mail,” she says. “You only have to look at the DMA Awards to see how mail campaigns can be beautifully crafted around the copy, images and even the material used.”

Ikea created an embroidery-style mailing to resemble an email

She cites retailer Ikea’s embroidery cross-stitch mailing, which resembled an email. It was created by agency LIDA and sent to Ikea’s loyalty scheme members to encourage more people to sign up for marketing emails.

“Best practice means being creative and memorable but avoiding being gimmicky,” says Aldighieri. “You have to think about the customer benefit and entice, intrigue and entertain those being targeted.”

GDPR is nearing

The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on 25 May could be good news for direct mail.

As both processors and controllers of personal data, direct marketers need to be aware of how GDPR will affect them, but Aldighieri is convinced it provides opportunities for brands to be more innovative with data.

Door drops are already proving a useful way to get consumer permission, particularly for charities. According to JICMail data, 61% of all door drops opened are read, looked or glanced at, and the average door drop is shared two or three times within a household.

“GDPR is a chance for the industry to transform how it operates and, rather than scaremongering about fines, it is a chance to talk to brands about the potential for mail and what can be achieved if you are more creative,” says Aldighieri.

READ MORE: How Cancer Research UK is preparing for GDPR

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed brands do not need consent for postal marketing if they can use legitimate interests. The Data Protection Network has a test that marketers can use. There are also concerns that cold data will not be as widely available and worries about fines are real, but the ICO has said it will be a pragmatic regulator.

Ripe for innovation

Direct marketing is a channel which has had to innovate in recent years. The launch of the JICMail audience data standard is regarded as a game changer by many in the industry, while the use of programmatic direct mail is getting marketers excited.

The ability to send personalised direct mail to potential customers who have abandoned an online basket or browsed particular pages is motivating many brands.

Royal Mail is supporting tech startup Paperplanes in this area. The company is able to track customers’ online behaviour and deliver personalised mail within 48 hours to nudge people into making a purchase.

Tyre giant Continental has been testing the technology. Its resellers were becoming frustrated by too many lapsed customers so the brand’s business optimisation manager Jeff Book decided to run specific, personalised campaigns. Relevant deals were offered based on historic transactional data and the store customers usually visited.

Programmatic direct mail re-engaged lapsed customers and boosted sales of tyre checks, wheel alignment, servicing and MOTs. One retailer saw a 20% increase in MOT bookings within 12 days thanks to the targeted mail reminders.

“This technology has enabled us to completely re-invent the way we engage with our end customers through direct mail,” says Book. “It is important we can help our smaller distributors, and the conversion rates and increased sales revenues have been impressive.”

One brand seeing benefits from more traditional direct mail is Thames Water, which is using the channel to convey complex behavioural change messages to customers.

Senior marketing manager Patricia Lavender worked with agency 23red to create the brand’s ‘Bin It – Don’t Block It’ campaign. The aim was to stop pipes being blocked by fat, oil and grease. Nearly 600,000 mailers were sent up to three times to 225,000 homes to provide advice and give people a free container to collect fat.

“Providing advice and the container shows that direct mail can still be relevant, engaging and memorable as well as heightening awareness of an important issue,” says Lavender. “We had 69% spontaneous recall of people seeing or hearing of the campaign through direct mail.”

Thames Water says 90% of recipients said the mail made them think the company was educating people, and 87% said receiving it made them consider how they dispose of fat, oil and grease. More than 80% had or said they would use the fat trap.

“Direct mail complements and reinforces out of home and digital messages within customers’ homes where that ‘bad’ behaviour takes place,” says Lavender. “For geographic targeting it provides the most accurate approach and can deliver something tangible which other forms of media cannot.”

The renewed interest in direct mail is obviously welcomed by Royal Mail, and MarketReach managing director Jonathan Harman is particularly optimistic.

“We are benefiting from a reappraisal of the media mix and a need for more transparency in marketing and advertising,” he says. “We are putting new standards in place for how mail works and have good incentives for mail users.”

READ MORE: From commodity to lever for growth – The future of media

He says innovations such as programmatic direct mail are busting the myth that mail is slow, while brands are getting a better understanding of consumer attitudes to direct mail.

“Marketers have more knowledge of how people value well-crafted mail containing relevant information,” he says. “Mail underpins a multi-media campaign and brands should always look at the price per impression because mail is passed on.”