It is a myth that all direct mail is personalised. Every item is certainly targeted – the recipients have been selected out of the whole population – and most addressing techniques allow a personal salutation to be used. But only about four out of ten items actually use personal data to define the message and offer. The problem is that generating truly individual messages is a major creative and production challenge.
Into the gap between targeted and personalised falls the segmented mailing. Forecast to be the new secret weapon for political parties in this year’s election, marketers have been breaking down the population into useful segments for decades.
Even here, though, there have been problems in putting the data analysis across to creative teams. Most commercial segmentations have concentrated on socio-demographics and buying behaviour. They offer few of the attitudinal insights that turn creatives on.
As a result, data planners have been forced to find ways to bridge the gap, which creates its own problems. “The danger is that creative briefs contain few hard facts, they are heavy on interpretation. We have got to get to the right level of insight, moving beyond recency, frequency and monetary value and predictive models to talk about attitudes,” says Simon James, head of analytics at Zalpha, the data analysis division of WWAV Rapp Collins.
Efforts in the past have focused on the different language used by these two groups, often crystallised in the idea of left-brain/right-brain thinking. Data analysts are highly rational, while creatives are more intuitive. When analysts present data to creatives in the form of tables and charts, it fails as a method of communication.
New work ethic
In a bid to overcome these problems, Zalpha has restructured its working practices. Data teams have been created which include both a data planner and a brand planner. “There is more overlap than difference. They are good at drawing out questions for each other. The brand planner is about feeling; the data planner thinking,” says James.
These teams present their briefs in new ways to creatives, such as videos, diaries or photo albums. “For one fundraising account, we used 3D mood boards showing what donors would be feeling. With charities, you need a higher element of emotional insight,” he says. The response from creatives has been positive, not least because the charity has been a client of the agency for over a decade. Keeping insights fresh on such long-term business is always difficult.
There are also prejudices among creative teams which data analysts need to overcome. This can sometimes be done through a simple change of language. “If you go in as a statistician, there is a wall of boredom. If you go in and say you have done some research, they are open to that,” says Matthew Bayfield, managing partner at customer insight agency Tree.
Recently, creative teams have been asking for more targeted briefs to help them focus on what drives those critical segments. But this has resulted in a new set of problems. “Analysts now spend ages on the proposition, with the result that planners are trying to do the creatives’ work. It makes creatives feel strangled because they are not given any freedom,” says Bayfield.
The obsessive tendencies that make data analysts and planners good at their job can mean they go too far. The brief is only meant to be the spark, not the flame itself. “Creatives just want to know to whom their messages are going and what motivates them,” he says.
Tree has also been using mood boards, as well as emotional statements, pen portraits and diaries. The hard data of socio-demographics is still presented, but linked to what it means to be an ABC1 male living in Cardiff, for example. Using these techniques, his company has already helped to achieve a 35 per cent uplift on Daily Telegraph mailings and a 90 per cent rise in response to cold mailings for Skoda.
Nick Orsman, managing partner, data, at OgilvyOne, also recognises the risks inherent in presenting data. “Analysts often muddy the waters with jargon and unwanted detail that can send marketing minds reaching for the snooze button. In fact, too many meetings like this and marketers will start to be turned off data altogether,” he says.
He sees data planning as the crucial bridge between numbers and creative thinking. “Data planners can work with creative teams to interpret segmentation and targeting data to reach creative solutions. When the creative addresses factual profiles and defined segments, it becomes a much more powerful proposition. And creatives will only applaud this added guidance to their briefs,” says Orsman.
But while the data community is making great efforts to put its insights across in more meaningful ways, change on the creative side of the industry is slower. The belief that creativity is like a flash of lightning that suddenly illuminates everything is hard to dispel.
But creatives are making an effort. The data industry reports an increased demand from them for data-led insights. Although creatives may not yet understand the finer points of regression analysis or propensity modelling, they do want to receive information that might give their solutions the edge.
This is leading to pressure to bridge another gap – between classic market research, which has historically provided the motivational insights, and hard data, which indicates behaviour. The recent launch of Wegener’s Real Motivations is just one example of this evolution, offering a segmentation by attitude that can be added to targeting data.
“Once you know why and when consumers are going to behave in a certain way, the returns become much, much greater,” says Martin Smith, managing director of Millennium, the specialist over-50s agency. “With this market, which is now the largest and wealthiest consumer sector, understanding life changes as opposed to spending patterns is crucial.”
This is not to say that hard data has run out of interesting things to say. Steven Jenkins, director of JL Customer Insight, says careful analysis of motoring assistance service files resulted in a big change to the way memberships were sold.
“Owners of older cars are more likely to make a claim because they don’t know if their car will get there. This fact prompted us to focus membership mail shots on people with older cars,” he says. Previously, motoring organisations had focused on the type of car, rather than its age. “Organisations don’t always see the characteristics that drive behaviour,” adds Jenkins.
Breakthrough insight is what creatives and clients alike want from data analyses. In the past, the risk has been that a real gem of knowledge has been hidden in charts and tables. The question now for analysts is not just whether they can dig them out, but just how much they should polish them before handing them over.